A Cavalier Defence

Decadent, effeminate, outdated, the image of the Cavalier remains that of his enemies, victorious in the Civil Wars. John Stubbs offers a rather more complex corrective view.

In May 1641 Sir John Suckling (1609-42), ‘a great gamester’, fled London on a charge of treason. He was wanted by Parliament for his part in a plot to seize the city for the beleaguered king. Charles I’s struggle with his reformist opponents at Westminster was entering its second year and his position seemed increasingly hopeless. Suckling had been at the centre of a plot to bring the English army, which was scattered and depressed after a catastrophic showing against Scottish rebels at Newcastle, south to the capital. There loyalists would see to the release of Charles’ condemned chief minister, Strafford, and put the upstarts in Parliament back in their place.

The scheme saw the creation of a ‘Cavalier’ faction, and Cavalier planning saw that it unravelled disastrously. Facing arrest and trial, Suckling and his cohorts bolted. Suckling was a slightly built, gingery young socialite, best known about town for his lavish theatrical productions, enormous gambling debts and uncertain prowess as a duellist and cavalry commander. He made his way to Paris, where his funds shortly ran dry. The record of his final days is hazy, but it is clear enough that they ended in accidental death or suicide. Suckling’s was among the first of innumerable Cavalier careers to end in exile and regret. He had sincerely hoped to reinforce the monarchy and help dispel the prospect of mass armed conflict, but succeeded only in making the threat loom larger. He raised the stakes in the ongoing contest and gave moral ammunition to the king’s enemies.

Here, in many respects, was the Cavalier story writ in miniature. The Cavaliers allied themselves to causes which proved to be lost, forged labyrinthine plans that the civil wars exposed as fantasy and consoled themselves with the memory of individual moments of heroism and flair. Their war for the king ended with his execution. Their attempts to win back the throne for his son were outwitted and outfought by Oliver Cromwell’s military machine and outstanding intelligence network. After the Restoration, brought about solely by Cromwell’s early death, the Cavaliers united behind a vision of Church and Crown which could not long withstand the pluralistic Christian culture England now supported, or the new politics brought in by the Glorious Revolution of 1688. As Jacobites, their loyalty to the hereditary principle ended in massacre in 1746. As Tories, their defence of the middling gentry was doomed to endless sterile decades in the 18th century.

Since then the Cavaliers have offered much inspiration and amusement, but little by way of definite legacy. As their saga, broadly speaking, closed in stagnation and stolidity, the neglect is somewhat understandable. The new ideas always seemed to come from the opposing side: the Republican experiment, the settlement of 1689, the development of a trade-orientated, forward-looking government in the years of Whig supremacy. We think of the Cavalier party as holding back change and stamping out innovation. Thus it is easy and rather forgivable to forget that the word ‘cavalier’, which protesters first hurled at the king’s defenders during street-fights in 1641, had then evoked something nervy, avant garde, troubling and decadent. What the early partisans had in mind, in fact, was a figure very much like the disreputable Suckling. Indeed ‘Cavalier’ and ‘Sucklington’ were initially synonymous.

The Cavalier was invariably a gambler and a philanderer. He could also be a brattish courtier in a fancy suit, a prodigal and a playboy, an ex-army bully who laid down challenges – as Suckling had in the past – he could not answer for. At worst, he was a debauched councillor who had corrupted the king. The word also betrayed ‘effeminate’ foreign influences and a strong element of popery. For decades the figure of the Cavalier had by turns outraged and amused the temperament of popular English conservatism. As the country moved towards civil war in 1641-42, parliamentary pamphleteers seized on Suckling – diminutive, comical and allegedly a great coward – as their stock Cavalier. For his part Suckling did not resist the association. For him the Cavalier bespoke something cultivated if ribald, fashionable and gallant: it called up a being with certain failings, but answering to higher chivalrous principles; and, perhaps most importantly, a man who thought for himself. We forget how many of the century’s foremost artists and intellectuals, from the free-thinker Lucius Cary (c. 1610-43) to the historian Edward Hyde (1609-74) and Suckling’s close friend, the poet laureate William Davenant (c. 1606-68), counted themselves among the Cavaliers. For even Suckling was a man of more thought and substance than many believed. His suicide in Paris in 1641 may well have been the ultimate Cavalier gesture: not an act of moral delinquency, as contemporaries no doubt suspected, but a protest against the impasse the  country had reached.

The Cavalier cause itself was dismissed in time as backward-looking, a historical dead end. In consequence, the real injustice of neglect has been suffered by the many imaginative and intellectually liberated individuals whose experiences and convictions brought them to the royalist camp. The Cavalier faction and the artistic activity it produced and inspired encompassed an astounding range of personality and emotion, nurtured the theatre and visual arts against Puritan suppression and latterly encouraged Britain’s first professional actresses and women writers. The long-term achievement of the Parliamentarian movement may have been to lay the basic framework for a democratic society; but the other side did much to give the fledgling superpower its colour, depth, humour and life.

John Stubbs is the author of Reprobates: The Cavaliers of the English Civil War (Viking, 2011).

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