Outlaws and Highwaymen

Passages from John Clavell’s A Recantation of an Ill Led Life
John Clavell, A Recantation of An Ill Led Life: or, A Discoverie of the High-way Law, 3rd edition, (London, 1634), reprinted in facsimile in John Pafford, John Clavell 1601–1643. Highwayman, Author, Lawyer, Doctor, (Oxford, Leopard’s Head Press, 1993), pp. 6–8, 16, 17, 23, 45

1627; first published 1628

Now you licencious Rebels, that doe make
Profession of this wicked course, and take
A pride therein, and would be term’d by me
Knights of the Roades, or else at leastwise be
Stil’d High-way Lawyers, No, I doe defie,1
You, and your actions, I will tell you why;
But first plucke off your visards, hoods, disguise,
Masks, Muzels, Mufflers, Patches from your eyes,
Those Beards, those Heads of haire, and that great Wen
Which is not naturall, that I may ken
Your faces as they are, and rightly know
If you will blush at what I speake, or no;
As well you may, but that you want the grace:
Forlorned men, I pitie though your case,
Because it hath been mine, and gladly I
Would suffer death to be a remedy,
And your example, onely that I know
It will doe better for to live, and show
Vnto the world your basenesse, to prevent
Others that yet sinne onely in intent,
Conceiving that it is a gentle course,
Not to be discommended whilst none’s worse
Or baser on the earth; yet it is true,
Some Gentlemen, perhaps before they knew
The pooreness of this way, to serve their need
Have more then once attempted some such deed;
But now they see their warlike Prince take Armes,
They scorne to live upon their countries harmes,
But will goe on, whence there may Honour grow
To blot out quite their fames first overthrow,
Expressing to the world that want of Action,
As much as monies made them know your faction,
Which though your courser natures follow still,
The Active spirit leaves, and knowes it ill;
But what are you that nothing can reclaime,
From giving to your soules so foule an ayme?
Who neither feare of heavens, nor earths just Law
Can into compasse of selfe-knowing draw?
Whose honours, strumpetted to this base course,
Have made you of your selves take no remorse,
But hugging your owne ruine, and foule shames,
Are proud in losing your repute and fames?
Now I consider better, ’tis not strange
That you this life will for no other change;
For you have got by this vild course of sinning
A kinde of state, ne’re knowne to your beginning;
And from attending others, are become
The principall, and best men in the roome,
Where (like the Asse in trappings) you doe awe
The silly beasts, that Beere and Claret draw;
For they you Captaines and Leivtenants call,
And tremble when a frowne you doe let fall,
For Peerelesse now your selves are Masters growne,
That in mans memorie were Foot-Boyes knowne;
And you[r] despaire as base as your condition,
Makes you beleeve if you should leave Perdition
In these attempts you should again be made
From being Sunnes your selves, anothers shade,
And that your worthlesse spirits cannot rise
In any course that walkes without disguise,
For bred on dunghils, if unmask’d, you feare
You shall too much in your own filths appeare.

* * *

For you beleeve you had deserv’d to bee
Admir’d, not scorn’d, for your past villany,
And that the actions you have done are such
As pace with honour, can endure the touch
Of cruel’st censure, whilst you fondly deeme
That men you brave, and valiant doe esteeme,
And so are bound with your ills to connive,
And in despite of Law keepe you alive:
So from the Gaole unto the halter goe
Carelesse of now or after overthrow.
Base usurpation, and conceits as vaine
As are your lives, expenses, and your gaine.
For good and brave men censure right your sinne,
And pittie you, and the course you are in,
Rather in common Pietie, then that
Your vild defeatings should be wondred at.

* * *

Your ends besides (if nothing else) might draw
You into feare to breake the rigorous Law;
Vnhappy he that hangs upon a tree,
The wretched guerdon of impietie.

* * *

And yet these senselesse Caitives who inherit
This way of dying by their owne demerit,
Laugh at this judgement, call it a fine thing,
Thus to be pull’d to heaven in a string,
And that the Appoplex, Flegmes and Catarre,
More cruell to the soules of Christians are
Then hanging, for these passions take men hence,
Ere they can thinke of dying, or have sense
Of their repentance, being snatcht away
Scarce with so poore a warning, as to pray.
But these have Sermons, Prayer, Sacrament,
Psa[l]mes, and all wayes to bring them to repent,
And a great audience of the people by,
For whose faire warning th’are content to die;
And thus their strong deluder drawes them on
To laugh at, and deserve destruction.

* * *

There are some certaine people (who roare well)2
That in their drunken cups are apt to tell
Strange stories what they did, and meane to doe,
(And they intend you should beleeve them too)
That three of them well hors’d, assaulted ten,
And robb’d them all, stout, able, monied men;
Then will they name a summe (as large) they got,
Heere, if you pause, that you may doubt it not,
They will blaspheme amaine, that you were better
Seeme to beleeve, and let them rest your debtor,
For what they now would otherwise have sworne:
Why are you with these idle fancies borne?
What honour is it, but a foule disgrace,
A great disfiguring [t]o a spotlesse race,3
A vild, a base, a most unworthy fact,
A poore, dishonest, yea a cowardly act?
What have you here to boast of then but shame?
You that are greedie of this guilt, and fame,
Would you had mine to share amongst you, though
I doe beleeve you ne’re durst act it so ...

* * *

... I whose easie youth, with fond admire
Was drawne at first this ill course to desire,
Hugg’d it in dreames, and in my waking fitts
Doted upon’t, to my worse losse of witts;
Whilst I esteem’d none brave or good but this,
But now I know how farre I was amisse ...

John Clavell


A Recantation of an Ill Led Life was written by John Clavell while he was in jail following a conviction for highway robbery. Keen to demonstrate his penitence, he reproached his former companions for their way of life and revealed ways by which the traveller might avoid being attacked. After many months in prison, during which he was technically under sentence of death, he was finally granted a pardon.


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

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