The 'German Princess'
Born 1634/1642 Died 1673
Mary Carleton achieved her fifteen minutes of fame when she faced trial at the Old Bailey in 1633 on the charge of bigamy. It was probably not the first time she had been in court on such a charge, but since very little is known for certain about her life prior to that date, one can not be entirely sure.
Carleton was her married name and she was probably born 'Mary Moders' at Canterbury in Kent in the January of 1642, although it might have been 1639 or even 1634, no one is terribly sure one way or the other. This Mary Moders married a local shoemaker, one John Steadman in about the year 1654, and sometime later a surgeon from Dover named Day and possibly also a bricklayer by the name of Billing. She was certainly arrested for bigamy as regards her marriage to Day, but managed to avoid prosecution by claiming that she believed that her first husband was dead at the time. Thereafter she went abroad and travelled in France and Germany, although what she did, and how she supported herself is not known.
Then in April 1663 an eighteen year old lawyer's clerk named John Carleton married a supposedly wealthy 'German Princess' by the name of 'Maria de Wolway'. But only a weeks after the wedding Carleton laid a charge of bigamy against his new wife claiming that he had recently become aware that she was really 'Mary Moders' from Canterbury with at least one prior marriage to her name.
Mary Carleton was arrested and imprisoned at the Gatehouse
, and arraigned before the Old Bailey. John Carleton's story was his wife was really Mary Moders and that he had been duped into marrying her through her pretence of being a German Princess. For her part, Mary Carleton denied any connection with this Mary Moders (insisting that she genuinely was a German Princess) and claimed that, on the contrary, that it was John Carleton who had tricked her into marriage by claiming that he was a Lord, and that he had laid a false charge against her simply to extricate himself from the marriage once he'd discovered there was no ready money to hand.
The trial at the Old Bailey attracted a great deal of public interest and a number of pamphlets circulated with titles such as The Lawyer's Clarke Trappan'd by the Crafty Whore of Canterbury or A Vindication of a Distressed Lady depending on which side their authors favoured. (Or purported to favour, in the interest of fostering sales.) The trial itself proved to be something of a farce; the prosecution could only produce one witness and John Carleton didn't even turn up as he couldn't afford the fare to London. In the end Mary Carleton was acquitted, to much popular acclaim it seems.
In the immediate aftermath of the trial a play was rapidly produced recreating the recent events from the life of the 'German Princess' called A Witty Combat, or, The Female Victor (written most likely by Thomas Porter) and Mary Carleton even appeared as her herself in a production of the work at the Duke's Theatre. Samuel Pepys paid a visit, but wasn't impressed and recorded that he "saw 'The German Princesse' acted, by the woman herself; but never was any thing so well done in earnest, worse performed in jest upon the stage".
A short book entitled The Case of Madam Mary Carleton also appeared, allegedly written by Mrs Carleton herself, but very probably substantially ghost written on her behalf. But neither the Stage nor Grub Street was capable of earning Mary an income for very long and so she turned to the business of using her good looks to obtain the confidence of monied gentlemen and extracting money from them, either by fraud or outright theft. (Which of course, is quite possibly how Mary had been earning her living for many years previously.)
This was of course a risky way of earning a living and she was eventually caught in possession of a silver tankard. In 1670 she was convicted on a charge of theft and sentenced to hang, but the sentence was commuted to one of a period of transportation to Jamaica. However the resourceful Mary Carleton was soon able to find her way back to England, where she resumed her previous life and occupation.
Almost inevitably she was caught again, and this time charged with the theft of a piece of plate. Imprisoned at Newgate before her trial, one of the gaolers recognised her, which was unfortunate as far as she was concerned as it brought her prior conviction together with her absconding from Jamaica to the attention of the prosecution. Convicted of theft once more, this time the authorities were not minded to be merciful and Mary Carleton was hanged at Tyburn on the 22nd January 1673 dressed, it is said, in her "Indian striped gown, silk petticoat, and white shoes laced with green".
- The entry for Mary Carleton (née Moders) in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography
- Kimberly S. Hill, Mary Carleton's Conditional Moods