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.
It was the Victorian novelist W Harrison Ainsworth who started Dick Turpin’s cult of celebrity when he
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?