“Men he made to stand, and women he made to fall…” (and so he did – more from this old poem about our audacious anti-hero later)
Danger and Domfront are old friends. Perched high above the Varenne valley this old Normandy border town has seen more than its share of battles.
To live in Domfront in the old days you needed a certain kind of nerve; fearlessness combined with a fairly ruthless sense of self preservation.
By the 17th century the battles were fewer but the mischievousness of Domfront’s inhabitants still legendary.
There was a good reason Domfront priests charged for funerals at a babe’s baptism. not because of many tragic early deaths but because they were so often cheated of funeral fees by the law and Rouen’s hangman.
It was into this ancient town that Claude Duvall was born in 1643 to Pierre, a miller and Marguerite, a tailors daughter. A family fable suggested the Duvall’s were once landed lords but there was little evidence left to show for it. Claude’s baptism was riotously celebrated and Pierre cheerfully paid for his son’s entry into the church, and his future exit.
To make his fortune in Rouen
By 14 Claude was charming, well put together and sharp as a knife. He went to Rouen to seek his fortune and soon endeared himself to a group of English m’lords on their way to Paris for some fun.
In Paris the Englishmen hired grand rooms in Faubourg St Germain. Claude was kept busy running errands to the tavern, cook shop, gaming house and to the silky apartments of a particularly welcoming sort of Parisienne lady. It was an education of sorts.
Back to blighty, Brits!
At that time Paris was full of wealthy English aristocrats avoiding tedious Oliver Cromwell and his puritan ways. When Charles II returned a monarchy to England in 1660 they all zoomed back to support him. Claude, 17 and now well practised in the courtly ways of his masters went too, as footman to Charles Stewart, 3rd Duke of Richmond.
A tempting tumble spells trouble
All went very well until, rumour has it, Claude made rather too good an impression on his lord’s future wife. It is certainly true he left the Duke’s employ very suddenly under something of a cloud.
So in 1667 Claude found himself in London age just 24 with nothing but some cast-off Paris clothes, quite a good horse that may not have been his, a little cash and a very sexy French accent. He was from Domfront, he could work with that.
For a while some questionable gambling kept Claude going, apparently he was very good at maths which helped. But Claude was ambitious for more.
M. Claude Duvall CV and Personal Statement
Brilliant with horses. Fine shot. Good at gaming, drunkenness and general debauchery. Extensive experience with the laydeez.
It was obvious really. Claude became a highwayman.
I’m a dandy highwayman!
Claude started out in Holloway, between Highgate and Islington on the main road out of London to the north. Pickings were rich as he used his courtly manners and intimidating gang of fellow thieves to avoid violent confrontation.
Soon something odd began to happen. Banter in ballrooms, whispers at weddings, chats at church…. noble ladies were talking about a highwayman near Highgate and they were not complaining…
They told of a well dressed Frenchman who never forgot to bow to a lady before smoothly removing shiny jewels from her pampered neck. Who kissed their hands as he removed their rings. He never bruised a cheek, just made them blush as he flattered their figures and robbed their husbands; “Those eyes of yours, madam, have undone me” … “I am captivated with that pretty good-natured smile.”…
Claude Duvall had found his calling and it made him a star.
Stand and deliver, your money and your wife!
One incident was so notorious it became the subject of a very famous painting.
Claude and the gang held up a coach with a nobleman and his lady on board. Seeing they were about to be robbed and determined not to appear afraid the lady took out a flageolet (a flutey thing) and played a popular song.
Claude instantly took out his own flageolet and joined in the tune. He commented to the noble that his wife played admirably and could no doubt dance just as well. He then whisked the lady across the heath in a Coranto dance as the noble seethed. When they returned, pink cheeked and breathless, Claude took just £100 of the £400 booty on board the coach saying the rest was to pay for the dance!
Aaah but he was lovely to the babe
Another time the gang took everything from a coachload of ladies foolish enough to travel without protection. A baby girl with them started to yell as a ruffian grabbed her silver teething ring. Gallant Claude demanded the trinket be returned and threatening to shoot his fellow rogue saying;
“Sirrah can’t you behave like a gentleman and raise a contribution without stripping people? But perhaps you had occasion for the sucking bottle yourself, for by your actions one would imagine you were hardly weaned.” Touché Claude!
The teething ring was returned and another fine tale lit up the drawing rooms of London.
Not everyone is a fan – Squire Roper is robbed
One day in Windsor forest Squire Roper, Master of the Royal Buckhounds, was robbed of 50 guineas then tied hand and foot to a tree with his horse left tethered next to him. It was some hours before the huntsmen could find their master.
Back in Windsor, Sir Stephen Fox, unaware of Squire Roper’s troubles met them and asked if he ‘had any sport’.
A livid Squire Roper replied:
“Yes, Sir, I have had sport enough from a son of a whore, who made me pay damned dear for it. He bound me neck and heels, contrary to my desire, and then took fifty guineas from me, to pay him for his labour, which I had much rather he had omitted.”
Claude Duvall was beginning to annoy too many of the wrong people.
A huge reward was announced for the capture of this fetching but fraudulent Frenchman. The London Gazette described him as “The most wanted Highwaymen in England”. Claude decided it was time for a visit home.
Back in France, Claude flashed the cash and boasted about his own allure; apparently no English man or woman could resist him. As long as Claude was paying his Paris friends found it all very interesting. But soon Claude found himself suffering from his old disease, shortage of funds. The French custom for travelling in large groups with little money was unhelpful. He went back to England and its profitable highways.
In his cups, foxed, half sprung, jug bitten, tap hackled, a trifle disguised (er drunk)
In the end it was the drink that did for Claude Duvall from Domfront.
Someone, probably a pale Englishman cuckolded by this foreign scoundrel, told the Bailiff and his men that Claude could be found in the Mother Maberley’s tavern, the Hole in the Wall Inn in London’s Chandos Street.
They found him around Christmastime cheerfully drunk and unable to defend himself with any of his three pistols, sword and assortment of knives. Without spilling a drop of blood Claude Duvall, the gentleman highwayman, was captured and committed to Newgate prison.
Guilty! Hang him!
Frantic efforts by ladies of the court (who queued up to visit the reprobate in Newgate) to have their hero released nearly swayed Charles II, but the judge threatened to resign if he could not pass his verdict.
On 17 January 1670 judge Sir William Morton found Claude guilty of six robberies (others remained unproven) and sentenced him to death.
Normandy’s Claude Duvall from Domfront was hung by the neck until his was dead at Tyburn (now Marble Arch) on 21st January 1670. He faced his death bravely and died to the sound of ladies weeping.
What a wake
Well dressed friends cut him down after the allotted time and took his body in some style through suitably dramatic storms to the Tangier tavern.
Claude’s wake attracted so many supporters the judge soon called for the crowd to be dispersed. But his closest friends stayed with him. They hung a black cloth and lit eight wax tapers that flickered a warm light on his lifeless beauty.
As they undressed him for his lying-in one friend put his hands into Claude’s pocket and found a speech he had intended to make by the gallows.
A fond farewell from Claude
It was quite wordy and would have sound a lot better with the accent. In it he focussed on thanking his lady supporters for sticking by him modestly saying:
“I know I speak your hearts that you would be content to die with me now, could you be assured of meeting your beloved Du Vail in the other world”
“Your frequent your chargeable visits to me at Newgate. Your shrieks 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…”
Yes thank you Claude enough of that. There is more but you get the idea, then at the end quick bit of repentance:
“for now I shall die with little pain a healthful body and I hope a prepared mind for my confessor has shewn me the evil of my way and wrought in me a true repentance witness these tears these unfeigned tears…”. [Applause].
A fitting epitaph for a fabulous French fiend!
Claude Duvall was buried in St Giles in the Fields, London. His epitaph once carved in stone read:
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,
Du Vall, the ladies’ joy; Du Vall, the ladies’ grief.
Here be haunting!
Claude did not take to death well and is reported to haunt the Hole in the Wall (now the Marquis) on Chandos Street and the Holt Hotel along the A4260 in Oxfordshire where he spent many nights in what is now room 3. He is apparently a very friendly ghost.
* * * * *
With Sincere thanks to the informative:
Harleian Miscellany or a Collection of Scarce and Curious Entertaining Pamphlets and tracts as well as Manuscript as in Print found in the Late Earl of Oxford’s library, interspersed with historical political and critical notes. Volume VII London, published 1810.
The London Miscellany; Information Instruction Amusement published April 11 1829.
Lives and Exploits of English Highwaymen, Pirates and robbers; Drawn from the Most Authentic Sources by Capt. Charles Johnson with Additions by C Whitehead Esq and ’16 spirited engravings by Messrs Bagg’ published 1840.
Highways and Byways in Normandy by Percy Dearmer MA with illustrations by Joseph Pennell Published 1900.
So of course it is all true.