In her second blog post written as part of her Queer History work placement at Historic Royal Palaces, Holly Marsden introduces us to one of her favourite LGBT+ historical figures, Mary Frith (1584-1659). Frith was a seventeenth century public figure who caused much controversy and was arrested many times for wearing clothes made for men. In her lifetime it was this masculine attire that saw her labelled as deviant, rather than her alleged prostitution of women and a business that sold stolen goods. Frith was also an ardent royalist. This week Holly shares a few of the contradictions of Frith’s fascinating personality.
Mary Frith as criminal cross-dresser
Mary Frith’s complex identity caused confusion and outrage due to her transgression of preconceived gender boundaries. Known as ‘Moll’ or ‘Mal’ ‘Cutpurse,’ Frith scoured the London streets as a pickpocket dressed in male attire. Moll was repeatedly arrested for cross-dressing and had to perform public penance at St Paul’s Cross in 1611. She was imprisoned in Newgate Prison multiple times.
Newgate was established by Henry II in 1188 to give the crown more control over justice and was used until 1902. It was renowned for its inhumane conditions and the public executions which took place after the gallows were relocated there in 1782. It is not known if Frith’s cross-dressing was purely sartorial, allowing her to forge a different way of surviving in a misogynistic society, or was an expression of her gender identity. Nevertheless, her punishments, notoriety, and subsequent cultural references highlight the Early Modern relationship between cross-dressing and deviance, reflecting how ‘otherness’ often equalled criminality.
Mary Frith was a fascinating character. As well as dressing in male clothing in order to commit her crimes, Frith bred bull-mastiff dogs in her home and was a self-professed Royalist. From this she gained a ‘cavalier’ status, encouraged by her choice of male clothing which included breeches and feathered caps. She remains one of the few lower-class women known for actively preserving and participating in monetary and property exchange, while also being notorious as a convicted criminal. She fits the mould of an anti-parliamentarian cavalier who rooted for power for the Crown. Yet she was also running her own stolen goods business from her home.
Frith smoked a pipe which confused her gender even further. Some scholars argue that objects such as a pipe and sword (as held by Frith in the picture above) act as Frith’s male sexual apparatus, suggesting sexual appetite and a double-gendered body. The ancient Roman doctor Galen’s four humours theory, which was still followed in the seventeenth century, said that gender was malleable even after birth if the humours were balanced differently. People who believed this medical theory would suggest Frith’s smoking would dry the ‘wet,’ and thus female attributes in her body. Smoking could be seen as a way to change her physical gender. Purely the appearance of smoking, though, suits Frith’s subversive and rebellious character. Smoking was heavily condemned by James I in his ‘A Counterblaste to Tobacco’ of 1604 and was especially not condoned for women.
‘All the world’s a stage’
Despite only men traditionally performing on stage, Frith transgressed social norms in surprisingly addressing the audience through speech and song in the play ‘The Roaring Girle’ at the Fortune Theatre in 1611. The Consistory of London Correction Book from 1612 recounts how she was ‘there vppon the stage in the publique viewe of all the people there presente in mans apparel.’ As the streets of London were the stage of her criminal activity, the theatre became the space where she was subject to the identity defined for her by the authors of the play, Thomas Dekker and Thomas Middleton. An inscription at the front of the published book of the play says: ‘I must work for my living’. This suggests Frith used performance as yet another way to capitalise on and survive as a working class woman. Her work as an actress links her to notorious London females, or ‘orange-women,’ the most famous being Charles II’s mistress Nell Gwyn.
The historian Marion Wynne-Davies says that ‘Mary Frith through her dress, habits, and “lascivious speech” challenged moral codes.’ By introducing scandalous Frith onto the stage, audiences were invited to fetishize her already sexualised image as a convicted criminal. She may even be one of the earliest actresses. Scholars highlight that the introduction of women into the theatre caused an onset of the male gaze greater than that in everyday life, but this is thrown into question when the female subject is being intentionally subversive through wearing male clothing. Frith was an on-stage example of economic independence, which was linked to sexual availability, but which set an example for the few working-class women who did attend the theatre. In the Jacobean mindset, the working female inevitably equated to sexuality because of fears financially or socially independent women would emasculate men.
Akin to performing as herself, rebelling against Middleton and Dekker’s dictation of her life which aimed to control her difference, Frith rebuffed social rules in performing her own identity. Whether or not this was an expression of her gender or purely to commit crime, she used her body as her stage, confusing preconceived gender restrictions. Her thievery, though, was also marked on her body, as she was allegedly punished through burns on her hands. She left a legacy of scandal, well-known across London not only during her lifetime but after. The dramatist Nathan Field even wrote her in as a guest character in his comedy ‘Amends for Ladies’ which was performed at the Blackfriars Theatre by the companies the Prince Charles’s Men and the Children of the Queen’s Revels in 1611.
Frith’s life is also documented in ‘The Life of Mrs Mary Frith’ from 1662, a sensational biography, the play ‘The Madde Prancakes of Merry Mall of the Bankside’ by John Day, which has now been lost, and a handful of portraits. The conflicting narratives told by her biographers and their emphasis on scandal mean it is difficult to understand her real life events and character. It is thought that Shakespeare himself alluded to Frith in ‘Twelfth Night’, through referencing ‘Mall’s picture’ and in the character of Maria, who introduces herself as ‘Mary.’ Mal or Mol had begun to be used to symbolise a disgraced woman or prostitute. The play was performed first at the court of James I, at Hampton Court Palace’s Great Hall, and later for William III, possibly in the same room.
A Roaring Girl indeed
Mary Frith has been immortalised as ‘The Roaring Girl.’ This nickname is mentioned in Middleton and Dekker’s play but is derived from the infamous ‘roaring boys’ of London who were of working-class status but who wore courtly apparel. Her financial independence and rebellious cavalier status caused fears of emasculation and fetishization.
The idea of cross-dressing as central to Frith’s deviance, and to her identity, demonstrate that attempts at self-representation will inevitably be thwarted, and leads us to question whether we are, or have we ever been, in control of our own representation.
Queer History Placement Student, Historic Royal Palaces