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.

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