Claude Duval (1860), by William Powell Frith
Wikimedia Commons

Claude Duval (died 21 January 1670), also known as Claude Du Vall, was a highwayman in Restoration England. According to popular legend he abhorred violence, showing courtesy to his victims and chivalry to their womenfolk, thus spawning the myth of the romantic highwayman.

Little is known of Duval’s early life. Following his execution in 1670 two biographies were published, one of which suggested that he was born in 1643 in Domfront, Normandy, the son of Pierre Du Vall, a miller, and his wife Marguerite de la Roche, a tailor’s daughter. The other biography claims no more than that Duval was born of French parents. The reality is that the figure of Duval is more a literary invention than a historical figure; the few verifiable facts of his life come from the sparse records of the authorities who eventually brought him to justice.[1]

The more substantial of the contemporary biographies, The Memoires of Monsieur Du Vall, claims that Duval went to England in the service of a “person of quality”, probably Charles Lennox, duke of Richmond, when large numbers of exiled royalists returned home at the restoration of Charles II in 1660. But very quickly he turned his attention to highway robbery, earning himself a reputation as a gentleman highwayman with an eye for the ladies.[1]

In his most famous exploit, Duval held up a lady’s coach knowing that there was £400 on board. But he took only £100, allowing the lady to keep the rest on condition that she danced a courante with him on the heath.[2]

Capture, trial and execution

Duval was captured by the bailiff of Westminster on Christmas Eve 1669, while celebrating a successful hold-up, and was committed to Newgate, accompanied by his wife. The London Gazette reported that the King “excluded him [Duval] from all hopes of pardon upon what intercession soever”, which perhaps lends credence to the account in the The Memoires of Duval receiving many female visitors, some of whom petitioned the King for a pardon.[1]

At his trial on 17 January 1670 at the Old Bailey, Duval was found guilty of six charges of robbery. He was sentenced to death and hanged at Tyburn on 21 January.[1] According to the The Memoires, Duval was given a “splendid” funeral at St Paul’s, Covent Garden, where he was buried beneath a plain white marble stone in the middle aisle, but it is now known that that he was buried at St Giles-in-the-Fields.[1]