Updated: Aug 18, 2021
Claude Duval (aka Gentleman of the Road) 1643-1670
(Monarch: Charles II)
Opinions differed when it came to Claude Duval (Du Vill or Du Vail also). He was a bit like Marmite, with the divide of opinion generally being between the sexes.
Claude Du Vall ranks among his brother highwaymen as high as Rembrandt or Raphael among artists.
Claude DuVal is a knight-errant in criminal legend, but he would have shot a poor postboy who galloped on with as little compunction as a rat.
Claude Duval was born in Normandy, a Frenchman by birth (1643), an English highwayman by profession. His father was a miller by trade and his mother a tailor. Duval was educated to the level his parents thought he needed to become a footman. Although he was from a catholic family, Claude was more interested in enjoying life than worshipping the God of his ancestors.
Apparently, the place where Duval was born was to influence his ill-gotten choice of careers. Domfront in Normandy was a place where 'common honesty was a most uncommon ingredient in the moral economy of the place.' That was that then – Claude was doomed before he even started.
At thirteen, Duval took up work as a stable boy in Rouen. While there, he grabbed the opportunity to travel to Paris with some of the English royalists who had been exiled with Charles II. Acting as an all-round messenger and stable minion, Claude worked his way up to becoming a footman to a nobleman. There was much speculation that this was the Duke of Richmond, illegitimate child of Charles II, but I’ve yet to find the sources to confirm this.
Because of his new position, Duval followed the royalists and nobles back to England when Charles was restored to the throne in 1660. During these years, the young lad learnt the manners of a gentleman, which later enhanced his romantic and gentlemanly reputation.
After years of Cromwellian bans on happiness, parties, festivities, and anything else that might put a smile on someone's face, England went into a bit of a party mode. Not quite the same as a 2020 lockdown, but there is some sense of familiarity.
Claude arrives in England at seventeen, smack bang into the hedonistic 'universal joy upon the return of the Royal family [which] made the whole nation almost mad. Everyone ran into extravagances, and Du Vall, whose inclinations were as vicious as any man's, soon became an extraordinary proficient in gaming, whoring, drunkenness, and all manner of debauchery.'
Duval started to run out of merrymaking funds, so he decided to rob a few English folk. As one of the earliest names recorded for highway robbery (apparently the first listed in the London Gazette of 1666), Duval got himself a gentlemanly reputation as he scorned the ruffian behaviour and murderous undertakings of other highwaymen.
His most famous act of gentlemanly robbery was on Hampstead Heath:
After the dance, Duval, ever the gentleman, accepted £100 and promised never to bother them or their crew again.
Blackheath, just like Hampstead, was home to many a wealthy person and this didn't go unnoticed by the dashing Duval. In fact, he claimed to know Blackheath as well as Hampstead Heath, so it seems there were a lot more incidents of ladies, rather than men, being robbed (or wishing to be robbed) by the gentleman of the highway.
On a ride out with some fellow highwaymen, all looking for some spoils to increase their coffers, Duval came across a coach full of ladies and a child up on Blackheath. But, unlike Duval, his robbing colleagues hadn't quite adopted his sense of chivalry or honour and, with a rude and abrupt manner, began to rob the ladies of their watches and rings. They even pilfered the silver suckling bottle of the child, who wailed the place down after having it snatched from its mouth. Distressed, the ladies begged for the bottle to be returned, but the robber refused.
Cue Duval, the gentleman of the highway, dashing, French, and worthy of ladies swooning at his feet (but let's not forget, Duval was stealing their cash just to dress flash). So, ironically, hero of the moment, Duval turns to the thuggy highwayman and says:
Sirrah, can't you behave like a gentleman, and raise a contribution without stripping people; but, perhaps, you had occasion for the sucking bottle yourself, for, by your actions, one would imagine you were hardly weaned.
It may have been one of the most famous highwaymen careers, but it was also a very short career. Despite his reputation for being dashingly well-mannered, many still wanted him caught. And that day came.
In a tavern called the Hole-in-the-Wall (Chandos Street, Covent Garden), Claude swigged a little too much ale. During his drunken evening, he was arrested. On his person were three pistols and a sword. Belief has it that had he been sober, he would never have been caught ( being caught during an ale-haze sleep seems to be a pattern with the highwaymen, as we will discover).
Duval's short yet successful career ended, and he was tried for six robberies (with no proof of the others).
On January 21st, 1670, after a short stay at Newgate where many ladies visited him, Claude Duval, the first true gentleman of the highways, was executed at the Tyburn Tree. There were quite a few attempts from ladies (and allegedly Charles II) to give Duval a reprieve, but the judge who tried him found the spectacle of 'ladies of fashion and beauty, masked, with tear-stained faces' too much and cleared the courtroom at one point.
The highwayman 'was given a splendid funeral in St. Paul's church, Covent Garden. He was but twenty-seven years of age at his death. A handsome stone, decorated with heraldic achievements (not his own, for he boasted none), was placed over his grave, and on it this epitaph:
Here lies Du Vall: Reader, 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 stand, and woman he made fall.
The second Conqueror of the Norman race,
Knights to his arms 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.
This was destroyed when the original church was burnt in 1759.
The church caught on fire in 1759, and the handsome headstone was destroyed, but next time you are out and about in Covent Garden, take a look at the church and know that beneath it, Claude Duval, the most gentlemanly of highwaymen, is buried beneath it.
In Duval's final words:
Over the next few weeks, I'll be releasing blogs on the individual local highwaymen so we can get to know them better.
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Hours with the Highwaymen (get rest of citation)
The Spectator, June 16, 1877: The Blackheath "Bandits Bold"
Whitehead, Charles. Lives and Exploits of English Highwaymen, Pirates, and Robbers: Drawn from the Most Authentic Sources, by Capt. Charles Johnson. England: H. G. Bohn, 1842 p.67
Whitehead, Charles. Lives and Exploits of English Highwaymen, Pirates, and Robbers : Drawn from the Most Authentic Sources, by Capt. Charles Johnson. England: H. G. Bohn, 1842 p.70
Excerpt From: Charles G. Harper. "Half-hours with the Highwaymen - Vol 1 / Picturesque Biographies and Traditions of the "Knights of the Road".
Life and Adventures of Claude Du Vall." Lives of the Most Notorious Highwaymen Footpads and Murderers, no. 25, 1836
Pope, W.,d.1714. (1670). The memoires of monsieur du vall containing the history of his life and death: Whereunto are annexed his last speech and epitaph London, Printed for Henry Brome
Whitehead, Charles. Lives and Exploits of English Highwaymen, Pirates, and Robbers: Drawn from the Most Authentic Sources, by Capt. Charles Johnson. England: H. G. Bohn, 1842