16th Century

Sir John Falstaff, the Notorious Highwayman

So committed to historical accuracy were Alexander Smith and Charles Johnson that in their respective History of the Lives and Robberies of the Most Noted Highwaymen (1714) and Lives and Exploits of the Most Noted Highwaymen (1734) they give us the life of Sir John Falstaff.

Falstaff lived, we are told by Smith and Johnson, during the reigns of Henry IV and Henry V. Being born of no great or distinguished parentage, they tell us that Falstaff took to the road with three accomplices to support his extravagant lifestyle. He was a very fat man, and his nicknames were:

– Ton of Man (a pun on the Biblical term ‘Son of Man’)
– Chops
– Sack and Sugar
– Fat-Kidneyed Rascal
– Bombast

Apparently Henry IV, who Smith tells us took to life upon the road for a short while, said to him:

You are so fat-witted with drinking of old sack, and unbuttoning thee after supper, and sleeping upon benches in the afternoon.

He was also a womaniser, and could often be found in the lowest bawdy houses of London, according to Capt. Charles Johnson.

Then came the wars of the roses, we are told by Smith and Johnson, and as a consequence of his acquaintance and friendship with King Henry, Falstaff received a commission to serve as a Captain, as well as a salary of £350. Despite his love of drinking and eating, Johnson tells us that:

Leaving the region of poetry, all historians agree, that, instead of his being a coward, a glutton, or a drunkard, he was a brave commander, and, on account, of his valour, was knighted by Henry IV, with a pension of four hundred marks.

Despite being given a seemingly good salary, however, Smith and Johnson say that he could not but help himself in pursing his former lawless course, and took to a career upon the road again. He continued his criminal course of life for a number of years, Johnson tells us in his typical dramatic manner:

Sir John was become grey in vice, and he renewed his former courses. Neither the threats nor the promises of his sovereign could effect his reformation. He continued his depredations until he was apprehended, and committed to prison, and found guilty.

Crime was viewed as an addictive practice in the eighteenth century – one small crime (such as stealing apples from orchards for instance), it was believed, led on to larger crimes. Luckily for Falstaff, however, we are told, the King intervenes and instead of hanging Falstaff receives the sentence of banishment.

Now, any literature and history student worth their salt would realise that Falstaff never actually existed, and is a completely fictional character invented by William Shakespeare. Despite being marketed and sold as ‘histories’ these criminal biographies were not scholarly texts, and they were not ‘history’ as we would imagine today. They freely sacrificed historical authenticity to provide a sensational entertainment, with obligatory lip service to upholding the prevailing moral and social order. Yet it is almost as though Smith believes that Falstaff is real. He gives us/invents specific places where Falstaff is said to have robbed, where he was incarcerated, and where he was buried. Smith and Johnson’s narratives so convincingly fit alongside accounts of other highwaymen that you have to wonder whether they were having a joke at the expense of their less educated readers.

Joseph Ritson in the late eighteenth century was a more serious scholar and criticised Johnson for including the life of Falstaff in a history book. But even in the nineteenth century it seems that authors wanted to try and market Falstaff as a real person and sell biographies of him, evident in the publication of such works as Robert Brough’s and George Cruikshank’s The Life of Sir John Falstaff: A Biography of the Knight from Authentic Sources (1858).

Falstaff 2

Robert Brough and George Cruikshank’s Life of Sir John Falstaff (1858) [Image from Duke University]

Usually in my study of eighteenth-century texts I always advocate going back to the original editions and seeing the way that the text is presented in those ancient works. But the one advantage of having a modern critical edition of Smith’s History of the Highwaymen is that you get the editor Arthur Heyward’s notes which are sometimes quite humorous. Of Smith’s account of Falstaff he sarcastically says this:

It scarcely need to be observed that the character of Falstaff is entirely Shakespeare’s creation; the adventures related in the following pages are chiefly taken from Henry IV, with additions from Captain Smith’s own imagination.

7 replies »

  1. The development of the character continues. Robert Nye’s novel ‘Falstaff’ (1976) is a beautiful written examination, part autobiography part commentary.