It’s International Women’s Day, and to celebrate I planned on writing a Tudorial about one of my fave ladies from the Tudor period, Moll Cutpurse. To be honest she was more a Jacobean badass than a Tudor one, but she was born at the end of Elizabeth’s reign, and it’s my page, so that’s that.
Moll was not a Tudor queen or a courtier, and she wasn’t a member of the gentry or nobility. She didn’t have a fancy house or posh clothes, and didn’t hold a title. She was an ordinary paupers child, turned pickpocket, highway woman, pimp and total legend.
She was born in London around 1583 to parents who doted on her; her dad made shoes and her mum was a housewife, teaching Moll sewing and other boring woman’s work of the day. However, despite the loving family, Moll grew up mean. She became such a pain in the arse, beating up boys and gobbing off, that she was sent to live in the newly colonised Newfoundland in an attempt to straighten her out.
That shit simply didn’t fly with Moll, who escaped and just took herself off home again. It is said that she jumped off the ship and swam back to shore, but I think that’s doubtful as most people could not swim at that point. Anyhow, that was the real birth of Moll Cutpurse.
Moll’s real name was Mary Frith, but she was known as Moll Cutpurse because she spent her days hanging out around St. Paul’s, cutting the money pouches off peoples pants and liberating the contents. She also had a stint of robbing on the road, a bit of a ‘Highway Woman’, if you like. This ended when she picked the wrong punter and was caught after shooting him, (not fatally), and his horses (super fatally), after he refused to hand over his cash. Shooting him made him change his mind about objecting to Mills request of his gold, and Moll rose off with a small fortune, but was eventually apprehended and sent to Newgate which scarred her forever, both literally and metaphorically.
After Newgate, Moll re-established herself as a pimp and a dealer of stolen goods. She not only found the odd mistress here and there for dirty old men, but did a roaring trade in supplying randy old rich women with strapping young men, in order to ‘blow the cobwebs away’ shall we say?!
I love Moll Cutpurse; she gave ZERO fucks. Constantly slated for not acting like a lady, she thought ‘fuck it, if I’m not a lady I must be a man’ and so dressed as a man, smoked a pipe and reaped all the privileges that women of the time were deprived of.
She was obviously arrested for this, as it was seen as inappropriate and perverse to dress as a member of the opposite sex at the time, but that didn’t stop Moll. Of course, like anybody who does not conform to societies norm, she was persecuted by the people. She was called ‘ugly’ and rumours spread that she was a hermaphrodite because no dress suited her – but let’s be sensible about this, history writes its characters as it wants them to be remembered. She dressed as a man so therefore she was ugly… It’s insane to think how little we have moved on in 500 years. I like to think that she was too hot to handle, and her beauty intimidated the men of the time by giving them ‘confusing feelings’ about their sexuality, and that’s why she was shamed.
Moll died of dropsy, which we now call Oedema, in 1659. She deserves to be the celebrated lady on my page today because although her life may not have been on the straight and narrow, she was a strong woman who faced the adversity of the time with her middle finger in the air. Nobody fucked with Moll!
If you would like to read a bit more about Moll (or indeed any other amazing ladies of the East-end), you might like to visit the East-End Women’s Museum page, HERE…
…or, for a more detailed account, get onto the exclassics page, found HERE!