Oral history accounts for a great deal of the women’s experience. This can be handed down to us via family gossip, with these small details adding extra colour to names on paper that would otherwise just be accompanied by dates and lists of children. Another form of oral history is the folk song, which really acts as an amalgam of people’s experiences rather than definite historical fact, but still can give clues to the lives of people in a time when documentation was rare.
The history available to us in folk song may be less specific, but it can give details about assumptions, attitudes and expectations for people’s lives – offering a different glimpse of women and their lives to the one offered by portraits and history books.
Take, for example, the song and story of Sovay, (or Sovai, or Sophie, or Sylvie), the highwaywoman.
Sovay Sovay all on a day
She dressed herself in man’s array
With a brace of pistols all by her side
To meet her true love, to meet her true love, away did ride
As she was riding over the plain
She met her true love and bid him on his hand
“Stand and deliver, come sir, ” she said
“And If an you do not, and if an you do not, I’ll shoot you dead”
He delivered up his golden store
And still she craved for one thing more
“That diamond ring, that diamond ring that I see you wear
Oh hand it over, oh hand it over, and your life I’ll spare”
“That diamond ring I wouldn’t part
For it’s a token from me sweetheart
You shoot and be damned you rogue” said he
“And you’ll be hanged and you’ll be hanged for murdering me”
Next morning in the garden green
Young Sophie and her love were seen
He spied his watch hanging by her clothes
Which made him blush lads, which made him blush lads like any rose
“Why do you blush you silly thing
I thought to have that diamond ring
T’was I who robbed you all on the plain
So here’s your gold, so here’s your gold and your watch again”
“I only did it for to know
If you were be a man or no
If you had given me that ring she said
I’d have pulled the trigger I’d pulled the trigger and shot you dead.”
A recording of the song can be found here, performed by Jacqui McShee and The Pentangle, but the song features in the repertoire of many English-language folk singers.
A second folk song (technically a broadside ballad) covering highwaywomen also survives, though is less performed – The Female Frollick, published c1690. This appears to be more focused on satirising unpopular people of the time, giving them the stigma of having been robbed by a woman – and therefore implying that they were somehow weaker than those robbed by a man – and ends in rape when a victim discovers the robber’s sex, again emphasising a power imbalance in this situation. There is also an implication of prostitution, another criminal profession for those women who may have found themselves in need of work without other means of support.
The song of Sovay is often referred to as The Female Highwayman, which the use of “man” is a clue in itself to the fact that highway robbery was not usual for women. The highwayman, for example Dick Turpin, was often a romantic figure, in ballads and other literature of the time (a key period was the later 17th century), and still often seen so today. It is therefore perhaps unsurprising that the few women who took up the job and lifestyle – for example Mary Frith (aka Moll Cutpurse), Joan Bracey, Ann Meders, Nan Hereford, Margaret Matthews, and Lady Katherine Ferrers (whose portrait illustrates this article) – are remembered in song. Folk song survives by being memorable, so the subject matter – which clearly was unusual for a woman – goes some way to preserving that oral history.
Sovay behaves in a similar way to many of these women: she disguises herself a man (perhaps extra protection for a woman in this business, since a gender swop might confuse the authorities, but there are no tales of highwaymen dressing as women), arms herself, saddles her horse, and robs someone of his gold.
However, where the tale of Sovay differs from Katherine Ferrers et al is motive. Rather than the acquisition of money, which appears to have been a motivating factor on the part of all accounts of highway robbery, Sovay’s motive appears to be insecurity in her relationship. In a world where the punishment for violent robbery was death by hanging, testing the strength of your lover’s feelings for you by going to these lengths seems a bit of a drastic measure, and perhaps there were easier ways to get the same answers. This could be an instance where the oral history gained from folk song falls down slightly in terms of detail. The likes of Moll Cutpurse and her contemporaries took to highway robbery partly for survival, but a romantic motive may have sat better in the minds of the song’s audience than the idea that a woman might be desperate enough to take up a life of crime, and therefore this difference may be a reason why the words of the song survive in folk memory where others do not.
Unlike The Female Frollick, there is no hint of unmanliness on the part of her victim in Sovay. It is more that he proves himself worthy by his actions – which is a more universal trait rather than a political one, and again perhaps a reason that this song still resonates with a modern audience.
However, while we have received these words from history, we have no way of hearing them from a 17th century ear and perspective – and any derogatory or weakness that might have been implied at the time is lost on a more modern audience – and instead we see a woman doing what the men did, albeit for a different reason.
In terms of women’s history, what can we take from the experiences that combined to form Sovay’s story?
That women did turn to a life of crime in terms of need. That disguising your gender was a way of protecting yourself from justice. That women who took up crime were still vulnerable. And that people – whether male or female – will always feel the need to test relationships, even if they don’t go to the dangerous lengths that Sovay did to do so.