17th century

Claude Du Vall: The Ladies’ Highwayman

By Stephen Basdeo

In 1671 the poet and satirist wrote an ode ‘To the Memory of the Most Renowned Du-Vall’.[1] It celebrated the bravery and heroism of an English highwaymen named Claude Du Vall (1643–70):

And yet the brave Du-Vall, vvhose name

Can never be vvorn out by fame,

That liv’d and dy’d, to leave behind

A great example to mankind;

That fell a publick Sacrifice

From ruine to preserve those fevv,

Who though born false, may be made true;

And teach the vvorld to be more just and vvise;

Ought not like vulgar ashes rest

Unmention’d in his silent Chest;

Not for his ovvn but publick interest.

He like a pious man some years before

Th’ arrival of his fatal hour,

Made every day he had to live,

To his last minute a preparative.

Taught the vvild Arabs on the road

To act in a more gentle mode;

Take prizes more obligingly, than those

Who never had been bred Filous:

And hovv to hang in a more graceful fashion

Than e’re vvas knovvn before to the dull English Nation

Claude Du Vall was born in Bishopsgate, London, but emigrated to Domfront in Normandy, France, with his family at a very young age.[2] His father was a miller and his mother was a tailor. Little is known of Du Vall’s early life: we are told by various sources that his father attempted to bring him up as a good Catholic, although it is said in several biographies that the father rarely attended church himself.

At the age of 13, Du Vall left home and seek his fortune, as it were, by travelling to Rouen. While there, he became acquainted with several English gentlemen who took a liking to him and allowed him to run errands for them.


William Powell Frith’s painting of Claude Du Vall and the lady dancing

After the Restoration of the Stuart monarchy in England in 1660, the English noble for whom he worked invited Du Vall to return with him. When in London, he became addicted to drinking, whoring, and gambling, and his wages were soon consumed and because his wages were not sufficient to meet the expenses of his extravagant lifestyle, he became a highwayman.

The Newgate Calendar tells us that he was often charming women with chat up lines as he robbed them such as,

“Those eyes of yours, madam, have undone me.”

“I am captivated with that pretty good-natured smile.”

“Oh, that I could by any means in the world recommend myself to your ladyship’s notice!” – These, and a million of such expressions, full of flames, darts, racks, tortures, death, eyes, bubbies, waist, cheeks, etc., were much more familiar to him than his prayers, and he had the same fortune in the field of love as Marlborough had in that of war —- viz. never to lay siege but he took the place.[3]

And Du Vall certainly lived up to this ideal in one episode.

Image 16

Claude Du Vall entertaining a lady and her husband

He received word that a gentleman and his lady would be travelling to London in their carriage and carrying £400 on them. With his gang, he surrounded their carriage and commanded the driver to stop. He approached the window on horseback and addressed the pair, asking them to hand over their money. The lady said not a single word but played a short refrain on her flageolet. Upon seeing this, Du Vall asked the gentleman if he might have the honour of dancing with his wife. The man assented, perhaps more out of fear than out of good will. Du Vall then alighted from his horse, opened the carriage door, and helped the lady to step out. The pair then proceeded to dance while one of Du Vall’s men provided the music. Afterwards, Du Vall assisted the lady back into her carriage. Du Vall then addressed the gentleman again, and politely asked him to pay for the music that had been provided. The man handed Du Vall a purse containing £100, at which Du Vall said that he could tell he was a very liberal and generous person and that the hundred pounds he had just handed over had satisfied his debt on the remaining £300. He then gave the pair a password, and said that if he should meet with any more of his men on their journey, to tell them the password and they should not be harmed.


A proclamation by Charles II against highwaymen

However, let us note that he did not always behave with politeness and civility: one time he stopped a coach full of women and robbed all of them and one of the women had a baby asleep in her arms; its bottle had a silver overlay and Du Vall snatched it from the child. In spite of the mother’s and her friends’ pleading, Du Vall was not to be swayed. He would have the silver bottle. It was only when one of his companions told him it was unbecoming of a gentleman to rob a baby, did Du Vall give it back to the mother.


Claude Du Vall terrorizing a woman — clearly he did not always live up to the polite and civil womanizing image

One thing that Du Vall did enjoy doing was playing practical jokes. He was travelling alone one day towards London and decided to stop at Beaconsfield. Upon entering the Crown Inn, he could see that celebrations were going on. He asked to be shown to another room to leave the revellers in peace.

While Du Vall was enjoying some refreshment he noticed a farmer enter the inn carrying a purse of what Du Vall judged must be holding at least £100. He then struck up a conversation with the young ostler and enquired who the farmer was. It turned out that the farmer was local but was known as a stingy and heartless fellow. Du Vall’s mind was made up: he would rob the farmer of his money. The plan that Du Vall concocted with the boy is so ridiculous and far-fetched that one wonders whether it is true or not. The ostler went outside and covered the landlord’s hound in a cowhide. He then attached antlers to the dog’s head. The ostler then got a pair of ladders and a rope and climbed on top of the roof. The boy then proceeded to lower the disguised hound down through the chimney chute. Back in the interior of the inn, the jollity ceased as all the revellers could hear a strange howling coming from the fireplace, and suddenly a horned beast appeared and was let loose in the inn. Everyone thought it was a devil that had appeared from the depths of hell. All the revellers were frightened out of their wits and made for the door, knocking over glasses and bumping into each other in their efforts to get out of the building, the farmer included.

When the commotion in the tavern had died down, the farmer checked if he still had his purse. He did not. Du Vall had taken it and rode away. The farmer was enraged but the assembled villagers surmised that the appearance of the demon and the missing money was punishment from God for his being a mean, miserly, and uncharitable old fellow, and Du Vall was never pursued.

The following adventure may be true although it does not appear in one of the earliest accounts of Du Vall’s life published in 1670 but only in later histories of the highwaymen by Alexander Smith. Nevertheless, it is interesting as an example of the playful tricks that were attributed to Du Vall.

The British government began to crack down on highwaymen. He decided to retire to France and lay low for a while, hoping that things would blow over back home. In Paris, he lived it up and spent most of his days drinking and sleeping with harlots, or so he boasted at any rate.

Soon he exhausted his supply of money and began concocting schemes to raise more funds. For whatever reason, he decided not to go robbing on the highway but to become a con-man instead. He approached a Jesuit priest, who was the confessor to the king of France, and told him that he was a poor scholar who had studied in Rome and Venice and had discovered the secret of alchemy: that is, he had found a method through which he could transform base metals into pure gold. Intrigued, the priest informed Du Vall that he would allow him to stay in his house, pay him a salary and provide him with anything he might require in order for him to carry out his ‘scientific’ experiments. Du Vall even promised him proof that he could do it. Unseen to the priest, he placed a small amount of gold inside some lead, and added a tiny bit of gunpowder into the molten liquid for effect. He then proceeded to melt all of it down, and during the process, due to the gunpowder, sparks flew which made the experiment look all the more impressive. When the fire had consumed most of the lead all that remained was the gold. The priest was ecstatic and furnished Du Vall with even more money. This continued for a few weeks, during which time Du Vall gave several similar demonstrations to the priest. During this time the priest continually pressed him to write down his secret so, sensing that he could not keep this pretence up for long, one night crept into the priest’s bedroom and bound his hands and feet. He then ransacked the place of all gold and silver and made his way back to England.


A Jesuit priest in the 17th century

For a highwayman who was so notorious that he became a legend in his own lifetime, one might expect the story of his capture and imprisonment to be one in which he heroically but forlornly fought off the authorities after a pistol fight, but the truth is rather more mundane.

Image 12

Newgate Prison

Du Vall had always been fond of a drink, and one of his favourite places was the Hole in the Wall, a public house in Chandos Street, London. In December 1669, he decided to take some refreshment there but because he had had a few too many drinks, he fell asleep in the tavern. He was apprehended there by a constable who immediately conveyed him to Newgate.

A highwayman as infamous as he was appearing before the court meant that the inevitable outcome of his trial was death. While awaiting his execution, he entertained many visitors in gaol, and ladies, some of whom were high-ranking, came to pay their respects. In a copy of a letter found in his cell after his death, Du Vall paid homage to the various ladies of the court and the middling sorts who had comforted him in his final hours:

I should be very ungrateful (which amongst persons of honour, is a greater crime than that for which I die) should I not acknowledge my obligation to you, fair English ladies. I could not have hoped that a person of my nation, birth, education, and Condition, could have had so many and powerful Charms, to captivate you all, and to tie you so firmly to my interest; that you have not abandon’d me in distress or in prison, that you have accompanied me to this place of Death, of Ignominious Death. From the Experience of your true Loves I speak it; nay I know I speak your Hearts, you could be content to die with me now, and even here, could you be assured of enjoying your beloved Du Vall in the other world. How mightily and how generously have you rewarded my little Services? Shall I ever forget that universal Consternation amongst you when I was taken, your frequent, your chargeable Visits to me at Newgate, your shreeks, your swoonings when I was Condemned, your zealous Intercession and Importunity for my Pardon? You could not have erected fairer Pillars of Honour and respect to me, had I been a Hercules, and could have got fifty Sons in a Night. It has been the Misfortune of several English Gentlemen, in the times of the late Usurpation, to die at this place upon the honourablest Occasion that ever presented its self, the indeavouring to restore their exil’d sovereign: gentlemen indeed, who had ventured their Lives, and lost their Estates in the service of their prince; but they all died unlamented and uninterceded for, because they were English. How much greater therefore is my Obligation, whom you love better than your own Country-men, better than your own dear Husbands? Nevertheless, Ladies it does not grieve me, that your Intercession for my life prov’d ineffectual; for now I shall die with little pain, a healthful body, and I hope a prepared mind. For my Confessor has shewed me the Evil of my way, and wrought in me a true Repentance; witness these tears, these unfeigned tears. Had you prevail’d for my life, I must in gratitude have devoted it wholly to you, which yet would have been but short; for, had you been sound, I should have soon died of a consumption; if otherwise, of the pox.[4]

Other contemporary sources say that this is not a copy of letter found in his cell but the words of the final speech he gave to the assembled multitudes on the scaffold at Tyburn.[5]

Other sources say that he composed a poem in his final hours in the condemned hold:

Then being brought to justice-hall,

Try’d and condemn’d before them all,

Where many noble lords did come,

And Ladies for to hear my doom,

Then sentence pass’d without delay,

The halter first, and Tybourn last,

In one day, in one day.

Anon. Devol’s Last Farewell (c. 1660)

Yet the sympathies of aristocratic ladies, and even that of King Charles II, could not save Du Vall from the gallows.[6] Thus, on 21 January 1670, at the age of 27, Claude Du Vall was hanged. His body was taken to Covent Garden churchyard to be buried and the following is a copy of an inscription that was reportedly carved on to his headstone:

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 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.[7]

Nevertheless, it was Du Vall who invented the image of the debonair, dashing highwaymen who was a hit with the ladies and, if he robbed you, was at least nice about it; this reputation, however, would soon settle on Dick Turpin (1705-39).

[1] A version of this article appeared in Stephen Basdeo, The Lives and Exploits of the Most Noted Highwaymen, Rogues, and Murderers (Barnsley: Pen and Sword, 2018).

[2] Alexander Smith, The Complete History of the Most Noted Highwaymen, ed. by Arthur Heyward (London: Routledge, 1933), p. 144; Smith’s account is taken almost verbatim from The Memoirs of Du Vall; Containing the History of his Life and Death (1670).

[3] ‘Claude Du Vall: A Frenchman who, coming to England, became by his Politeness and Gallantry on the Road the Romantic Darling of the Ladies. Executed 21st of January, 1670’, The Newgate Calendar [Internet <http://www.exclassics.com/newgate/ng31.htm> Accessed 2 November 2017].

[4] Walter Pope, The Memoires of Monsieur Du Vall: Containing the History of his Life and Death Whereunto are Annexed His last Speech and Epitaph (London: H. Brome, 1670), pp. 14-15.

[5] Smith, Highwaymen, p. 148.

[6] ‘Claude Du Vall: The Gallant Highwayman’, Stand and Deliver: Highwaymen and Highway Robbery [Internet http://stand-and-deliver.org.uk/highwaymen/claude-du-vall.html [Accessed 2 November 2017].

[7] Smith, Highwaymen, p. 148.

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