Sunday, 3 April 2011

Mary Frith: the Original Roaring Girl

Behind Thomas Middleton and Thomas Dekker’s sparkling stage comedy, The Roaring Girl, (ca 1607-1610), was a real woman, the notorious Mary Frith, aka Moll Cutpurse—a cross-dressing, hard-drinking pickpocket, fence, and Queen of Misrule.

The vintner bet Moll £20 that she would not ride from Charing Cross to Shoreditch astraddle on horseback, in breeches and doublet, boots and spurs. The hoyden took him up in a moment, and added of her own devilry a trumpet and banner. She set out from Charing Cross bravely enough, and a trumpeter being an unwonted spectacle, the eyes of all the town were clapped upon her. Yet none knew her until she reached Bishopsgate, where an orange-wench set up the cry, `Moll Cutpurse on horseback!' Instantly the cavalier was surrounded by a noisy mob. Some would have torn her from the saddle for an imagined insult upon womanhood, others, more wisely minded, laughed at the prank with good-humoured merriment. Every minute the throng grew denser, and it had fared hardly with roystering Moll, had not a wedding and the arrest of a debtor presently distracted the gaping idlers. As the mob turned to gaze at the fresh wonder, she spurred her horse until she gained Newington by an unfrequented lane. There she waited until night should cover her progress to Shoreditch, and thus peacefully she returned home to lighten the vintner's pocket of twenty pounds.

-One of the many merry pranks attributed to Firth in Charles Whibley's A Book of Scoundrels.

Born in London in 1584 to a shoemaker and a housewife, Frith was an uncompromising tomboy who disdained feminine clothing. Instead she sported a doublet and men’s breeches. She smoked a pipe and swore like a sailor. The original Jacobean Roaring Girl, she ran with a rough crowd, aping the lifestyle of the traditional Roaring Boys, young men who caroused in taverns before going on the streets to brawl and engage in petty crime. In 1600, at the age of sixteen, she was first indicted for thievery, stealing 2s, 11d.

By 1610, her reputation had inspired not only Middleton and Dekker’s famous play but many other works, including John Day’s 1610 drama, The Madde Pranckes of Mery Mall of the Bankside. These works sensationalised her scandalous behaviour. Men regarded women who habitually cross-dressed as sexually riotous and out of control. Yet Frith herself claimed to be uninterested in sex.

She did, however, revel in her notoriety. In 1611 she performed at the Fortune Theatre in an age where women on the stage were unheard of and female parts in plays were performed by boys in women’s clothing. Frith, as always, appeared in breeches and regaled her audience by singing bawdy songs while playing the lute. Later in that same year, she was arrested for indecent dress and accused of prostitution.

In February 1612, Frith was made to do penance for her evil living at Saint Paul’s Cross, an open air preaching cross on the grounds of the old Saint Paul’s Cathedral in London. Before the crowd she wept copiously and appeared very penitent indeed, although John Chamberlain later observed in a letter that he thought she only wept on account of being “maudlin drunk, being discovered to have tippled three-quarters of sack.”

In 1614, Frith wed Lewknor Markham in what appeared to a marriage of convenience, but she gave no signs of settling down. By the 1620s, she was working as a fence and a pimp, procuring both young women for her male clients and strapping young men to service middle class wives.

In 1644, records show that she was released from Bethlem Hospital after being cured of insanity.

An apocryphal tale goes so far as to claim that during the English Civil War, she robbed and shot General Fairfax, then escaped the gallows by way of a 2000 pound bribe.

However, her actual recorded death seems the least exciting episode in her long and colourful life. In July 1659, she died of dropsy in Fleet Street, London.

Read her fabulously embroidered biography in Charles Whibley’s A Book of Scoundrels.