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The Thief of Hearts: Claude Duval and the Gentleman Highwayman in Fact and Fiction

By John and Philip Sugden


It was perhaps the most formidable gang of highwaymen in modern English history. Fifty or more active riders spread fear and consternation in London and the Home Counties during the reign of Charles II, breaking into houses and ambushing travellers, commercial convoys and government supply trains.

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It was perhaps the most formidable gang of highwaymen in modern English history. Fifty or more active riders spread fear and consternation in London and the Home Counties during the reign of Charles II, breaking into houses and ambushing travellers, commercial convoys and government supply trains. So serious were the depredations that the King launched an unprecedented four-year campaign in 1668, using spies, informers and rewards to bolster the fragmentary forces of law enforcement and infiltrate and destroy the robber band.

But the story of this desperate manhunt, recounted here for the first time, would have been forgotten but for the most prominent of the outlaw leaders, a flamboyant and dashing Frenchman named Claude Duval. Legend quickly turned him into one of the colourful figures of the day. For all his notoriety, Duval avoided violence, and was widely credited with bringing gallantry, glamour, style and sexual magnetism to highway robbery. His imprisonment, trial and eventual execution at Tyburn in 1670 created a public sensation and prompted powerful protests from admiring gentlewomen.

More than anyone else, Duval popularised the lasting image of the gentleman highwayman that inspired writers and artists such as Samuel Butler, John Gay, William Harrison Ainsworth, William Powell Frith and Alfred Noyes. In Victorian and Edwardian times the myth flourished on the stage and in songs and hundreds of cheap serial publications, turning Duval and others fashioned in his image into the first boys’ fictional super-heroes. Dismayed commentators complained that the youth of Britain and the ‘common people’ admired them more than Nelson or Wellington.

This original study by twin-historians John and Philip Sugden, drawing upon hitherto unused manuscripts and early printed sources, uncovers a hidden chapter of the struggle for law and order in the turbulent period of the Restoration, treating not only Claude Duval and his associates but also their arch enemy, Sir William Morton, who relentlessly hunted them down. But it also charts the image of the gentleman highwayman, one of the most iconic pictures of the English past, and a stream of popular culture that, if forgotten today, was enthusiastically embraced as late as the early twentieth century and enchanted generations of our ancestors.

 

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the story of this failed champion may be the most classically tragic in all of

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as well...These two volumes exemplify the art of biography...They are, and will

remain, indispensable” – Ben Wilson, The Literary Review

 

The Complete History of Jack the Ripper by Philip Sugden

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“The astonishing accumulation of detail is irresistible” – The Independent

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