On this day in 1739 Dick Turpin, one of the most famous
highwaymen in England, was hanged at York for stealing a horse. The historical
Dick Turpin was, of course, very different from the romanticised image of the
highwayman that sometimes appears in historical fiction. Turpin was a thief and
a murderer. In his own times he was not the most famous of highwaymen and after
his death he was forgotten for a hundred years.
It’s interesting how outlaws can become heroes, both in
historical fiction and in the heritage industry. Some of my favourite fictional
heroes are pirates or smugglers or highwaymen. In Georgette Heyer’s books I
have a particular fondness for Nick Beauvallet, the pirate hero of Beauvallet,
and for Ludovic Lavenham in The Talisman Ring. Jane Aiken Hodge's book Watch the Wall, My Darling was one of the first historical romances I read and I loved the free trading hero. My very first book had a
highwayman as hero. It was never published but I have retained a fondness for
highwaymen and have written pirates and smugglers as well.
So how and why did outlaws, from Robin Hood to Dick Turpin,
become heroes? Why is the highwayman sometimes a romantic and glamorous figure?
He is usually portrayed as a dashing miscreant or likeable rogue. He is a hero in the public imagination
whereas in reality, he (or she) is a criminal. There is a suggestion that the
outlaw personifies some of the aspirations that lie deep in many of us to be a
devil-may-care individualist and go our own way. In addition, it takes courage
and confidence to hold up carriages; it requires strength of personality as
well as force of arms, superb horsemanship, stamina and patience. The
highwayman of myth embodies gallantry and courtesy, and faces death with a
swagger. Horses were expensive and were therefore usually ridden by a
“gentleman” unless, of course, the highwayman was also a horse thief.
Highway robbery flourished at a time when the hold of
government and of law and
order was incomplete or when forces of government were
unpopular or illegitimate. There is usually the implication that the outlaw is
a wronged character, either personally or by powerful and corrupt government
It was the Victorian novelist W Harrison Ainsworth who
started Dick Turpin’s cult of celebrity when he
made him a character in his
first novel, Rookwood. Ainsworth invented Turpin’s famous horse, Black Bess,
and attributed to him the famous ride from London to York, which was actually made by a
completely different highwayman. Turpin’s fame and hold on the popular
imagination grew from there. I vividly remember the 1970s TV series Dick Turpin
which was one of the many costume dramas I loved as a child. It did a great
deal to instill a romantic love of history in me!
Do you enjoy books with outlaw heroes, whether they are
highwaymen, pirates or free traders? Do you have any favourites? And why do you
think they are popular?
Labels: Dick Turpin, Georgette Heyer, heroes, highwaymen, Jane Aiken Hodge, Pirates, smugglers