In the modern imagination, the highwayman is a figure on horseback in a three-cornered hat who holds up a mail-coach with pistols. But England has a long legendary history of robber heroes that goes back well before Dick Turpin, even before the earliest ballads of Robin Hood. 18th-century highwaymen like Turpin were absorbed into an already rich tradition of stories and ideas about robbery and robbers. In this book, Gillian Spraggs argues for the existence of a distinctively English "cult of the robber". Englishmen took pride in the belief that there were more robbers in England than anywhere else in Europe. This was felt to be a credit to the nation, because it demonstrated English toughness and daring. Robbery possessed a potent mystique. For one thing, it was a gentleman's crime. The penniless young gentleman who took a purse on the highway was felt to be showing the courage that he had inherited from his ancestors. As for the lad of common stock who was drawn to the life of a highwayman, he often saw it as a way of rising in the world, by becoming a "knight of the road". This book is a full-length study devoted to the English robbers of history and legend.
It draws on street ballads and social commentary, reportage and satire, gossip and high literature, popular anecdotes and criminal biographies in charting the images of the highway robbers across eight centuries.
Gillian Spraggs was educated at Harrow County Girls' Grammar School and Girton College, Cambridge. Her research into highwaymen began in the mid-1970s, while she was working towards a thesis on the figure of the Rogue in Tudor and early Stuart literature. In 1980, she received her Ph. D. from the University of Cambridge, and began a much wider investigation, of which this book is the fruit, into the literature and history of the English robber. She has published essays, poems and translations, and is the editor of Love Shook My Senses (1998), an anthology of poetry.