1670: Claude Duval, gentleman highwayman

It’s been 340 years since the immortal highwayman Claude Duval (or Du Val, or Du Vall) went to the Tyburn gallows and was turned off into legend as the ne plus ultra of English gentleman thieves.

Duval, actually, was French, an import to Isles in the train of some forgotten noble migrating with the restoration of royal prerogatives.

On the English highway, this formerly impecunious retainer coruscated as a knight of the road, the very model of the chivalrous outlaw against whom the likes of Dick Turpin would be compared to disadvantage. Macaulay recorded

how Claude Duval, the French page of the Duke of Richmond, took to the road, became captain of a formidable gang, and had the honour to be named first in a royal proclamation against notorious offenders; how at the head of his troop he stopped a lady’s coach, in which there was a booty of four hundred pounds; how he took only one hundred, and suffered the fair owner to ransom the rest by dancing a coranto with him on the heath;

William Powell Frith‘s painting (1860) of Claude Duval dancing with his prey.

how his vivacious gallantry stole away the hearts of all women; how his dexterity at sword and pistol made him a terror to all men; how, at length, in the year 1670, he was seized when overcome by wine; how dames of high rank visited him in prison, and with tears interceded for his life; how the king would have granted a pardon, but for the interference of Judge Morton, the terror of highwaymen, who threatened to resign his office unless the law were carried into full effect; and how, after the execution, the corpse lay in state with all the pomp of scutcheons, wax lights, black hangings and mutes, till the same cruel judge, who had intercepted the mercy of the crown, sent officers to disturb the obsequies. In these anecdotes there is doubtless a large mixture of fable; but they are not on that account unworthy of being recorded; for it is both an authentic and an important fact, that such tales, whether false or true, were heard by our ancestors with eagerness and faith.

Gillian Spraggs justifiably observes that no matter how genuinely gallant the brigand, his profession entailed relieving others of their rightful produce by main force. But then, the same could be said of the lords of the realm.

No, although Duval’s legend invites debunking, this must be for another blog.

We take Duval here at his mythological acme: he is the patron saint of the early modern bandit, the Superman of English outlawry, succoring with the fantasy of freedom upon the road the thousands of porters and scullery maids and apprentices chained to their oars below-decks upon Britannia’s ship of state.

What matter the rest?

This day, we toast Claude Duval, the Knight of the Road, in the manner of the fetching inscription (since destroyed by fire) under which he was reportedly buried:

Here lies DuVall: Reder, if male thou art,
Look to thy purse; if female, to thy heart.
Much havoc has he made of both; for all
Men he made to stand, and women he made to fall
The second Conqueror of the Norman race,
Knights to his arm did yield, and ladies to his face.
Old Tyburn’s glory; England’s illustrious Thief,
Du Vall, the ladies’ joy; Du Vall, the ladies’ grief.

Part of the Themed Set: Resistance and Rebellion in the Restoration.

On this day..

27 thoughts on “1670: Claude Duval, gentleman highwayman

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  2. Hi there,
    I recently completed a narration project on Audible for a book based on the life of Claude Duval called Cherished Thief (link below). I was wondering if I gave you a promo code to listen to the book if you would be willing to offer a review on your podcast and blog and on Audible.

    I am confident that you will love the book and the more three dimensional take on Claude Duval that most past efforts often lacked.

    I look forward to hearing back soon ?

    Joey Ortega


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  4. Pingback: Claude Duval: The highwayman of hearts | The Haunted Palace

  5. Hello Rosie,
    I have pretty much reassessed the whole story of Claude. He was, for example, not simply a glamorous loner, but part of what was arguably the most formidable gang of highwaymen in English history. It had fifty or more riders. No less interesting was the afterlife. I was surprised by the influence he had in the literature of the eighteenth, nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Interested in your possible relationship. I went into that aspect too. The whole story is told in ‘The Thief of Hearts’ which was published last month. The ISBN no. is
    978-0-9934183-0-3. Come back to me if you have trouble getting this. Best wishes.

    • Hi John, Did Claude Duval have any documented descendants? I too heard I was distantly related, through my great-great-great grandfather, the artist Charles Allen Du Val, b. 1810: http://charlesduval.org/charles_allen_du_val
      But even Charles’s grandfather wasn’t born until 1694, 24 years after Claude’s death. I haven’t been able to find any further ancestors of mine with that name, or any descendants of Claude. If you know any names, I’d be very grateful! Thanks, Lise

      • Hi Lise,
        Sorry I’m late coming to this. I think it highly likely that Duval had descendants; in fact I think it almost inevitable, given his famed prowess with the ladies. He had several mistresses, but my research uncovered the name of only one, an Elizabeth Morris, who was with him at the very end. But following Elizabeth’s story you soon get mired down in conjecture. As I said in my book, a number of Duvals appear in the 17th and early 18th century records of London, some in the Covent Garden area, which our Claude seemed to have used as a hideout. But I was unable to conclusively pin down any of these Duvals to the highwaymen. At this stage it is impossible to tell people who believe themselves descended from or related to Duval that they are right or wrong; Duval, I am sure, would have had descendants, and who knows, your family just might have a link. The 17th century is such a mysterious period, and our documentation is very poor. Frustrating, but there it is. If I were you I’d cling to the connection; Duval was a rogue, but rather a charming fellow overall, and was never successfully charged with violence. Best wishes, John

        • Hi John,

          I been looking around for a site that is carrying your book on Claude. Unfortunately, even Amazon seems to not have any available copies.

          Is there a reliable source that you can point me to?

          Thank you for all your work on this fascinating figure.


  6. There seems to be something of a revival of interest in Duval, who was, if the contemporary accounts are to be believed, the most glamorous of English highwayman. Interested to learn that Michelle is writing a book. I wish her every success; she has a great story. Strangely,
    I have been working on a biographical study for the best part of a year.

    • Hi John. I would love to know what you have found about Claude Du Vall.I am related,grew up wanting to know more,but am only now getting the hang of how to research such things! Cheers.Rosie Stone. p.s. I’m on f.b., Rosie Stone,Helena Bay,NZ.

  7. A few years ago, I came across the story of Claude Du Vall and found him very interesting. Surprisingly, aside from The Memoirs of Monsieur Claude Du Vall, by Walter Pope, no other book has ever been written about his life, so I wrote one titled Cherished Thief, due out in March, 2014. After its release, I will post a link to the book’s location for anyone who is interested.

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  10. Was Told I am a distant relation of Claude Duval. So Had to find out about him. There is a memorial at the Downes in Bristol which I am going to check out.

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  14. Ah, the Noyes poem. The wrong generation for Duval himself, but he’s Duvalesque in his elan, right down to the Gallic modishness …

    He’d a French cocked hat on his forehead, and a bunch of lace at his chin;
    He’d a coat of the claret velvet, and breeches of fine doe-skin.
    They fitted with never a wrinkle; his boots were up to his thigh!
    And he rode with a jeweled twinkle–
    His rapier hilt a-twinkle–
    His pistol butts a-twinkle, under the jeweled sky.

    Over the cobbles he clattered and clashed in the dark inn-yard,
    He tapped with his whip on the shutters, but all was locked and barred,
    He whistled a tune to the window, and who should be waiting there
    But the landlord’s black-eyed daughter–
    Bess, the landlord’s daughter–
    Plaiting a dark red love-knot into her long black hair.

  15. As I understand about the poem The highwayman, it is about 2 people who loved each other, the highwayman and Bess. When Tim the ostler knew about Bess and the highwayman, he told the king George about it because of deep jealousy because Tim love Bess. Since highwaymen is against the authority, the king’s men went to the landlord’s house to capture the highwayman but the truth was in their dirty minds they want to rape Bess because Bess is so beautifuland every man would be honored tohave her. When Bess knew that the highwayman is coming, she killed herself to save him but the highwayman love Bess so much that when he heard the noise of the gun he was so angry but unfortunately the king’smen shot him.In the end they both died……

  16. After we tackled up the poem entitled “THE HIGHWAYMAN” i realize that you can do everything in the name of love…In the poem the two lovers both died…Bess thought that she can’t live w/out the highwayman so,she decided to commit suicide..And she loved the highwayman very much…So she did this..it is just because of the “FORBIDDEN LOVE”.

  17. When we discuss this poem,it was really an unbelievable doings because as I listen to our teacher it makes you really inspired because they really fought for their love who are Bess and the highwayman ,but their was a time when their is no more other way how to fight for their love(it;s because there are many hindrance like the father of the girl don’t want the guy to be the wife of his daugter…..),so the girl just decided to kill herself first,because she knows that the man she loved will be killed and she did this because if they are both died, she think that bought of them will be together in the 2nd life…..

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