Cavaliers versus Roundheads

An artistic depiction of Oliver Cromwell leading his 'Ironsides' back from the Battle of Marston Moor, July 1644.
An artistic depiction of Oliver Cromwell leading his 'Ironsides' back from the Battle of Marston Moor, July 1644.

Isaac Foot, the father of a former leader of the Labour Party, Michael Foot, used to say that it was possible to discover a man’s politics by the answer he gave to one question: “Which side would you have chosen to fight for on Marston Moor in July 1644?” Cavalier or Roundhead, Tory or Whig, Royalist or Republican, these are still the rhetorical slanders and slogans of British polarized politics.

Such lazy labels are, of course, no better than crude caricatures. Royalist supporters played on the pejorative description of “Roundheads”, the name given to London’s apprentices who in pre-civil war days demonstrated violently on Parliament’s side. It seems that many boy apprentices were required by their masters to close-crop their hair. In retaliation, and with equal exaggeration and inaccuracy, Royalists were denigrated as “Cavaliers”, an Anglicised version of “Caballeros”, Spanish Catholic troopers, who were infamous for their barbarous treatment of Protestant Netherlanders. The Victorian notion, evident in paintings of that time, that the two sides were distinguishable by the length of their hair and the cut of their clothing contradicts the evidence of contemporary portraits. In fact, neither Roundheads nor Royalists had “short back and sides”.

The polarization caused by the Civil Wars of the 1640s and 1650s was perpetuated by the religious settlement of the Restoration of the 1660s. Puritans of various denominations were excluded from the state church of England and, as a result, Nonconformity was established permanently outside it. Later, Whig and Tory displaced Roundhead and Cavalier. The Whigs were the religious dissenters, the Tories the Anglican party. Both names were just as insulting as their predecessors: in reality, Whigs were rebellious Scottish Presbyterians and Tories, Irish Catholic rebels. The legendary figures still stick in the imagination. The Cavalier gentlemen sports long, love-locks, broad floppy hat, bucket-topped boots, satin doublet, basket-handled rapier at his side; the proletarian Roundhead wears plain, brown outfit, superior up-to-date helmet and breast plate and carries a heavy cavalry sword or a musket.

In character and conduct also, the contrast is compelling. Cavaliers were devil-may-care, swashbuckling, elegant and dissipated; Roundheads were dour, sober, reserved, down-to-earth, psalm-singing, God-fearing. Whereas Cavaliers prided themselves on ancestry, blood-lines and honour, Roundheads won their commissions entirely on merit and valour and were not always gentlemen by birth. At their worst, Cavaliers were degenerate gamblers, womanisers and seducers, ill-disciplined, reckless and impulsive, in the sharpest contrast to Roundhead Puritan kill-joys and fanatics, hopelessly addicted to the Bible, Old as well as New Testaments.

However, whatever the stiff stereotypes of the First Civil War, the following years of conflict changed them beyond simple cliche. No one in 1642 could have imagined what the near future would bring: the utter destruction of royalist armies in England, Scotland and Ireland; the King’s alliance with the very same Scottish Presbyterians he had once tried to subdue; and, with lasting consequences, the emergence of a number of new, radical Protestant sects which hardened into permanent churches. What had begun as a constitutional and political issue – who ruled the country, hereditary monarch or elected parliament – became a religious question. Would one form of Protestantism prevail or would it fracture into many different forms?

Civil wars are sometimes a necessary and unavoidable means of resolving fundamental issues. The American civil war of the 1860s had to be fought, it seems, to liberate black slaves. On the other hand, the outcome of civil war can be as detrimental as it is inevitably deadly. Franco’s victory in 1939 ensured that the Spanish people who survived would have to live under his dictatorship until his death in 1975.

The English civil wars and their aftermath offered no such simple explanation or outcome. The monarchy had been abolished only to be restored. Charles I was decapitated only for his son, Charles II, to return to Whitehall eleven years later. The state church of England had been disestablished yet was then restored almost intact. Once again the Protestant dissenters found themselves denied freedom of worship. Catholics remained outside the religious pale.

So what had been achieved? What positive, permanent gains had been secured by all that bloodshed, destruction and misery? (More British people died as a result of the civil wars than were killed in the First World War.) The Puritans had been defeated and humiliated. They thought that, under Cromwell, God had given them victory in every battle, on land and sea, only to desert them in 1660. To survive at all they had had to adapt, if not conform. The Quakers became pacifist and gave up politics for trade.

Some historians have argued that Oliver Cromwell’s greatness derived from his attempt to find a parliament that truly represented the nation, not a self-seeking nobility and gentry, and his creation of an army and a navy that made the Commonwealth into a world power. But both claims betray a misunderstanding of the man. His purposes were neither political nor imperial. He destroyed more parliaments than he called and his war on Spain and acquisition of Jamaica were driven by religious motives. To him, Catholic Spain was the agent of Satan.

Perhaps Messrs Sellars and Yeatman, authors of 1066 And All That, should be allowed the final say on the protagonists of the civil wars: “the utterly memorable struggle between the Cavaliers (Wrong but Wromantic) and the Roundheads (Right but Repulsive)”. During the past three and a half centuries, as a nation we have come to believe that the Roundheads were “right”, and that our land should be governed by an elected parliament, not an hereditary monarch. Yet however “wrong” the Cavaliers were, the Roundheads were not all and always “right”. In fact, the latter came to include a very broad spectrum of religious and political opinions, from the extremes on the left, such as Levellers and Diggers, to the constitutional monarchists on the right, who suppressed them.

To me, it appears that the lessons of those terrible wars were negative, yet substantial and long-term. Charles II would never risk his neck as his father had done: unlike continental regimes, Britain was safe from royal despotism. Also, after the experience of the rule of the major-generals in the 1650s, there would be no more military dictatorships. Finally, unlike the French in 1789 or the Russians in 1917, the British would therefore need no revolutions. In future, reform would come gradually and without great bloodshed.