Highway robbery is a term that originated in the 17th and 18th centuries to describe mounted outlaws. In England, these outlaws were called "highwaymen;" in other countries, they had different names. Their techniques were similar, however: They would prey on travelers who were far from cities and law enforcement. In modern times, the phrase "highway robbery" is sometimes used to describe merchants who overcharge their customers. Like highwaymen of old, these merchants are bold and shameless, and usually leave their victims with no viable alternative but to pay their outrageous prices.
Highway robbery has occurred throughout history, wherever there was a road passing through a frontier or undeveloped area with little regulation from law enforcement. The most famous highway robbers or highwaymen were those who roamed England in the Middle Ages and after. These were sometimes called "knights of the road" or "gentlemen robbers." In frontier America, such bandits targeted stagecoaches and were called "road agents." In Australia, they were "bushrangers" and, in Eastern Europe, they were the "betyárs."
Highway robbery usually occurred on well-traveled roads far from cities. Highwaymen on horseback would approach a coach or solitary traveler, sometimes a mail carrier, brandishing weapons. In England, their infamous challenges were "Stand and deliver!" and "Your money or your life!" Small groups of robbers working together were not uncommon. Highway robbery died out as cities expanded and law officers gained jurisdiction over remote areas; by the 19th century, traditional highwaymen were only figures of legend.
The most famous highwayman was Robin Hood, likely a folk conglomeration of various real-life and imagined figures. Legend held that Robin Hood targeted wealthy travelers and shared his loot with the poor, a practice attributed to many outlaw folk heroes over the years. Real highway robbers included Dick Turpin, Claude Du Vall and the "Wicked Lady," a female robber believed to have been a British noblewoman. The Scottish cannibal Sawney Beane not only robbed hapless travelers, but sometimes also killed and ate them. In England, highway robbery was punishable by hanging, and the corpses or heads were often left on display as a warning to other highwaymen.
Alfred Noyes' 1906 narrative poem "The Highwayman" remains one of the best-known fictional portrayals of a highway robber and is often studied in schools. As with many stories of highwaymen, it makes the bandit a romantic figure with a faithful lover. The highwayman has been a popular fixture of romantic fiction ever since. Other fictional highwaymen include Shakespeare's Falstaff, from the play "Henry IV." Many real highwaymen became posthumous folk heroes as fanciful legends grew around their exploits.