In Myrtle Bowers

Blair Worden

  • Reprobates: The Cavaliers of the English Civil War by John Stubbs
    Viking, 549 pp, £25.00, February 2011, ISBN 978 0 670 91753 2

This is a remarkable and tantalising book, luminously evocative, acutely observed, joyously written, intellectually evasive, wilfully unfocused, suicidally diffuse. Who could say, after its 500 or so pages, what it is about? Its unexplained title is presumably a market pitch. The subtitle, perhaps another pitch, lays bare a problem which John Stubbs never grips. We are two-thirds of the way through before we reach ‘the English civil war’ of the 1640s. The bulk of the book is set in the generation before it, from the years around the accession of Charles I to the outbreak of fighting in 1642. ‘Cavalier’ meant more things after 1642 than before it. It was in the mid-winter of 1641-42, in the crisis which turned on the king’s entry into the House of Commons in an attempt to seize five of its leading members, that it acquired political connotations. That development, and the simultaneous appearance of ‘Roundhead’, marked the start of the taking of sides. They were terms of abuse, though ‘Cavalier’ was sometimes adopted by the royalists at whom it was aimed, whereas no one wanted to be called a Roundhead. There are unanswered questions about the uses of ‘Cavalier’: how widely it was deployed; what contemporaries thought it meant; how much it conveyed a social ideal and how much a political programme; how large a proportion of royalist sentiment it can aptly describe; how the swashbuckling image it promoted managed to coexist with the devout and sober face of the king’s party; whether posterity has understood or distorted its resonances. But any understanding of the king’s following has to engage with the word.

Before 1642 there were no sides to take. ‘Cavalier’ did not then signal a political allegiance. It had associations of careless upper-class merriment, wild and braggard living, gallantry, equestrian dash. The three figures about whom Stubbs has most to say, the poets Sir John Suckling, Thomas Carew and William Davenant, do to varying degrees answer to that description. Though his book makes no claims to archival discovery, it lights up their writing and brings fresh perception to the ties of friendship between them, to their travels and adventures and quarrels, to their amatory excursions. But Suckling and Carew were dead when the civil war started. That does not make their values and conduct irrelevant to it. They would undoubtedly have supported the king and seen connections between their outlook and his cause. Davenant fought ably for him and in 1650 came close to execution at the republic’s hands. The wartime meaning of ‘Cavalier’ acquired its potency by absorbing the peacetime one. The challenge Stubbs skates past is to explain the continuity.

Thirty or forty years ago the task would have been easier. Leading historians supposed that the occupants of early Stuart England had missed what posterity could discern: a process of polarisation, of which the war, when it came, was a perhaps inevitable expression. On that view, fundamental and inflammatory social conflicts demanded resolution. They set the court and aristocratic privilege against the nation, reactionary economic forces against progressive ones. The confrontation, which in religion was reflected in the clash of Anglican and Puritan, was mirrored too in poetry, drama and the visual arts. So ‘the Cavalier poets’ seemed an apt term for writers of the 1630s who apparently looked forward to royalism.

They belonged, it was alleged, to a cocooned world. While the young Milton was getting the spiritual measure of the time and confronting its earnest issues, they wrote sycophantic court masques. While ship money and Anglican ceremonialism were provoking national discontent they promoted ethereal concepts of Platonic love favoured by that disastrous political influence, to whom the careers of Suckling, Carew and Davenant were annexed, Queen Henrietta Maria. They celebrated, as Rubens did in the Allegory on the Blessings of Peace he painted for Charles I, the façade of tranquillity and prosperity that hid the instability of Charles’s rule. They ignored the plight of beleaguered Continental Protestantism in the Thirty Years’ War, which to England’s shame had to be rescued by the German campaign of the king of primitive Sweden, Gustavus Adolphus. Historians cited one poem above others, by Carew, to illustrate those shortcomings:

But let us, that in myrtle bowers sit
Under secure shades, use the benefit
Of peace and plenty, which the blessed hand
Of our good King gives this obdurate land …
Tourneyes, Masques, Theatres, better become
Our Halcyon dayes; what though the German drum
Bellow for freedome and revenge, the noyse
Concernes not us, nor should divert our joyes.

Only in hindsight do Carew’s lines look escapist or his vision vulnerable. The political divisions that mattered in the 1630s were not between an effete establishment and a broad-based opposition but within the government, where reasoned cases for and against foreign involvement turned not only on underlying commitments of principle or strategy but on finely balanced diplomatic calculation. Historians, as Stubbs acknowledges, have come to doubt whether prewar England was polarised. Even among his protagonists there was no single voice. A poem of Davenant’s encouraged the king to make Gustavus’s ‘fame/No more our envy, nor our shame’. The divisions of the Puritan Revolution are now seen as a consequence rather than cause of the collapse of Charles’s regime, which historians attribute more to political contingencies than to structural defects, more to the short term than the long. They think the government broke down not because the king watched too many masques, which anyway are now held to have contained, behind the obligatory outward adulation, some searchingly critical advice, but because his policies went wrong. In quantity and quality the collective impact of Stubbs’s three writers was strongest in a period when Charles I’s regime looked as secure as it ever did: between its victory in the ship money case in 1637-38 and the failure of its foolishly incurred campaign against the Scots in 1639. The Scottish war gave new life and force to English opposition which the Crown had worn down.

In any case, Stubbs’s protagonists were at most partial representatives of the regime. They were courtiers, not councillors. There was distance between the flippancy they cultivated and the stern authoritarianism, iron drive and reforming zeal of the king’s leading advisers, those ‘Puritans of the Right’, Strafford and Laud. Even within the court their lifestyles were at odds with the chaste and fastidious decorum of the royal entourage. Stubbs remarks on the oddity of the choice of the licentious Carew, whose verse had been best known for a long erotic extravaganza of a poem, to write a hymn to marital fidelity, the masque of 1634, Coelum Britannicum, for the queen.

Stubbs’s method is painterly rather than analytical. He aims, I suppose, at a portrait of a side of the age, an honourable ambition. He achieves most in close-up, through choices and contrasts of biographical or topographical or literary detail. The figure he makes most vivid is Suckling, whose ‘devotion to profligacy’ and ‘ongoing confession of triviality’ bring us as close as we get to the book’s title: ‘He lived as one who knew he was among the reprobates – socially and theologically.’ Apparently the inventor of cribbage, he was described by John Aubrey as ‘the greatest gallant of his time, and the greatest gamester, both for bowling and cards’. He pursued an image of theatricality. He had himself painted, by van Dyck, reading Hamlet. He fought infamous public brawls over an heiress. After diplomatic and military missions on the Continent he enlisted against the Scots in 1639, and spent huge sums raising a cavalry troop which, as Davenant would tell Aubrey, brought gasps of amazement wherever it rode: ‘100 very handsome proper young men, whom he clad in white doubletts and scarlett breeches, and scarlet coates, hatts, and … feathers, well-horsed, and armed’. A year later he was frantically trying to sell the equipment off to meet his gambling debts. In 1641 he and Davenant were involved in a reckless attempt at a military putsch against the parliamentarian leaders which gravely damaged the king’s cause. Suckling had to flee to Paris, where he died in the same year, reportedly by his own hand, at the age of 32.

All this might hint at hyper-intensity or emotional desperation. Yet the lifestyles and self-representations of Suckling and his friends have to be viewed warily. We are not yet in the world of Rochester, who would have Puritan rule to react against and a merry monarch to indulge him. There were common sense and realism in Suckling, who mocked the cult of Platonic love. His plays addressed contemporary political anxieties about tyranny or evil counsel, with directness if hardly with originality. The political advice he tried to communicate to the queen in the crisis of 1640 was misguided but not stupid. He was not the son of a secretary of state for nothing. The king’s military humiliation by the Scots, and what proved to be the irrelevance of chivalrous display in England’s subsequent civil war, lend retrospective farce to the mounting of Suckling’s cavalry, but the following year a Scottish source called his horse troop ‘the prime of all England’. Moral reflection has been detected in the erotic poetry of Carew, as it has in his admittedly undistinguished religious verse. Davenant, an effective military figure on the king’s behalf, made substantial contributions to philosophical, educational and ethical discourse. As Stubbs notes, Suckling’s essay on religion aligns him with the formative debates about the relationship of faith to reason in the Great Tew circle, whose members combined intellectual earnestness with their own taste for mirth and cheer.

If only Stubbs would stay with that or any subject for long enough. Instead, a miniaturist’s gifts are dissipated over a sprawling canvas. The sprawl is a puzzle. No one would quarrel with his inclusion, among the authors within whose company he moves back and forth, of two poets who have conventionally been regarded, with Suckling and Carew, as principal ‘Cavalier’ poets: Robert Herrick, who advised us to gather ye rosebuds while we may, and Richard Lovelace, the stone walls of whose incarceration by Parliament did not a prison make. But what is Stubbs’s account of Milton, the spokesman for regicide, doing in the book? Why do we tour the agonised mind of the Scottish Calvinist Sir Archibald Johnston of Wariston, who catechised his wife in bed? We might call the inclusion of the grisly death – as he left the lavatory, from a dagger wielded by an aggrieved servant – of Fulke Greville, for whom Davenant worked but whose poetry no one would call Cavalier, irrelevant if there were a structure of thought and argument against which relevance could be measured. Perhaps Stubbs aims to set off his Cavaliers against those contrasting authors. Instead they get in the reader’s way.

‘Come keen iambics with your badger’s feet/And badger-like bite till your teeth do meet.’ Thus, at the outbreak of war, did the satirist John Cleveland announce the royalist resolve to fight by pen as well as sword. It was as literary a war as the Great War, though the modern disciplinary division between history and literature has obscured the fact. Admittedly, the intensity of poetic production is more striking than the quality. The verse was largely polemical, written to rally or increase support for a military campaign. Even its reflective moments were partisan, most of them angrily and bitterly so. In a war which most people agreed was ‘unnatural’, the combatants found it easier to mouth slogans or blame the enemy than pause on their own feelings.

The royalist literary effort mingled high verse with low. The breakdown of censorship in the 1640s, and the public eagerness for information and opinion, generated the new literary medium of news-books and pamphlets that now commands scholarly attention. Both sides, having overcome an initial reluctance to appeal to the lower orders, seized the opportunities of the press. ‘In our late wars,’ the most gifted of the parliamentarian journalists, Marchamont Nedham, observed in 1652, ‘the pen militant hath had as sharp encounters as the sword, and borne away as many trophies.’ But it was the royalists who held the literary cards, as parliamentarian propaganda conceded when it was reduced to presenting the royalist taste for Shakespeare, Jonson, Beaumont, Fletcher and Shirley as a kind of literary popery, which it linked to the mindless idolatry of Anglican ceremonialism. Milton and John Cook, the solicitor-general at the trial of Charles I, accused the king of reading Shakespeare or Jonson while his agents had been oppressing his subjects or his troops slaughtering them. It was the royalists who made a minor art form of political ballads and prefixed them to their weekly news reports. It was they who developed satirical techniques that have been said to anticipate Dryden and the Augustans.

To the difficulties in connecting prewar to civil-war Cavalierism, Stubbs offers a passing answer which cries out for demonstration. If the earlier part of Charles’s reign did not produce a Cavalier party, he tells us, it did witness ‘the making of the cavaliers. Looking back, one sees the fashioning of values and literary attitudes which royalist poetasters and propagandists of the Forties would take as their own.’ So the 1640s saw ‘the remaking of the 1630s’. Royalists did indeed remember and recycle and imitate prewar poetry. Equating Puritanism with unlettered philistinism, and anticipating Dryden’s charge that ‘Never rebel was to arts a friend,’ they claimed the literary legacy of the early 17th century for their own. They saw the war as a cultural diminution, the end of a ‘candid age’ when verse had fostered the qualities rebellion had destroyed: truthfulness, sociability, freedom and openness of heart.

Stubbs’s principal Cavaliers had a part in the story. Suckling’s works were extensively published in the 1640s, largely by Humphrey Moseley, a key figure in literary royalism but an absentee from Stubbs’s book. There was some, though less, interest in Carew. Parliamentarian propaganda included Davenant among the poets who had sheltered the king’s party from the ugly political reality it had created. Yet literary royalism claimed bigger ancestors. Ben Jonson became a kind of literary captain-general of the king’s cause. Suckling disliked Jonson, and Carew was at most a half-Jonsonian. It may be easier to see them as heirs of John Donne, the subject of Stubbs’s previous book, of whom royalism made much less. Then there were Beaumont (another absentee) and Fletcher (almost one). The showcase folio volume of their works in 1647 was the most ambitious manifestation of postwar literary endeavour, when the king’s supporters exploited the turn of national opinion in their favour. For all the pleasures of Stubbs’s book, its ostensible subject awaits its expositor.