Well, maybe if Ned actually knew how to ride....
One thing I only touched on briefly in The Brazen Spindle was why on earth even someone at wit’s end would decide to become a highwayman of all things. One has to understand that in Ned’s time, Highwaymen were viewed as bold adventurers, dashing and reckless. And, by the by, sexy as all get. Musicals like The Three Beggar’s Opera (later redone by Kurt Weil as The Three Penny Opera) reinforced this image of a short lived hero, feared by all men and loved by all women. But not only fictional highwaymen got this treatment, as the epithet to the notorious Claude Duvall demonstrates:
Here lies DuVall: Reder, if male thou art,Look to thy purse; if female, to thy heart.Much havoc has he made of both; for allMen he made to stand, and women he made to fallThe second Conqueror of the Norman race,Knights to his arm did yield, and ladies to his face.Old Tyburn’s glory; England’s illustrious Thief,Du Vall, the ladies’ joy; Du Vall, the ladies’ grief
Duvall was perhaps the archetype of the gallant highwayman, and was the subject of more than a few stories of possible factuality, such as the one related William Pope. According to Pope, Duval held up a coach with a nobleman and his lady. Seeing they were about to be captured, and determined not to appear afraid, the lady took out a flageolet and played. Duval thereupon took out one of his own and played as well. He commented to the noble that his wife played extremely well, and would, no doubt, dance just as well, and asked her to dance. They danced on the heath and when they were done Duval escorted her back to the coach. There he remarked that her husband had neglected to pay for the music, and stole four hundred pounds from him. (thanks to www.stand-and-deliver.org.uk)
While the truth was that most highwaymen bore as much resemblance to this ideal as Somali pirates do to Jack Sparrow, it was definitely an image held by the people of the time. Even a complete thug like Dick Turpin, known to torture his victims when “needed”, would become the subject several chapbooks and even a play extolling his horsemanship and gentility– some written a good hundred years after his death!
Even the levelheaded Mary Wollstoneraft wasn’t immune to their charms. As she wrote in in 1794, it was her belief that:
…in England, where the spirit of liberty has prevailed, it is useful for an highwayman, demanding your money, not only to avoid barbarity, but to behave with humanity, and even complaisance.
Why the romanticism? Well, for one, it was a time of social turmoil, culminating in the vast enclosures of common land in the early nineteenth century. Ned’s feelings about the aristocrats were hardly unique, even in non-revolutionary England. The highwaymen were seen as latter day Robin Hoods. Well, they stole from the rich, at any rate. And if they didn’t give to the poor, well, at least they had style.
And yes, they did say “Stand and Deliver!”