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.
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.