I came across Mrs. Ferrand by pure chance. As part of my research for A Desperate Fortune I was reading through a stack of letters written to and from James Waldegrave, the British Ambassador to France in the autumn and winter of 1731/32, and in one October letter an informer was offering to give information about “a woman now at Paris who makes it her business to go backwards and forwards, with letters of the Pretender’s friends, from hence to England.”
“The Pretender” was King James III, a man I’ve grown quite fond of in my years of research, so I was naturally prepared to like this mystery woman, and I kept an eye out for her as I continued my reading.
By late December the informer had given the British her surname, and told them she was a woman of about 60 years old, with a fair complexion. She was at that minute, he said, on her way to Dover from Paris, and would be carrying letters in the service of King James.
The British had her picked up and arrested when she landed. Her interrogation, or “examination” as they liked to call it, was recorded and suggests she was clever AND obstinate, which made me like her even better.
When the Messenger who’d arrested her testified he’d found several letters, “some in her Pockets, & two pind up in a paper in part which he affirms he took from behind her Back concealed in her Stays”, she saw fit to correct him. They’d been in the SIDES of her stays, she said firmly. Not the back.
And she’d only put them there because her pockets were “full of other things that she had been buying”.
Why, they asked her, was one of the letters not addressed? Well, she was given the address separately, on a little slip of paper, and was supposed to have someone with better handwriting write it on the actual letter.
So where was the little slip of paper? You tell me, she told them, in effect, reminding them they were the ones who had taken the papers from her and if, “having laid them down promiscuously upon a Table”, they’d gone and lost the slip with the address on it they could hardly blame HER.
When asked what she’d been up to in France, she replied she’d gone to see her grandson James, in Paris, where he was at school. And she’d planned to do a bit of matchmaking for her son Thomas as well, with the daughter of the landlord of the Silver Lyon Inn at Calais.
Oh yes, and she’d spent a considerable amount of time visiting friends, “particularly the Countess of Sandwich who lives at Paris”. As in, the Countess of Sandwich who was the daughter of the poet, celebrated rake, and libertine extraordinaire of Charles II’s court, the Earl of Rochester. THAT Countess of Sandwich.
So by now, I’m forming a mental picture of Mrs. Elizabeth Ferrand that looks a lot like this:
And I’m intrigued.
I want to know more about her. I want to know whether her son ever married the innkeeper’s daughter, and who the unaddressed letter was actually for, and how she first became a courier, and how many years she’d been doing it, and how she’d come to know the Countess of Sandwich, and…
But she’s gone, and the history books didn’t think she was important enough to record what she did after that.
She isn’t even mentioned in the will of her husband, Thomas Ferrand, who died in March 1758, leaving money to various relations at Paris (including his grandson James, who was still there and working as a servant), and to the former chaplain of the Spanish ambassador.
Elizabeth, presumably, had died some time before him.
There are countless Elizabeth Ferrands in history—fascinating women who led full and fascinating lives, and briefly left their mark for us to glimpse.
I love them because they remind me that few lives are actually ordinary.
Have you ever come across an historical “woman of mystery”, or even met a real-life one in the present day? Someone who turned out to be more interesting than you imagined they’d be?