Highwaymen by Paul Heley

Highwayman! The name conjures up a vision of a swashbuckling figure with flowing locks, a wide brimmed hat, a cloak, a mask and pistol demanding “Stand and deliver – your money or your life”: a romantic figure who caused wealthy young women of the time to swoon in a mixture of fear and delight. From such a picture there arose the basis of the “Gentleman Highwayman” – polite, well mannered and well spoken – even though he was a thief! 
     This image arose particularly in the mid 17th century following the English Civil War between Parliament and the Royalists. Many aristocratic and noble families had sided with, and had supplied financial and military aid to, the Royalist cause; and had lost out badly. Their sons – born into privilege, well educated and well groomed (but having no trade or skills to offer) – were now destitute and some had only the clothes they wore, their horse and their pistols. Consequently, and in order to survive, they felt they had no alternative but highway robbery thus becoming “Gentleman Highwaymen”.
Highwaymen     But not all “gentleman” highwaymen had the same background. For example, there was a certain Claude Duval, born 1643 in Normandy, France, who had escaped to England following some “misunderstanding” back home. He was extremely handsome, had impeccable manners, was always immaculately dressed; and was adored by the ladies – even by those he had robbed!
     His most famous exploit took place on Hounslow Heath after he had relieved the owner of a private coach the sum of £400 – a considerable amount in those days. Since there was someone on board who could play the flageolet, Duval requested that he play a tune such that Duval and the owner’s pretty wife might dance. Following the dance, Duval returned £300 to the owner as a “thank you”.
     But the lives of these highwaymen were usually very short and Duval was no exception. He was captured in 1669, tried and sentenced to death. Despite the pleas of scores of wealthy women, he was hanged on 21 January, 1670, aged 27. The epitaph on his grave in St Paul’s graveyard, Covent Garden, reads “Here lies Duval. If male thou art, look to thy wallet; if female, to thy heart”.
     But most highwaymen were basically criminals and, without a doubt, the most famous – whose name is surrounded by myth – is Dick Turpin. Contrary to popular opinion, he was NOT a gentleman highwayman; he was NOT a Robin Hood type of figure robbing the rich to give to the poor; and he did NOT ride his faithful mare, Black Bess, from London to York in less than 24 hours. Such stories have grown out of a popular desire to glorify the “lovable rogue” – someone who can cock a snoot at authority and get away with it. History is full of such villains (and popular gullibility).
    img261 Unfortunately, Dick Turpin was an out and out criminal whose robberies (and other exploits) were frequently combined with acts of considerable violence (or even murder).
     The story of Dick Turpin is that he was born in 1705 the son of a successful inn  keeper in rural Essex. His father tried to give his son as good a start in life as possible such that Dick (or Richard) was sent to school – rather unusual for the time – where he was taught to read, write and speak decently. After schooling, his father then paid for him to be a butcher’s apprentice and, after his apprenticeship, set him up in his own butchery business in east London. His father was clearly a decent man – pity about the son.
     For Dick was not interested in actually working for a living; he wanted easy money and to get rich quick and was soon accused of rustling cattle, butchering it, and selling the stolen meat in his shop. On the brink of being arrested, he escaped: and he now adopted a completely criminal lifestyle.
     He tried his hand at smuggling on the Essex coast and deer poaching in East Anglia. However, even these were too much like hard work so he decided to take up robbery – both domestic and highway. And now his increasingly violent nature resulted in a price of £100 being put on his head – rising to £200.
     Perhaps the nastiest story of Dick Turpin concerns an old woman who had money hidden away in her isolated cottage. Breaking into her house, Turpin demanded the money but, following her refusal to disclose its whereabouts, Turpin held her over the large fire burning in her kitchen until she did tell him.
     Following this outrage, the net grew ever tighter and Turpin realised he had to get as far away as possible from the London area. He decided to go north, robbing as he went, and upon reaching York changed his persona completely.
     He equipped himself with a fine set of clothes and adopted the name of John Palmer, gentleman. For a while, his new image was accepted but, soon, there were rumours about John Palmer and a local robbery such that he was held in York Castle on suspicion.
    img260 It was now, one might say, that Turpin made his great mistake for he wrote to an old friend back in Essex asking for help. Somehow, this letter fell into the hands of his former schoolteacher who immediately recognised Turpin’s unique handwriting. Putting two and two together – and realising that John Palmer was none other than Dick Turpin – the schoolmaster rushed off to the authorities, told them where Turpin could be found, said “thank you very much” for the £200, and disappeared.
     Turpin was arrested and tried. Being found guilty on numerous counts, he was hanged at York in April, 1739 aged 34. However, on the execution platform, a different Dick Turpin was seen (remember that he had been schooled and could speak decently). A quote says “Gone was the thug, the villain, the sadist, the rapist, the murderer; to be replaced by a dignified, courteous man in fine clothes meeting his death with courage and grace”. 
     So perhaps it was this eloquent exit from life which explains why his earlier life has been so much forgotten, forgiven, and glamorised. 
     Here are just two famous, but very different, highwaymen of the time. They are but two out of many adopting this desperate lifestyle – each for his own reason. And let us not forget that there were highwaywomen as well – some with equally fascinating tales to tell. 
     But that’s another story!

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