Posted on: August 22, 2016

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Mary Carleton had a short but eventful life in Restoration England.  By her antics she became a notorious celebrity, proving that there’s nothing remotely new about dubious people becoming famous for all the wrong reasons.  These days she’d probably be popping up on Celebrity Big Brother.   In her 31 years on this planet she was a thief, a bigamist, an actress, and a fake German princess!  In many ways she was a real-life Amber St Clair, from Kathleen Winsor’s bestselling, raunchy novel Forever Amber. 

She was born Mary Moders in Canterbury, Kent, on 11 August (though some sources have it as the 11th January) 1642.  Her father was a chorister at Canterbury Cathedral.  Mary grew up during the turbulent years of the English Civil War, and Cromwell’s Puritan reign.  According to the Newgate Calendar Mary was an intelligent girl, but addicted to reading romances, and imagining exciting identities for herself.  At a young age she married a shoemaker called Thomas Stedman, by whom she had two children.  Sadly both children died in infancy.   Thomas found it hard to keep his wife in the lifestyle to which she wanted to become accustomed, and so eventually Mary absconded to Dover, where she married a surgeon.  This landed her on trial in Maidstone for bigamy.  Somehow, “by some masterly stroke”, she was acquitted.

After her trial she travelled on a merchant ship to the Continent, and set herself up in the spa town of Cologne, hoping to catch the eye of some rich nobleman.  This she did, in the shape of an old gentleman who had an estate a few miles out of the town.  He seems to have been very smitten with our Mary, because he showered her with gifts, and urged her to marry him.  Mary had other ideas though.  Gathering all her rich lover’s gifts, and helping herself to her landlady’s money, Mary travelled back to England, via the Netherlands.  She had a whole new persona mapped out for herself.

By this time the monarchy had been restored in England, and King Charles II, the Merry Monarch, was on the throne.  It was a time for the titled and moneyed to kick up their heels in London, after the severity of the Puritan years, and indulge in debauched, extravagant excess.  Mary adopted the title of Princess von Wolway, claiming she had been born in Cologne, and was now an orphan, and that she had fled to England to escape a jealous lover.

On arriving in Billingsgate in March 1663, she had gone to the Exchange tavern, where she spun her sob story about how she had been reduced to such a state, and that she was now in such a pitiful way that she had to earn a crust by exposing her body to the highest bidder.  The landlord believed all her nonsense about being the daughter of Lord Henry von Wolway, a “sovereign prince of the Empire”.  Mary caught the eye of John Carleton, the 18-year-old brother-in-law of the landlord.   John – a law student –  was captivated by this “German princess”, and fawned over her in an obsequious manner.  He married her, only to have an anonymous letter-writer expose the truth about her.  In 1663 Mary was hauled up in court again, this time charged with passing herself off as a German princess, and marrying John Carleton under a false name.

The whole thing became a scandalous cause celebre.  Mary claimed John had tried to pass himself off as a duke, and was trying to extricate himself from the marriage.  She said she had never claimed to be fabulously wealthy, and that her husband’s family had invented this themselves, and had turned on her when they found out the truth.  Husband and wife both published pamphlets putting their own side of the story.   Mary milked her notoriety for all it was worth, even acting in a play, entitled The German Princess, written about her, and enjoying a whole new rash of admirers.  She married again, but her new husband (I’ve lost count) didn’t enjoy any more luck than his predecessors.  Mary stole his money whilst he was drunk, and escaped.

Mary’s new persona was that of a rich virgin (!) heiress fleeing an arranged marriage.  She was so convincing at this that her new landlady arranged to match her up with her nephew.  Mary faked letters claiming that her brother was dead, and had left her all he owned, but that her father was still after her for the arranged marriage.  Her new lover invited her to live with him, but this poor sap came a cropper like all the others.  Mary, with a female accomplice disguised as her maid, robbed him of all he possessed, and fled.

Over the next few years Mary and her maid went through several more men like a dose of salts.  Eventually she was arrested for stealing a silver tankard, and sentenced to deportation to Jamaica.  After two years she returned to London, and was soon up to her old tricks again.  Passing herself off once again as a rich heiress, she married an apothecary.  No prizes for guessing what happened next.  She took all his money and fled.

But Mary’s luck was running out.  In December 1672, she was recognised by a turnkey from Newgate prison, who was searching for stolen loot,  and she was put on trial at the Old Bailey.  Mary cut a dash at her trial, her hair primped in the very latest style, and wearing an Indian gown, a silk petticoat, and white shoes tied with green laces.  As she had turned from penal servitude without permission, she was sentenced to death.  Mary tried to plead for time by claiming she was pregnant (which was a favourite way of deferring execution by female inmates at that time).  A jury of matrons was brought in to examine her, and found that this was not the case.

Mary’s short but colourful life came to an end via the hangman’s noose on 22 January 1673.  On the fateful day Mary was described as appearing “gay and brisk”.  Her iron shackles were taken off, and she was led out to the cart, wearing a picture of John Carleton pinned to her sleeve.   She told the waiting crowd that she had been a very vain woman, yet she hoped God would forgive her, as she forgave her enemies.  Her body was buried in St Martin’s Churchyard.  On her grave someone wrote “The German Princess here, against her will, lies underneath, and yet, oh strange! lies still”. 



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