Dare Devils: Seventeenth Century Highwaymen
by Deborah Swift
Though legends of highwaymen are many, there is only one featuring a woman – Lady Katherine Fanshawe. Shadow on the Highway is the first instalment in her story, the real history which over the generations has become embroidered with myth, as have all the other highway stories. Lady Katherine was supposed to have disguised herself as a man and her identity was only discovered after she was wounded as she tried to gallop away from the scene of a robbery. You can read details about her legend here.
During the English Civil Wars in the seventeenth century, many highwaymen were not ruffians at all, but well-bred men who had been dispossessed of their property, Sometimes they were Royalist officers who had no other livelihood after they were outlawed under Cromwell. These were men who familiar with the newly-invented pistol, which gave them an advantage over their victims, who were usually only armed with swords.
The first highwayman people think of is Dick Turpin, who is probably the most famous one of all. He is supposed to have ridden from London to York on his faithful mare, Black Bess, in less than a day. (Good going, even for a super-horse!) Like most highway stories, this is also a legend, probably based upon another 17th-century highwayman John Nevison, known as ‘Swift Nick’, who early one morning in 1676 robbed a sailor on the road outside Gads Hill, Kent. In order to provide himself with an alibi, he apparently set off on a ride that took him more than 190 miles in about 15 hours. Nevinson was a Robin Hood type character, who would re-distribute his takings to the poor.
Now when I rode on the highway,
I always had money in store,
And whatever I took from the rich
Why I freely gave it to the poor.
– from the ballad Bold Nevison
Dick Turpin, on the other hand was a ruthless violent character known as ‘Turpin the Butcher’.You can see a funny clip about him here on Horrible Histories.
A much more romantic figure altogether was Claude DuVall.
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.
Du Vall was born in Normandy in 1643 to a family of millers, but later found work as a stable-boy in Rouen, where he was hired by a group of English Royalists to look after their horses. He returned to England with them when Charles II was restored to the throne. By 1666 he was mentioned by name as a highwayman, though he was well-dressed and dashing, and never used violence on his victims. He soon became a popular icon with the ladies, who thought him gallant and daring. His haunts included the northern approaches to London, especially Hounslow Heath.
Perhaps because they concentrated on the wealthy, highwaymen became popular heroes. Claude Duvall only added to his notoriety when he danced with a beautiful victim on the Heath and then let her wealthy husband go free for a purse of £100. This Victorian picture by Frith shows the scene, including the companion in the coach who has fainted away with shock! It was a treat to write about highway robbery from a girl’s point of view, and to imagine the anticipation of listening for that coach to rumble up the highway.
Shadow on the Highway is the first book in The Highway Trilogy, suitable for teens and adults 14+
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