Thursday, 3 December 2020

Book review: Reprobates: The Cavaliers of the English Civil War, John Stubbs (2011)

I bought this wonderful and instructive volume on sale at Gleebooks in November: it was on a table on the pavement outside the store, and I picked it up as soon as I read the title. Good decision ..

Stubbs thought the royalists (loyalists) of the English Civil War deserved a fresh take, hence this examination of the lives of a number of men – and a few women (but not many) – who lived in the first half of the 17th century, a time of inequality and inequity but also of rising incomes and standard of living. The cavaliers deserve our regard also for the reason that ideas they embodied remain attractive to us, now, especially in popular culture. The brooding artist, the sulky pop star, the rebel without a cause – all of these belong in the same broad basket of enterprise as the men described in Stubbs’ book.

That’s not to take away from the importance, as an element forging our contemporary polities (in the Anglosphere and beyond) of the English Civil War. Due to the increase in the discretion given to Parliament as a result of those events, we have a higher standard of living today. Not just in Australia but everywhere, though the Enlightenment project hasn’t yet finished.

But that sequence of events mustn’t be considered as a phenomenon apart from Continental history. The decision of Charles I to avoid entanglement in the religious wars that had raged in Europe for 100 years was critical to the emergence of a disaffected element in English society. There were scores to be settled, accounts to be balanced. Charles’ decision to add uniformity to the forms of worship in two of his kingdoms – England and Scotland – served to profoundly irritate many people. Thirdly, his decision to rule without Parliament added to instability as it removed one forum in which legitimate community grievances could be aired, and the emotions linked with them resolved through means other than military ones. By the time he called for a Parliament, the demands that were put to him were so intolerable that he preferred to die than compromise his prerogatives.

The book looks in some detail at Charles’ own efforts to refine society. Sometimes this took the form of dramatic performances – something that he, like his father, enjoyed – and hence Stubbs is able to examine in some detail the ideas of men who wrote poetry and plays either for private circulation, performance, or publication. The idea of the dilettante – which we’ve regrettably jettisoned today – lived strongly in the minds of the cavaliers who, while they sought out a way of being that we’d describe today as “middle class”, who also rejected the puritanical obsessions of certain parts of the community, people for whom “popish” forms of religious service – which the Scots so passionately rejected – were anathema. Nowadays, we must admit to enjoying ceremony for its own sake – be it the telecast of a royal wedding or the annual Academy Awards. Ritual helps to organise society and is instinctively embraced, but for Puritans in the 17th century it stood as a manifestation of evil.

Stubbs shows that the received idea that is concentrated in the word “cavalier” is not quite apt when you look at its origins through a strong lens, one that can sufficiently magnify the features and the minds entombed by time – this is the job of history – so that each of the men examined becomes an individual, though general patterns of conduct can be discerned. They are often attractive subjects – despite the excess when it came to romance, elaborate jokes, and wine – but their stoicism and their love of art shine like beacons in the distance.

I thoroughly enjoyed reading this entertaining book. Stubbs uses a subtle form of humour in his narrative in order to castigate, judge, and understand the motives of people long dead. The reader can join with him, diverge in his or her views, or skip to another point of focus without effort. 

I was however disappointed, but in a good way. Not enough attention given to Puritan writers means you get a slightly one-sided viewpoint. Not that this defeats Stubbs’ purpose: quite the opposite – the book’s title signals his intentions clearly – but once the king is dead Stubbs turns his focus to one Commonwealthman who wrote – Andrew Marvell. This part of the book lets you see the heritage of Cavalier wits influencing the politically opposite camp. 

The Cavaliers unquestionably represented more than just the commonplace rogue, and in fact defeat almost completes the model, as Stubbs shows by examining parts of the lives of several notable men, including some who, like Charles himself, spent time in prison. The resort of the unfree body being places visited by the free mind. 

What is inescapable is how modern the Cavaliers seem in contrast to their religious peers. Puritans hated frivolity and feared losing God’s grace if they indulged in it, so it’s a happy fact that most of the writers Stubbs deals with were royalists. Stubbs takes a slightly longer look at another Puritan of note – Sir Archibald Johnston (Lord Wariston) – a Scots lawyer who rose to prominence from humble origins, but Milton is only touched on.

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