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.
LRB 30 June 2011 | PDF Download