The Life and Death of Claude Duval
|Claude Du Val. William Powell Frith, 1860.|
Claude Duval (Du Vall, Duvall, Du Vail) was executed at Tyburn on this day in 1670. Although he is only in my novel, Tyburn, for a very short time, he has a huge effect on my heroine, Sally, a fictional childhood friend of his from Normandy.
Most of the details of his appearances in Tyburn are fictional with little bits of truth slipped in. The fact of the matter is, what we know about the historical Claude Duval is mostly limited to stories told after his death. Because so little is known for certain, we have to piece together stories to try to get a picture of the man behind legend. So where do we start?
Claude Duval was born in Domfront, Normandy in 1643 to a miller and the daughter of a tailor. In his Lives of the Highwaymen (1734), Captain C. Johnson writes that Domfront “was a place by no means unlikely to have produced our adventurer. Indeed, it appears that common honesty was a most uncommon ingredient in the moral economy of the place.”
Duval began working as a stable boy in Rouen at the age of thirteen, and is believed to have become a footman in the court of Charles II in exile. Johnson writes: “He continued in this humble station until the restoration of Charles II, when multitudes from the Continent returned to England. In the character of a footman to a person of quality, Du Vail also repaired to this country. The universal joy which seized the nation upon that happy event contaminated the morals of all: riot, dissipation, and every species of profligacy abounded.” (1)
He came to England with them in 1660, where he experienced the entertainments of the Restoration in full force: “The universal joy upon the return of the Royal family made the whole nation almost mad. Everyone ran into extravagances, and Du Vall, whose inclinations were as vicious as any man's, soon became an extraordinary proficient in gaming, whoring, drunkenness, and all manner of debauchery.” (2)
“What is any Court Favourite but a Picker of the Common People's Pockets?”
Duval turned to highway robbery at some point during the 1660s. The Newgate Calendar suggests he chose this profession to support his appetite for debauchery, but as this was written after the fact with a very biased point of view, we have to take this with a pretty serious pinch of salt. Whatever it was that made him begin robbing coaches, “in this profession he was within a little while so famous as to have the honour of being named first in a proclamation for apprehending several notorious highwaymen.” (2)
Duval distinguished himself not only through skill as a highwayman, but with his considerable charm and excellent manners. One of the most famous stories of his exploits involves his apprehension of a coach containing a knight and his lady.
As the story goes, once the knight and lady realized they were about to be robbed, the lady, “A young, sprightly creature” pulled out a flageolet and began to play. Duval then pulled out a flageolet of his own (because you never know when you're going to need to rock out). Duval then asked the knight for permission to dance with the lady, which he graciously granted. Johnson writes: “It was surprising to see how gracefully he moved upon the grass; scarce a dancing-master in London but would have been proud to have shown such agility in a pair of pumps as Du Vall showed in a great pair of French riding-boots. As soon as the dance was over he waits on the lady back to the coach, without offering her the least affront.” (1,2)
The knight then gave Duval the exorbitant sum of one hundred pounds. Duval, “received it with a very good grace, and courteously answered: "Sir, you are liberal, and shall have no cause to repent your being so. This hundred given so generously is better than ten times the sum taken by force. Your noble behaviour has excused you the other three hundred which you have in the coach with you." After this he gave him the word, that he might pass undisturbed if he met any more of their crew, and then very civilly wished them a good journey.” (1)
His behavior might not have always been what we would consider to be polite today, especially given that he was still robbing people, but I think this story is particularly revealing of a good degree of honor and no little cheekiness:
“Du Vail and some of his associates met a coach upon Blackheath, full of ladies, and a child with them. One of the gang rode up to the coach, and in a rude manner robbed the ladies of their watches and rings, and even seized a silver sucking-bottle of the child's. The infant cried bitterly for its bottle, and the ladies earnestly entreated he would only return that article to the child, which he barbarously refused. Du Vail went forward to discover what detained his accomplice, and, the ladies renewing their entreaties to him, he instantly threatened to shoot his companion, unless he returned that article, 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." This smart reproof had the desired effect, and Du Vail, in a courteous manner, took his leave of the ladies.” (1)
Once the reward on his head became too much of a temptation, he returned to France for sometime and is believed to have resided primary in Paris, where he lived well until his money ran out. He eventually returned to England, where he took up his old profession.
Robbery was not the only way Duval was able to to earn money. He was a legendary gambler who owed his success to knowing how to take advantage of his adversaries, sometimes winning as much as a hundred pounds in a single sitting. He was also very good at laying wagers.
“He made it a great part of his study to learn all the intricate questions, deceitful propositions and paradoxical assertions that are made use of in conversation. Add to this the smattering he had attained in all the sciences, particularly the mathematics, by means of which he frequently won considerable sums on the situation of a place, the length of a stick, and a hundred such little things, which a man may practise without being liable to any suspicion, or casting any blemish upon his character as an honest man, or even a gentleman, which Du Vall affected to appear.” (1)
The Second Conquerer of the Norman Race
Regardless of whether or not these stories were true, one thing is certain: Duval was irresistible to women. Lucy Moore explains that Duval was “a royalist who had served Charles II; his dashing style was intimately bound up with his links to the glamorous court-in-exile.” (4)
But it wasn’t just popularity by association.
“He was a handsome man, and had abundance of that sort of wit which is most apt to take with the fair sex. Every agreeable woman he saw he certainly died for, so that he was ten thousand times a martyr to love. "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!" "What a poor silly loving fool am I!" 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.” (1)
He was eventually caught at the Hole-in-the-Wall tavern on Chandos Street in Covent Garden and on January 17th, 1670 Sir William Morton found him guilty of six robberies and sentenced him to death at the age of twenty-seven.
He was visited in prison by countless ladies in disguise, and they turned out in droves for him execution and the subsequent display of his body at the Tangier Tavern in Covent Garden. Convict or not, he had died a hero. “So much had his gallantries and handsome figure rendered him the favourite of the fair sex, than many a bright eye was dimmed at his funeral; his corpse was bedewed with the tears of beauty, and his actions and death were celebrated by the immortal author of the inimitable Hudibras.” (1)
When his friends prepared his body for burial, they supposedly found the following note in his pocket, a farewell to the ladies who loved him:
"I should be very ungrateful to you, fair English ladies, should I not acknowledge the obligations you have laid me under. I could not have hoped that a person of my birth, nation, education and condition could have had charms enough to captivate you all; though the contrary has appeared, by your firm attachment to my interest, which you have not abandoned even in my last distress. You have visited me in prison, and even accompanied me to an ignominious death.
"From the experience of your former loves, I am confident that many among you would be glad to receive me to your arms, even from the gallows.
"How mightily and how generously have you rewarded my former services! Shall I ever forget the universal consternation that appeared upon your faces when I was taken; your chargeable visits to me in Newgate; your shrieks and swoonings when I was condemned, and 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, able to get fifty of you with child in one night.
"It has been the misfortune of several English gentlemen to die at this place, in the time of the late usurpation, upon the most honourable occasion that ever presented itself; yet none of these, as I could ever learn, received so many marks of your esteem as myself. How much the greater, therefore, is my obligation.
"It does not, however, grieve me that your intercession for me proved ineffectual; for now I shall die with a healthful body, and, I hope, a prepared mind. My confessor has shown me the evil of my ways, and wrought in me a true repentance. Whereas, had you prevailed for my life, I must in gratitude have devoted it to your service, which would certainly have made it very short; for had you been sound, I should have died of a consumption; if otherwise, of a pox." (2)
Duval was buried under the center aisle of the church of St. Paul’s in Covent Garden under the following plaque:
"Here lies Du Vall, reader, if male thou art,
Look to thy purse; if female, to thy heart.
Much havoc hath he made of both; for all
Men he made stand, and women he made fall.
The second conqueror of the Norman race,
Knights to his arms did yield, and ladies to his face.
Old Tyburn's glory, England's bravest thief,
Du Vall the ladies' joy! Du Vall the ladies' grief." (1,2)
You can read the first chapter of Tyburn here, which takes place at Claude’s execution on January 21st, 1670.
1. Captain C. Johnson, Lives of the Highwaymen. (1734)
2. The Newgate Calendar
3. Alan Brooke & David Brandon, Tyburn: London’s Fatal Tree. Sutton Publishing Ltd., 2004.
4. Lucy Moore, The Thieves’ Opera. Harcourt, 1997.