Outlaws and Highwaymen

Character of a highwayman, by Samuel Butler
Samuel Butler, Characters and Passages from Note-Books, ed. A. R. Waller (Cambridge, CUP, 1908), p. 227

probably between 1667 and 1669

An Highwayman

Is a wild Arab, that lives by robbing of small caravans, and has no way of living but the King’s high way. Aristotle held him to be but a kind of huntsman;1 but our sages of the law account him rather a beast of prey, and will not allow his game to be legal by the forest law. His chief care is to be well mounted, and when he is taken, the law takes care he should be so still while he lives.2 His business is to break the laws of the land, for which the hangman breaks his neck, and there’s an end of the controversie. He fears nothing, under the gallows, more than his own face, and therefore when he does his work conveys it out of sight, that it may not rise up in judgment, and give evidence against him at the sessions.3 His trade is to take purses and evil courses, and when he is taken himself the laws take as evil a course with him. He takes place of all other thieves as the most heroical, and one that comes nearest to the old Knights errant, though he is really one of the basest, that never ventures but upon surprizal, and where he is sure of the advantage. He lives like a Tartar always in motion, and the inns upon the road are his hoordes, where he reposes for a while, and spends his time and money, when he is out of action. These are his close confederates and allies, though the common interest of both will not permit it to be known. He is more destructive to a grasier than the murrain, and as terrible as the Huon-cry to himself.4 When he dispatches his business between sun and sun he invades a whole county, and like the long Parliament robs by representative.5 He receives orders from his superior officer the setter, that sets him on work and others to pay him for it.6 He calls concealing what he takes from his comrades sinking, which they account a great want of integrity, and when he is discover’d he loses the reputation of an honest and just man with them for ever after. After he has rov’d up and down too long he is at last set himself, and convey’d to the jail, the only place of his residence, where he is provided of a hole to put his head in, and gather’d to his fathers in a faggot cart.7

Samuel Butler


Notes and page design © Gillian Spraggs 2001, 2002, 2007
Text added to site on 20 September 2001 | Page last modified on 28 August 2007

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