When picturing the highway robbers of the 17th and 18th centuries, figures like the notorious Dick Turpin probably spring to mind. But it wasn’t just highwaymen who brandished their pistols and shouted ‘stand and deliver’ – women stalked the roads to prey on wealthy travellers, too.


Though the titular highwaywoman of Disney+’s new series Renegade Nell is a work of fiction, women really did turn to roadside robbery.

Louisa Harland as highwaywoman Nell Jackson in Disney+'s 'Renegade Nell'
Louisa Harland as highwaywoman Nell Jackson in Disney+'s 'Renegade Nell' (Photo courtesy of Robert Viglasky/Disney+)

Susan Higges was one such highwaywoman. Living in Buckinghamshire, her career of crime stretched for 20 years. She dressed as a man to stalk the highways and pilfer from travellers, and also drummed up additional funds by extorting men whom she caught sleeping with her unmarried female servants.

But her exploits came to a bloody end when she murdered a woman who knew her identity. With her dying breath, her victim spat blood onto Higges’ face – leaving a stain which, so the story goes, could not be scrubbed away. With physical proof of her crime, the highwaywoman was forced to confess, and was promptly sent to the gallows.

Higges wasn’t the only woman to embrace highway robbery. Although relatively uncommon, we can find stories of highwaywomen in various sources, from court records to popular songs. Some – like Higges – were solo operators, whereas others partnered with their spouses, or ran with gangs. Many dressed as men to commit their crimes – though we can’t be sure why.

A real Renegade Nell? The ballads of Susan Higges

Our main record of Higges’ colourful life comes from broadsheet ballads: cheap, mass-produced lyric sheets that peddled sensational stories of murder and woe. These ballads were beloved by their 17th-century readers, and became a key part of popular news culture in the period.

It’s perhaps no surprise that the writers of these ballads pounced on the lives – and deaths – of highwaywomen. For maximum drama, many were written from the point of view of the women themselves, recounting their misdeeds to the reader as they shivered on the gallows.

Higges’ story was the focus of two broadsheet ballads, both printed in 1640: A True Relation of One Susan Higges, and The Sorrowfull Complaint of Susan Higges. Due to the nature of these sources, we can’t take them as totally accurate, but they provide a tantalising flavour of her life.

These two tales are spare on some details. We don’t get a sense of Higges’ early life, for instance, or why she turned to a life of crime, but it’s clear that she was adept at covering her tracks. According to A True Relation, Higges managed to hide her criminal activity from her friends and neighbours for two decades.

Although she was “well thought of by good Gentlemen and Farmers of good fame”, the ballad says “Most wickedly I [Higges] spent my time. Devoide of godly grace: / A Lewder Woman never liv’d, I thinke in any place.”

The crimes of Susan Higges

The ballad details the various crimes Higges committed. These range from extortion – she demanded that men who slept with the ‘young Countrey girles’ she employed as servants “give me money for this wrong, done to my house and me” – to robbery and murder. According to A True Relation, Higges’ career as a highwaywoman targeting London merchants was particularly lucrative: “My weapon by the high-way side, hath me much money wonne”.

The ballad also describes the clothing Higges would wear when she was terrorising the streets: “In mens attyre I oft have rode, upon a Gelding stout / and done great robberies valiantly.” While we can’t know for certain why Higges chose to dress in men’s clothes, judging from A True Relation, it seems it was to hide her identity:

I had my Scarfes and Vizards, my face for to disguise:
Sometime a beard upon my chin, to blinde the peoples eyes.
My Turkie blade, and Pistols good, my courage to maintaine:
Thus took I many a Farmers purse well cram'd with golden gaine

However, Higges’ life of crime eventually caught up with her, when she was recognised by a woman she robbed at Misseldon heath. Higges fatally wounded her victim, but as her last act the woman “gave a grone: a therewithall did spit upon my face / Three drops of blood, that never could be wiped from that place”.

What happened to Susan Higges?

Newspaper ballad about highwaywoman Susan Higges
The execution of Susan Higges as illustrated in the broadsheet ballad 'A True Relation of One Susan Higges' (Photo: public domain)

Much as William Shakespeare’s murderous Lady Macbeth struggled to wash her hands clean, the ballad says that Higges could not scrub the blood from her face. Fearful that her bloodied cheek would reveal her crimes, she confessed to her servants, who promptly reported her to the local justices of the peace.

Higges was then imprisoned, and later taken to court for sentencing. She was condemned to death for her crimes, most likely by hanging – a verdict that the ballad describes as Higges’ “just desert [sic]”.

The story ends with a stark warning from the highwaywoman: “Be warned by this story, you ru[s]sling Rosters all / The higher that you climbe in sinne the greater is your fall.”


Renegade Nell streams on Disney+ in UK from 29 March


Rhiannon DaviesFreelance journalist

A former BBC History Magazine section editor, Rhiannon has long been fascinated by history and continues to write for HistoryExtra.com. She has appeared on the award-winning HistoryExtra podcast, interviewing experts on a variety of subjects, from Lucy Worsley discussing Agatha Christie to Sir Ranulph Fiennes on the perils of polar exploration