Here’s a guest post from Justin Aucoin, who loves highwaymen and pirates. Today he’s telling us about the historical background to his novel Honor Among Thieves set among 17th Century highwaymen.
The highwayman is a popular motif in fiction. It conjures up the image of a dashing rogue in a long flowing overcoat, a mask over the mouth and nose, and a tricorn resting comfortably atop the fellow’s crown. What we’re imagining is an 18th Century rogue — a time where flintlocks and small swords were popular arms. In fact, this image is engrained into society that even doing a simple Google search for “highwayman” only shows rakish rogues dressed like this.
But like pirates, highwaymen aren’t static icons of one particular era. Where there were dark roads there were men and women looking to capitalize, and early-17th Century France, the setting for my novel Honor Among Thieves, was no different. In fact, it was ripe for highwaymen.
France after the Wars of Religion
Things were bleak when Henri of Navarre became Henry IV of France. For decades, religious civil war wreaked havoc in France, weakening the monarchy and devastating the countryside as Catholic and their Calvinist counterparts slaughtered each other in the name of religion. When Henry ascended to the throne and signed the Edict of Nantes in 1598, it ended more than 30 years of off-and-on civil war. An estimated 2,000,000 to 4,000,000 people were killed during the French Wars of Religions.
Of course, peace was good for the country and it’s populace, but it meant the end of work for soldiers. Some listened to the pleas of Henry and his minister Duc de Sully, and turned to agriculture to help rebuild France; but many, those who knew their way around an harquebus better than a scythe, turned to the art of banditry to make ends meet instead.
But unlike the classic portrayal of highwaymen, the French highwaymen of the early 1600s didn’t work alone. They often banded together, realizing there was strength in numbers. These groups of highwaymen often had their own sub-classes and were led by a “captain” or member of the nobility who needed a little excitement in their life. In a lot of ways, calling these bands of thieves “highwaymen” is a misnomer. They were organized gangs at best, rogue military units at worst.
The highwaymen called “Guilleri”
One of the more famous highwaymen captains of the era went by the moniker of Guilleri, a former soldier who served under the Duc de Mercoeur during the Wars of Religion, and lived by the morose motto: “Peace to the gentlemen, death to the provosts and the archers, the stock merchants.”
Guilleri ran anything but a small operation. When he started off his career as a highwayman, he had forty-five fellow thieves working for him, but it has been estimated that his gang grew upward of 400 members at its height. With his swelled numbers he was able to do more than just rob people on the side of the road. He seized villages, extorted ransoms, and evicted land owners from their castles and used it as a fortress and a base of operation.
Truly, he was a man to be reckoned with.
He would sometimes entertain (and torment) his victims in these captured manors. One unfortunate victim was blindfolded and brought to Guilleri’s castle near Essarts. There, Guilleri gave the gentleman a tour of the estate, showing off his ammunition and provisions, and some fine Spanish leather hanging in the great hall that was stolen from a trading ship. After displaying such bizarre courtesy to the man, Guilleri pulled out his pistol and aimed it at the man’s head. He made the poor soul promise never to be part of any expeditions against him and his men. Receiving such a promise, Guilleri and his victim enjoyed a fine dinner. Afterward, the man was blindfolded once more and brought back to where he was captured.
Praying for Riches: Guilleri and the Peasant
Another story has Guilleri meeting a peasant on the road to Nantes. Guilleri was lying down on the roadside as a peasant walked by. Guilleri asked if the peasant had any money to which the peasant replied with “No, just a few coins for dinner.” The highwayman captain admitted to being coinless as well, and suggested they “pray for heavenly charity.”
Moved either by God or by the prospect of riches, the peasant knelt beside the highwayman captain. Guilleri pulled out a prayer book and read off some passages. Afterward, the peasant said he found nothing in his pockets, but Guilleri produced five sous from his pockets. They prayed some more, and each time the peasant said he received nothing, yet Guilleri’s pockets filled with more coin.
Guilleri consoled the peasant, stating, “I, who do it but carelessly, have been answered. How much more should you be answered? Let me feel your pockets.”
The highwayman captain then found 400 écus in the peasant’s pockets. Guilleri kept half while scolding the peasant: “Ah, wretch! You tried to cheat me and withhold from me a part of the gifts Heaven send you in my presence, as if I ought to have no share in them!”
I’m not sure if the moral of the story is to not lie to highwaymen or not pray with strange men along the road. Regardless, if the story is true, the peasant was lucky Guilleri only stole half his money instead of all of it.
Guilleri and 68 of his closest highwaymen friends were eventually captured by a large retinue of soldiers led by the Governor of Niort. Guilleri was executed in 1608 at La Rochelle. This golden age for French highwaymen came to an end only after Louis XIII ascended to the throne. Local law enforcement became more efficient and emboldened during Louis’ reign. Larger bands of highwaymen were broken up. Thieves and highwaymen, of course, never went extinct, but the ecology for large gangs deteriorated.
Highwaymen in Honor Among Thieves
It was these large band of thieves who were the main inspiration for the Falcon Highwaymen in Honor Among Thieves. However, I felt Guilleri and other real French highwaymen were too fantastical for fiction.
I didn’t think readers would buy the idea of a highwaymen gang being fifty men, let alone upward of 400. So I chose a more reasonable number and axed the cartoonish tales of Guilleri playfully tormenting his victims for fun, and instead turned my fictitious highwaymen into something resembling more of a pirate crew. The Falcon Highwaymen are cutthroat and ruthless, full of men not afraid to wet their blades with blood, and stalk the roads for prey like a pack of wolves. Yet their loyalty to one another goes deep. They’re brothers in arms just like in their days at war.
Leading the Falcon Highwaymen in Honor Among Thieves is Captain Jaspart Tremear, a former cavalryman for the Catholic’s during the Wars of Religion. He leads his men more like a pirate captain than a military one. His goals and ambitions, however, go deeper than just stuffing his coffer with silver and gold. It’s Tremear’s drive that sends the book’s hero, Darion, headlong into a vicious political conspiracy and threatens to throw France back into civil war.
It also pits Darion’s old life as a promising soldier against his new one as a thief and bandit. He struggles with wanting to be seen as an honorable man, but realizing he’s no better than a common cutpurse. For Darion, being a highwayman is a way of keeping his stomach full. He’s grown to respect the men he works with, while friends and family from his past reproach him for his life. For them, the matter is black and white. For Darion, it’s very much a shade of grey.
Honor Among Thieves is available on Amazon for Kindle and in paperback. For more information about J.M. Aucoin or to read his swashbuckling blog, visit www.JMAucoin.com, or follow him on twitter @JMAucoin_Writer.