Reprobates: The Cavaliers of the English Civil War John Stubbs

Viking, pp.549, 25

Reprobates were, in the Calvinist lexicon, those unfortunates not included among God’s elect and therefore sentenced to eternal damnation.

Reprobates were, in the Calvinist lexicon, those unfortunates not included among God’s elect and therefore sentenced to eternal damnation. For stern English puritans it was pleasing to think that Royalist ‘cavaliers’ were among them. Alas, there was no way of knowing. Gallingly, since life everlasting could be bought neither by good works (in the Roman tradition) nor by belief alone (in the Lutheran disposition), cavaliers had an equal chance of it with anyone else. But then, confusion reigns everywhere in the entangled mesh of roundhead versus cavalier. On the field, especially among commanders, there was nothing like the marked distinctiveness of dress and hair-length displayed in modern re-enactments of Civil War battles.

The austere William Prynne denounced long hair as shamefully effeminate, just as he excoriated play-acting for encouraging lust and licentiousness. But what of Charles I himself? His moral conscientiousness and rigid court formality were not exactly cavalier (though the Presbyterian lairds of Scotland would have had him less unbending) and his consort, Henrietta Maria, sought to instruct her debauched courtiers in a new creed of Platonic love. Yet Charles was a dancing and masque-loving king, and to celebrate her new vision of a chaste paradise on stage Henrietta turned to Thomas Carew, famous for ‘A Rapture’, a long hymn to sexual abandon. Carew’s masque, Coelum Britannicum, dutifully offered up a reformed, chaste heaven, but it also, in what John Stubbs praises as ‘one of the period’s greatest solos of satirical prose’, directed arrows at royal edicts restricting the sale of tobacco and enforcing the closing of taverns at ten o’clock.

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The word ‘cavalier’— a term of praise among Royalists, among Cromwellians, of abuse — has myriad connotations. Stubbs rambles, leisurely and sharp-eyed, among the thickets where cavaliers were to be found. His principal sightings are poets — Robert Herrick, the syphilitic Carew, the syphilitically de-nosed William Davenant, Richard Lovelace and, most visible, the dashing scholar, poet, courtier and soldier, John Suckling. Misogynist bawds and spendthrift gamblers, the cavalier rakes did not always honour the code of chivalry associated with the feudal origin of their name: mounted knights in arms. Suckling’s cowardly behaviour towards Ann Willoughby and his rival for her hand in marriage, John Digby, landed him in a public scandal which might have ruined him. It did not, though the disgrace remained long in the public memory. He kept royal favour and the friendship of the sweet-tempered, moderate Royalist, Lucius Cary, better known as Viscount Falkland, and he was immortalised by Aubrey as ‘the greatest gallant of his time’.

Cavaliers kept themselves afloat by their wit (and their wits) in an age when wit was an essential coin of exchange in polite society. Frequently skeptical in religion, they seized the day, gathering rosebuds while they might. They may have been chancers, but the mild-mannered Herrrick defended the behaviour of men whose entangled lives compelled reliance on what he called ‘the quick return of courtesie and wit’. Valour went with gallantry. ‘The People are naturally not valiant,’ Suckling wrote, ‘and not much Cavalier.’ He and his fellow poets were not mere carpet knights: they fought on foreign soil in Charles’s misadventures and Suckling, in 1638, looked forward eagerly to engaging the Scotch Covenanters and commemorating the enterprise in verse. He did both. Like Carew, he died before his mettle could be tested against the roundheads.

Suckling was no fool: his analysis of the state of the kingdom on the eve of the Long Parliament reached, notably in its anticipation of a republican groundswell, beyond that of almost all his contemporaries. He is the main dish in the scrumptious banquet that Stubbs serves up, but there appears to be no end to Stubbs’s knowledge. Literary criticism, political manouevring, military affairs, domestic narratives from unremembered lives, the goings-on at court — everything is handled with adroit assurance in prose that bubbles with wit and good humour.

He does not brow-beat; he beguiles. Even the idiosyncratic structure of the book is artful, sucking us by degrees, almost unawares, deeper and deeper into Caroline mores and states of mind. Though Stubbs allows himself to say that if a ‘preference for the primrose path of dalliance summed up the cavalier attitude, then the catastrophe to come was no surprise’, and though his examination of particular matters such as ship money and the so-called ‘army plots’ to seize control of London for the king in 1641 are incisive, unnuanced judgments are not his style. Tellingly, he finds Conrad Russell’s survey of the evidence for the army plots to be ‘masterly though opinionated’.

The subtitle of this book is too narrow. Its subject is cavalier life in Stuart England, not just during the war years, and the subtle but powerful light that Stubbs casts on it illuminates also the puritanism of roundhead England. Stubbs writes that the ‘literary talent and psychological realism’ of the cavalier poets make them ‘precious witnesses of an age’. They are among the qualities that make him one, too.

This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated

Tags: Book reviews, English civil war, History, Non-fiction, Reprobates