Outlaws and Highwaymen

Robbery in English Society and Culture –
a Historical Survey

For centuries, England was famous for its robbers...

Fourteenth century

Early in the century, a Franciscan friar stated sarcastically that in fortunate England there were no actual robbers. Instead, he said, the gentry, under the name of ‘shaveldours’, robbed churchmen and peasants at will.

There are various well-documented cases of gentlemen who engaged in highway robbery and other violent property crimes.

The Dominican preacher John de Bromyard complained that England was more crime-ridden than any other country. Wealthy men surrounded themselves with gangsters and thugs, who acted as their enforcers and strongarm men. The legal system was corrupted by influence and bribery, so it was hard to bring serious criminals to justice.

Stories and legends about outlaws were popular with the gentry and their household retainers.

The outlaw of legend is depicted as an innocent man, driven by powerful enemies to live outside society. He takes refuge in the forest, where he survives by robbery and poaching. But these crimes are viewed as necessary and justifiable. In time, he finds a chance to revenge himself, and vindicate his essential innocence. Then he returns in triumph to live on the right side of the law.

Fifteenth century

Sir John Fortescue, a former Chief Justice, said that far more men were hanged for robbery in England than in France or Scotland. He cited this as evidence of the superior courage of the English.

At the end of the century, a visiting Venetian diplomat noted that London was the worst place in England for thefts and robberies.

Stories about the outlaw hero Robin Hood had become extremely popular.

The medieval legend of Robin Hood draws on earlier outlaw stories for many of its situations and episodes. One difference, though, is that far more prominence is given to the hero’s activities as a highway robber. He is a magnanimous robber, who is prepared to be very generous to people who need his help. But it is not yet said of him that he stole from the rich in order to give to the poor.

One more distinctive thing about the medieval Robin Hood: unlike his legendary predecessors, he is not a man of gentle birth. Instead, he is always referred to as a yeoman, or freeman of non-aristocratic family.

Sixteenth century

Thomas More, writing in Utopia (1516), was another who commented on the number of people who were sent to the gallows. For him, this was evidence of serious economic and social problems. [Contrast the attitude of Fortescue]

A manifest detection of Diceplay, published in 1552, gives us our first detailed description of the criminal networks of Tudor London.

In the argot used by professional crooks, highway robbery was known as the high law. The typical highway robber was now a member of an urban criminal subculture.

In 1572 Thomas Wilson, a Crown servant and diplomat, wrote a dialogue in which one character commented that in England, highway robbers were likely to be admired for their courage, while another suggested that a penchant for robbery was one of the Englishman’s besetting sins.

By the middle of Elizabeth’s reign, the authorities were showing alarm at the increasing use of pistols by highway robbers.

Robert Hitchcock, a former soldier, expressed his respect for penniless men who resorted to robbery rather than begging. He saw them as courageous and as placing a proper value on themselves. Such ideas were not particularly eccentric; compare the remarks by Fortescue and Wilson.

In his long historical poem Albions England, William Warner describes Robin Hood and his men as stealing from the rich to give to the poor. This is the first time that this idea is clearly expressed.

In the reign of Elizabeth I, Robin Hood was transformed into an outlawed nobleman by a succession of writers for whom it seemed only sense that this ‘prince of thieves’ should be a man of aristocratic origin.

William Harrison, writing about the large numbers of robberies that took place in Elizabethan England, said that these were usually committed by extravagant young gentlemen and underpaid servingmen. He claimed that highway robbers had spies in every inn, watching to see who was worth holding up on the road.

Robert Greene popularised true crime accounts and underworld exposés with his series of ‘conny-catching’ pamphlets. The last of these, The Blacke Bookes Messenger, purports to be the autobiography of a sometime highway robber, Ned Browne.

Robert Parsons, a Jesuit, commenting on social problems in England, noted that many of the men who committed robbery were gentlemen’s sons. He thought that one reason robbery was so common was that it wasn’t seen as a serious offence. [Compare Wilson and Hitchcock]

William Shakespeare wrote King Henry IV, Part One, in which one of the main characters is the highway robber Sir John Falstaff. In Falstaff and his associates, Shakespeare thoroughly debunked the idea that there is anything brave or admirable about committing robbery.

In his comedy Every Man Out of His Humour, Ben Jonson satirised the breathless admiration for highway robbers that was shown by certain young men.

These two major playwrights responded to the now traditional glorification of highway robbers with devastating satire and burlesque. [For another satirical take on the cult of the robber, see Wither]

Seventeenth century

Gamaliel Ratsey, a gentleman soldier who was hanged for robbery in 1605, became the hero of two collections of stories about his exploits as a highwayman. These became models for later stories of the kind; many of the stories told about Captain Hind are versions of tales from the Ratsey books.

Samuel Rid, a pamphleteer, described the difference between footpads and ‘gentlemen robbers’ who robbed on horseback.

George Wither, a satirical poet, wrote scathingly about the admiration shown by the public towards highway robbers and pirates.

In 1617, the word highwayman entered the language.

John Taylor the Water Poet, a pamphleteer and versifier, looked back affectionately over the legendary robbers of English history.

John Clavell, a gentleman who became a mounted robber, wrote a book regretting his past crimes and explaining how travellers might protect themselves from robbers.

In 1651, James Hind, a former mounted robber turned Royalist soldier, was arrested and became the focus of a spate of publications. In the popular imagination, Hind, a saddler’s son, had made himself into a gentleman as a result of his involvement in this ‘gentlemanly’ crime.

Hind is the first robber hero since Robin Hood who was not a gentleman born. From this point on, there were many more such highwaymen heroes, low-born men whose activities as robbers captured the imagination of the public. Over the same time, highwaymen of gentle birth became more and more unusual.

Claude Du Vall, executed in 1670, had been a nobleman’s servant before taking to the life of the road. He was long remembered as a particularly gallant and debonair highwayman.

Eighteenth century

Alexander Smith edited A Complete History of the Highwaymen, a compendium of short criminal ‘lives’ heavily plagiarised from earlier publications. It was followed by many similar collections.

The highwayman Ralph Wilson wrote an informative memoir of his career as a member of a London gang.

The hero of Daniel Defoe’s novel Colonel Jack is a street boy who, at one point in his early life, embarks on a career of robbery because he is told that it is a means by which he might live as a gentleman.

César de Saussure, a Swiss visitor to England, commented in a letter home on the restrained and polite behaviour of this country’s mounted robbers. By this point, the English highwaymen had acquired a reputation for being remarkably humane in their treatment of their victims.

John Gay wrote the biggest theatrical hit of the eighteenth century in The Beggar’s Opera, a musical drama in which the hero, Macheath, is the captain of a gang of highwaymen. It’s a highly satirical play, but several of the highwaymen, especially Macheath, are depicted as possessing some attractive qualities.

The most famous eighteenth-century highwayman was Dick Turpin, whose legend eventually eclipsed the memories of earlier robber heroes like Hind and Du Vall.

At the end of the century, a passage in the feminist writer Mary Wollstonecraft demonstrates the persistence of the belief that the behaviour of English highway robbers proved the superiority of the English over the French. [Compare Fortescue, three centuries earlier.]

Nineteenth century

In the second half of the eighteenth century the incidence of mounted robbery had begun to decline. This continued into the nineteenth century, and after about 1815 it was a very uncommon crime indeed. The last recorded mounted robbery is said to have taken place in 1831. By that time people were already beginning to think of the highwaymen as figures of nostalgic romance.

In his novel Paul Clifford, Edward Bulwer created the Romantic Highwayman: wild yet soft-hearted, a criminal with honourable instincts, whose crimes owe as much to his love of adventure as his thirst for loot.

The figure of the Romantic Highwayman was taken up by the popular novelist Harrison Ainsworth in his romance Rookwood. Dick Turpin, supposedly a secondary character, steals the book. It was Ainsworth who invented Turpin’s thoroughbred mare Black Bess, who has since become an integral part of the legend.

The Romantic Highwayman received his most famous incarnation in the very early twentieth century, in Alfred Noyes’s narrative poem The Highwayman. Most popular representations of the highwayman since have drawn heavily on its images of moonlit roads, lonely inns, lace ruffles and sexy lovers.

Gillian Spraggs

Turpin's oak, near Finchley

‘Turpin’s oak’ near Finchley, in the early 1880s

© Gillian Spraggs 2001, 2007
Page last modified on 28 August 2007

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