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Claude Duval dancing on Bagshot Heath at SwinleyClaude Duval

Born: 1643 at Domfront, Normandy

Died: 21st January 1670
at Tyburn, Middlesex

Claude Duval (or Du Vall) was born of poor parents at Domfront, Normandy, in 1643. A report which was current during his lifetime, that he was the son of a cook in Smock Alley, Without Bishopsgate, is sufficiently discredited. At the age of fourteen, he was sent to Paris, where he remained in service till the Restoration, when he came to England in attendance on the Duke of Richmond. He rented a house in Wokingham and it was not long before he joined the ranks of the highwaymen, in which capacity he became notorious throughout the land, his fame resting hardly less on his gallantry to ladies than on his daring robberies. It is related, for instance, among many similar exploits, that, on one occasion, he stopped a coach in which a gentleman and his wife were travelling with 400 in cash. The lady, with great presence of mind, began to play on a flageolet, whereupon she was asked, by Duval, to dance with him on the roadside turf. His request was granted and a coranto solemnly executed, the husband looking on. The latter was then asked to pay for his entertainment and Duval, taking 100 only, allowed the coach to proceed on its way. This episode is variously said to have occurred on Hounslow Heath (Middlesex) or Bagshot Heath at Swinley (Berkshire).  His gallantry notwithstanding, the name of Duval soon became a terror to travellers and large rewards were offered for his capture. So hot was the pursuit that Duval was compelled to flee to France; but after a few months'  time, he returned and, shortly afterwards, was taken, while drunk, from the Hole-in-the-Wall, Chandos Street (London). On 17th January 1670, he was arraigned at the Old Bailey and, being found guilty on six indictments out of a much greater number - which could have been proved if necessary, was condemned to death. Many great ladies are said to have interceded for his life, but the King, on Duval's capture, had expressly excluded him from all hope of pardon; and on the Friday following (21st January), he was executed at Tyburn. His body was cut down and laid in state at the Tangier Tavern, St. Giles' where it was visited by great crowds of all ranks, amid such unseemly demonstrations that the exhibition was stopped by a judge's order. Duval was buried in the centre aisle of Covent Garden Church, under a stone inscribed with an epitaph beginning:

Here lies Du Vall:
Reader, if male thou art,
Look to thy purse;
If female, to thy heart.

The only full account of the life and adventures of Duval is the 'Memoirs of Du Vail: containing the History of his Life and Death', published immediately after his execution and ascribed to the pen of William Pope. This pamphlet was copied, almost literally, by Alexander Smith in his 'Lives of the Highwaymen' and is also reproduced in ' Celebrated Trials' (Volume 2); but some of the incidents narrated in it, especially those dealing with Duval's relations with ladies of rank, appear unworthy of credence - a view which is to some extent borne out by the author's declaration on the title-page, that his work was "intended as a severe reflection on the too great fondness of English ladies for French footmen; which at that time of day was a too common complaint." The tradition, however, that Duval was particularly successful in winning the favour of women is supported by Titus Oates, who sneers at the "divers great personages of the feminine sex that on their knees made supplication for that insipid highwayman," adding, "it is true, he was a man of singular parts and learning, only he could neither read nor write." The same characteristic of Duval is also dwelt on at length by Samuel Butler in the satiric glorification of the highwayman which he called a Pindaric Ode "To the Happy Memory of the Most Renowned Du-Val."

Edited from Leslie Stephen's 'Dictionary of National Biography' (1888)

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