John Clavell, Dandy Highwayman

For part of this week I’ve been writing a short biographical piece about John Clavell, an English poet and dramatist, who was born in Dorset in 1601. Clavell didn’t write very much before he moved on to other careers as a lawyer and a doctor (neither of which he seems to have been qualified for in any way), but what he did write is fascinating. Clavell was born into a well-to-do Dorset family, with an estate at Wootton Glanville, and he arrived at Brasenose College, Oxford as a likely lad of eighteen in 1619. But despite his family background, including a rich uncle, Sir William Clavell, our man seems to have wanted more. In 1621, before competing his degree, Clavell stole some of the silver and gold plate belonging to the college. He was soon apprehended and thrown in prison, only to be given a pardon following the intervention of his uncle. After that Clavell went off to London and fell in with a bad crowd. Thinking he was going to inherit a fortune from his father he started borrowing money, but when his father died in 1623 and most of the family estate turned out to be mortgaged, he found he couldn’t pay off the nice men who had lined up to fund his lifestyle and now wanted their money back. Clavell did the best thing he could think to do in his position: he became a highwayman. Highway robbery was a capital crime in 1624, but Clavell clearly thought the possible returns were worth it. Unfortunately he was arrested in late 1625, after less than a year terrorising the roads around London. Along with several others he was tried, convicted, and sentenced to death.

If the hangman had his way we might have been deprived of Clavell’s obscure, but fascinating account of highway robbery. Fortunately for him and us the coronation of Charles I in February 1626 brought with it a general amnesty and for the second time Clavell managed to secure himself a pardon. It was another two years before Clavell was released, but in the mean time he wrote a penitent poem explaining why he went on the road and describing the life of a highway robber. His A Recantation of an Ill Led Life was published in 1628 and became immediately popular. Here was a first-hand account of the life of one of the most feared categories of criminal, a group who made long-distance travel a hazardous undertaking, whose acts could leave their victims penniless, or even dead. But not only was Clavell’s confessional a revelatory tract about a mysterious and much feared profession, it also offered advice on how to avoid being robbed, and on how to recognise highwaymen among your fellow travellers and companions. Notably, despite the fact that he was released from prison, Clavell warns others against taking up the profession. One swallow, he says, does not make a summer. Despite its lurid subject matter, the Recantation is low-key and unembellished. Clavell is keen to be accepted as a reformed character–he even begs the king for some kind of employment–and portrays the highwayman as generally more fearful than fearsome. Even so he begins with a striking statement:

Stand and deliver to your observation,
Right serious thoughts, that you by my relation
May benefit, for otherwise in vaine
I write, you reade, unlesse from hence you gaine
The happinesse I meane you; blest is he
That will make use of others jeopardie.
Be warn’d by me, so may you purchace hence
At a cheape rate my deare experience.

Some of the advice he gives to travellers is surprisingly modern. Don’t make it generally known you are going away, or why:

… you little thinke
There’s any harme in this, yet I have knowne
A Father thus betray’d by his owne Sonne,
A Brother by a Brother, and a friend
Most deare in outward shew, to condescend.

Trust nobody along the way:

Oft in your Clothiers and your Grasiers Inne,
You shall have Chamberlaines, that there have bin
Plac’d purposely by theeves, or else consenting
By their large bribes, and by their often tempting,
That marke your purses drawne, and give a gesse

But some of it seems at first glance rather odd: don’t travel by day “with any sum you are afraid to lose” and don’t travel on a Sunday. The first of these becomes clear when Clavell explains that darkness makes the victim and his pistols more difficult to see, but also that highwaymen “… must / Keepe lawfull howers, for feare they through mistrust / Be apprehended …” Not travelling on a Sunday also makes sense: only people with important business would be prepared to travel unlawfully on the sabbath, making picking out a victim much easier.

Clavell also gives good advice to inn-keepers on how to spot highwaymen and thieves. Ostlers in the stables might notice horses that must have special food, or careful treatment–above all else a highwayman depends on his horse. And highwaymen, it seems, travel light; their horses have empty cloak bags on the saddle, there for show, and to receive the swag. Inn-keepers, according to Clavell, should make sure to spy on their guests, listen to their conversations, and arrange for someone to knock loudly on the door, to see how they react. Sometimes criminal guests arrive in groups, pretending not to know each other, and they always go to the best inns, where they are less likely to be suspected:

The fairest Innes they usually frequent,
Out of a wary-politicke intent,
Presuming, for disparaging the man
They will not search his howse, and there they can
Rest unmolested, but since this you know
Let not the subtile theefe, escape you so.

Clavell went on to write a play about a young man who borrows money expecting to inherit a fortune and is then cheated out of his inheritance by unscrupulous moneylenders. He then went to Ireland to be a lawyer and physician. It is very unlikely he ever had any formal training as a lawyer, but nevertheless he also practised law in London in the late 1630s. He died, nobody knows where, aged 42, in 1643.

Gillian Spraggs’s site about highwaymen has part of Clavell’s Recantation available. I was unable to find the whole poem available for free on the open internet, but if you have a university subscription to Athens or similar you can read it at Early English Books Online. Otherwise, there is much more about him (and the poem) in John Pafford’s John Clavell 1601–1643. Highwayman, Author, Lawyer, Doctor, (Oxford, Leopard’s Head Press, 1993).

As a side-effect of all this, I’ve had the inevitable Adam and the Ants earworm for a couple of days: