1670: Claude Duval, gentleman highwayman

23 comments January 21st, 2010 Headsman

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..

Entry Filed under: 17th Century,Arts and Literature,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Famous,Hanged,History,Outlaws,Pelf,Popular Culture,Public Executions,Theft

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1697: Thomas Aikenhead

2 comments January 8th, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1697, Scottish medical student Thomas Aikenhead was hanged on the road from Edinburgh to Leith for blasphemy, an already-archaic punishment inflicted for what reads like headstrong youthful atheism of a decidedly garden variety.

Aikenhead partook of the times’ emerging (albeit forbidden) store of humanist and skeptical literature, and chatted most unguardedly with University of Edinburgh “friends” who tattled to authorities to the extent that, not content with testifying against him, one published a pamphlet demanding the offender “atone with blood, the affronts of heaven’s offended throne.”

Said authorities scarcely elevated the dignity of the temporal throne in their own eagerness to swing a sledgehammer against a fly, trying the young hothead for his life under a Restoration law which by its own letter should not have lodged him in mortal peril until his third offense.

Thou Aikenhead, the indictment thundered in the second person:

shakeing off all fear of God and regaird to his majesties lawes, have now for more than a twelvemoneth by past…[vented] your wicked blasphemies against God and our Saviour Jesus Christ, and against the holy Scriptures, and all revealled religione…you said and affirmed, that divinity or the doctrine of theologie was a rapsidie of faigned and ill-invented nonsense, patched up partly of the morall doctrine of philosophers, and pairtly of poeticall fictions and extravagant chimeras

He called the Old Testament “Ezra’s fables”, Jesus the “Imposter Christ” (preferring Mahomet), and anticipated the extirpation of Christianity.

It was a bare two weeks from conviction to execution. Accounts of Aikenhead’s last days seem inconsistent; the prisoner recanted, possibly sincerely, but the Church — explicitly handed the power to at least reprieve him by its intervention — demanded hurried and “vigorous execution.”

Macaulay disgustedly pictured the scene:

The preachers who were the boy’s murderers crowded round him at the gallows, and, while he was struggling in the last agony, insulted Heaven with prayers more blasphemous than any thing that [Aikenhead] had ever uttered.

The singular punishment meted out this day — the last hanging for blasphemy throughout what was soon to become the United Kingdom — cast a long shadow into the coming century’s remarkable Scottish renaissance and lingers even today as a suggestion to some just how near the menace of theocracy might yet remain.

And Britain’s blasphemy laws? They’re only now facing repeal.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 17th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,God,Hanged,Heresy,History,Milestones,Notable Jurisprudence,Public Executions,Ripped from the Headlines,Scotland

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