“I was a highwayman, along the coach roads I did ride,
With sword and pistol by my side.
Many a young maid lost her baubles to my trade,
Many a soldier shed his lifeblood on my blade,
The bastards hung me in the spring of twenty-five,
But I am still alive.” ~ “The Highwayman,” sung by Willie Nelson, Kris Kristofferson, Waylon Jennings and Johnny Cash
If you heard the famous words “stand and deliver,” you probably lived sometime between 1650 and 1800 in areas of Great Britain, the colonies of early America, or possibly the English colony of Australia. Or, just about anywhere in Europe along the unguarded dirt paths and byways that made up simple road systems across Europe from the 17th century on into the 19th.
As with much of history, fact and legend often meld into a bigger-than-life hero or villain, and the highwayman cast a somewhat romantic figure from our history past.
Today, a highwayman would be no more than a common criminal, someone that will steal from others with impunity.
But in the day when the horse was the only mode of transportation, the highwayman was a traveler’s worst nightmare — yet an oftimes romantic figure.
They had names like “Three-Fingered” Birch, “Captain Thunderbolt,” Richard “Galloping Dick” Ferguson, “Swift Nick” John Nevison, “Sixteen String” Jack and even “The Wicked Lady” — one Lady Katherine Ferrers.
The highwayman was a brigand who preyed upon travelers, using the horse for mobility to both facilitate robbery and escape from authorities.
He (or she, in rare cases) did not rob on foot — these more common outlaws were called footpads, and considered socially inferior to the highwayman.
The word highwayman first was coined about 1617, and had such socially acceptable euphemisms as gentlemen or knights of the road, and in later years in the Old West of America, road agents.
It at once conjures up an image of a man dressed in frock coat and waistcoat, a shirt of ruffled cuff, sporting a stylish tricorn hat and a brace of cap-and-ball pistols — a sword blade in his belt for good measure.
One of the more colorful highwaymen of his day was Claude DuVall, born in Normandy on the French coast in 1643, possibly to a noble family stripped of title and land.
DuVall is alleged to have robbed passing horse-drawn coaches on the many roads that led into one of the greatest cities of its day — London.
He frequented the road between Highgate and Islington, and reportedly distinguished himself from many other brigands with a gentlemanly manner and behavior, along with sporting a dress of fashionable clothes.
Again, fact and fiction often meld together from the writings of the day, and I will leave it to you to decide if in fact DuVall was a gentleman.
He reputedly never used violence, and in fact, one of his victims — Squire Roper, master of the Royal Buckhounds, of whom he relieved of 50 guineas — simply was tied to a tree after the robbery.
Another purported DuVall tale was immortalized in an 1860 painting by William Powell Frith.
As the story goes, on one particular occasion during a robbery, DuVall was said to have only taken a portion of his potential loot from a gentleman he had waylaid, when the man’s wife agreed to dance the “courante” with the highwayman in the wayside.
As romantic a scene as that may have been, the almost universal certainty for the highwayman of historical fact and legend was the end of their nefarious calling. The hangman’s noose awaited the highwayman, and most did not live beyond their 20s at their professions.
On Jan. 17, 1670, Judge Sir William Morton found DuVall guilty of six robberies and sentenced him to the gallows.
Apparently, there were many attempts to intercede on his behalf to spare him death. The king, however, did not pardon DuVall and he was hanged four days later at Tyburn, England.
After his body was cut down from the gallows, it was exhibited in Tangier Tavern, drawing a large crowd. He later was taken to St. Paul’s Church in Covent Garden, and buried.
His rather quaint yet inspired memorial inscription reads:
“Here lies DuVall: 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 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, DuVall, the ladies’ joy; DuVall, the ladies’ grief.”
Claude Duvall’s spirit is reported to haunt the Holt Hotel along Oxford Road in Oxfordshire, a small coaching inn west of London where the highwayman spent many nights.
Christy is news editor at the Enid News & Eagle. Go to his column blog at http://enid news.com/historicallyspeaking