Wednesday, October 14, 2015

In Search of the Highwayman Claude Duval, or, There are lies on the Internet!

Today I walked into Covent Garden to visit the resting place of infamous highwayman and heart-breaker Claude Duval (1643-1670) at St Paul's Church:

Duval (or Du Vall/Duvall) was a French-born servant who became a highwayman in London. He reportedly never used violence and was by some accounts a bit of a hottie. Cue my interest: a swarthy anti-hero in real life? I'm there.

From his Wikipedia page (Wikipedia, I hear you say with scorn. Lazy sourcing. It is linked only for your amusement, not as a verifiable source. Very little about this story is verifiable.):

There are many tales about Du Val. One particularly famous one — placed in more than one location and later published by William Pope — claims that he took only a part of his potential loot from a gentleman when his wife agreed to dance the "courante" with him in the wayside, a scene immortalised by William Powell Frith in his 1860 painting Claude Du Val.

The painting in question, which hangs in Manchester Art Gallery:


I did a lap of the inside of the very lovely church but could only find one plaque from the seventeenth century, but it wasn't Duval's and the person probably wasn't the least dashing and handsome. I moved on.

There was a nice lady selling Christmas cards so I bought a packet of ten and asked her to show me where Duval's plaque was. She looked half amused, half annoyed, and told me that he wasn't buried in the church at all, it was just a story. People came in from time to time asking about him, and when she'd asked the rector about it he'd told her Duval was a criminal who'd been hanged, and therefore couldn't have been buried on consecrated ground. The rector's theory about how the story came about was that someone connected with the church put the story about to make it attractive to visitors. 

When I got home I did some digging. The church was built in 1631 and Duval was hanged in 1670, so the dates fit at least. One source said that he was buried in the centre aisle, but it's covered in carpet now so I couldn't check that. Another source says that the tomb was destroyed by a fire in 1795. The parish records apparently show that a Peter Du Val was buried there the day after Claude Duval's lying in at the Tangier Tavern, St Giles. Could be him. Sounds implausible though.

The epitaph in the tombstone is supposed to read:

Here lies DuVall: Reder, if male thou 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 arm did yield, and ladies to his face.
Old Tyburn’s glory; England’s illustrious Thief,
Du Vall, the ladies’ joy; Du Vall, the ladies’ grief.

The epitaph is credited to Walter Pope, an astronomer. I'm nearing the end of my digging now, dear reader, and this blog post. The epitaph comes from a book Pope wrote called The Memoires of Monsieur Duval. It seems Pope was a little annoyed by the English fascination for highwaymen, and particularly the way women liked to swoon over them. After all, Duval wasn't only a criminal, he was French, by god. 

The book detailed Duval's supposed exploits, but was meant as a work of satire. The full title is The Memoires 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.

You can read it here

The only parts of this story that I was able to verify are that the church certainly does exist (you'll have to take my word for it), and the part of the title above that is underlined. Even the authorship of the work is not certain.

I'll make an educated guess and say that Pope made up the burial at St Paul's Church and Duval was really consigned to an unmarked grave after he met the hangman at the Tyburn Tree. 

TL;DR: Reality is nowhere near as sexy as stories and myth. Also, take what's written on the internet with a good pinch of salt. 


  1. Duval (or Du Vall/Duvall) Very nice ! Please let me subscribe to this article

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