Dancing in the moonlight

Regular readers of this website already know that our little corner of Paradise sits on the southern edge of what was the most dangerous 4,000 acres of open countryside in the entire kingdom. In its time Hounslow Heath was the favoured haunt of footpads, robbers and highwaymen and the most handsome, the most charming, the most dashing of them all was the roguish Claude Duval. Huzzah!

There is a well established stereotype of the highwayman – handsome, debonair, aristocratic and fearless. You know the type. Valencienne lace at his throat, a well balanced pistol in his hand and a buxom lady swooning in his arms. If you’re thinking James Mason, you’ve got it.

According to legend Claude Duval was that very man. He was born in 1643 in Domfront, in Normandy to an aristocratic family who had lost both title and fortune. In his teens he came to England as a footman in the service of the Duke of Richmond and by 1666 had become a highwayman with a reputation for being fashionably dressed, sophisticated, much admired by women and devil-may-care. His most famous deed is recorded in an entertaining volume of 1670 with the snappy title ‘The Memoirs of Monsieur Duval: Being the History of his Life and Death; whereunto are annexed his Last Speech and Epitaph; intended as a Severe Reflection on the too great fondness of English Ladies towards French Footmen, which is too common a complaint’. Some say that it was written by our own local poet Alexander Pope who must have had plenty of ink! The story begins one moonlit night upon Hounslow Heath when…

James Mason

Monsieur. Duval overtakes a coach in which there is a knight and his lady. The lady, to show that she was not afraid, takes a flagelot (a small recorder) from out of her pocket and plays. Duval takes the hint, plays also and excellently well on a flagelot of his own…. “Sir”, says he to the person in the coach, “your lady plays excellently, and I doubt not but that she dances as well. Will you please to walk out and let me have the honour to dance one Courante with her upon the Heath?” “Sir” said the person in the coach, “I dare not deny anything to one of your quality and good mind. You seem a gentleman and your request is very reasonable.” Which said, out comes the knight, Duval leaps lightly off his horse and hands out the lady? They danced, and here it was that Duval performed marvels; the best masters in London not being able to show such footing as he did in his great French riding boots.

The dancing being over, he waits on the lady to her coach. As the knight was going in, says Duval to him, “Sir, you have forgot to pay the music.” “No I have not”, replies the knight; and putting his hand under the seat of the coach, pulls out 100 pounds in a bag and delivers it to him, which Duval took with a very good grace and courteously answered, “Sir, you shall have no cause to repent this liberality of yours.”

In another version of the tale the knight gives Duval a bag containing £400 but Duval, ever courtly, takes only £100 of the money. The poet Leigh Hunt remarked that Duval’s dance in the moonlight was “an eternal feather in the cap of highway gentility.”

st pauls covent garden 2

But for all his fabled ‘knight of the road’ good manners, wrongs righted, fortunes restored. ladies seduced etc etc. Claude Duval was eventually captured after a drunken brawl in the Hole-in-the-Wall tavern in Covent Garden. On 17th January 1670 he was taken to Newgate where he was found guilty of six robberies and sentenced to death by Judge Sir William Morton. Not all were pleased with the verdict…

“Abundance of ladies, and those not of the meanest degree, visited him in prison, and interceded for his pardon. Not a few accompanied him to the gallows, under their vizards, with swollen eyes and blubbered cheeks.”

THE NEWGATE CALENDAR

Tyburn

The blubbered tears of the love-struck women initially moved the king, Charles 2nd, to pardon him, but when Judge Morton threatened to resign his exalted position the king changed his mind. On 21st January 1670, aged just 27, Claude Duval was hung at Tyburn.

“After he had hanged a convenient time he was cut down, and… carried to the Tangier Tavern at St Giles’s, where he lay in state all night… As they were undressing him one of his friends put his hand into his pocket and found therein the following paper, which, as appears by the contents, he intended as a legacy to the ladies…”

THE NEWGATE CALENDAR

Written in a fair hand the paper read…

“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.”

Certainly plenty of ladies attended him when he was buried in St. Paul’s Church in Covent Garden under a white marble stone that cautioned…


Here lies Du Vall, reader, if male thou art,
Look to thy purse; if female, to thy heart"

Rogue’s Gallery featuring Vic Reeves.

Credit: Claude Duval painting by William Powell Frith 1860

— from Martyn Day