It’s impossible to determine how much of the following is actually true and how much a romantic legend. But when, centuries after a man’s death, his charm, good looks and daring cause plays and comic books to be written about him, perhaps the legend is what matters most. And so, for the first (and probably the last) time in my Who’s Who, I give you a biography of Claude Duvall that probably owes as much to fiction as to fact.
He was born in Domfront, Normandy in 1643. His family was a poor one – possibly aristocratic but probably not.
At the age of 14, Claude went to Paris where it would seem he entered the employment of the Duke of Richmond for, when Charles ll was restored in 1660, our hero came to England in the Duke’s service. Richmond paid him well enough to rent a house in Wokingham – but presumably not enough to indulge his taste for fashionable clothes. At any rate, at some point between 1660 and 1666, Claude turned his hand to highway robbery.
Like many other Gentlemen of the Road, one of his favourite haunts was Hounslow Heath in Middlesex. Here, he soon gained a reputation for devil-may-care charm and sophistication … and it is this that has survived rather than the darker picture painted of him in the Newgate Calendar.
His most famous escapade took place one moonlit night when he waylaid a coach in which a gentleman and his lady were travelling – apparently with £400 in cash. Oddly enough, the lady happened to have a flageolet (a sort of small recorder) with her and, even more oddly, decided to play it. This prompted Claude to invite her to dance a couranto with him – which, presumably with some enthusiasm, she did. As for what happened next, there are several versions. Some say the gentleman handed over his £400 but Claude, having enjoyed both the dance and the lady’s music, accepted only £100 of it. In another account, Claude said, ‘Sir, you have forgot to pay for the entertainment’, upon which the gentleman replied, ‘No, sir, I have not’ – and cheerfully paid the highwayman £100. Either way, it was this episode that created the gallant fable of Monsieur Duvall and which William Powell Frith immortalised in his painting.
He was eventually captured whilst drunk in a tavern popularly known as the Hole-in-the-Wall in Chandos Street. A public house, The Marquis, still exists on this spot and celebrates Claude at its entrance. But the gentleman himself was taken to Newgate Prison, tried, found guilty of six robberies and duly sentenced to death. Many ladies visited him in prison and many more begged the King to grant him mercy; so many, in fact, that Charles ll might have done so had not the presiding judge – one Sir William Morton – threatened to resign his position if his verdict was over-turned. And so it was that, on January 21st, 1670 and watched by numerous sobbing ladies, Claude Duvall was hanged at Tyburn.
After being cut down from the gallows, his body was removed to the Tangier Tavern in St Giles and laid in state – where so many people were determined to pay their last respects that there were fears of public disorder. In his pocket, a friend found the following note.
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.
The legend (if legend it is) says that Claude was buried in the centre aisle of St Paul’s church in Covent Garden beneath a white marble stone inscribed with this epitaph.
Here lies Duvall, Reader if Male though 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 arms did yield and Ladies to his face
Old Tybyrn’s glory; England’s illustrious thief
Duvall, the Ladies joy; Duvall, the Ladies grief.
Since St Paul’s, Covent Garden caught fire in 1795 causing the roof to collapse, this stone now lies amidst piles of other rubble beneath the existing church
A long-serving church caretaker informed me that there is no record this stone ever existed.
I like to believe that it did.