BBC Four devoted an hour recently to one core question – Roundhead or Cavalier: Which One Are You? These are the two parties, of course, who slugged it out in the English Civil War of the seventeenth century.
The question is not as obsolete as you might suppose. The Civil War introduced a great fault line into the history of England and the character of the English that has never gone away; the names of the contending parties have changed, that’s all. In the place of the puritan Roundheads and the dashing Cavaliers came the Whigs and the Tories, then the Liberals and Conservatives, then Labour and Conservative.
It’s not all about politics, no, for behaviour and attitude also come into the mix. There is the fun-loving flamboyance of the Cavaliers compared with the dour seriousness of the Roundheads, a duality captured perfectly in those telly cooks Nigella Lawson and Delia Smith!
I’m a Cavalier, politically and in every other sense, but with just a soupcon of Roundhead seriousness when it comes to serious things. But in looking into the past there is nothing in the least Roundhead about me. My, oh my, how I would hate to have lived in the England of Oliver Cromwell, to have lived under the rule of the saints or the major generals, which amounted to the same thing. This was Narnia under the White Witch, a land where it was always winter and never Christmas.
Yes, the Roundheads in Parliament banned Christmas, though there is no evidence that Cromwell had any personal responsibility here, contrary to the assertion in the documentary (oops, Roundhead seriousness creeps in!) They also closed down the theatres and turned Sunday into an unimaginably gruelling ‘day of rest’. Women were even put in the stocks for taking a stroll or knitting. Bear baiting, a popular and cruel pastime of the day, was also banned, not because it gave pain to the bear, but because it gave pleasure to the spectators, as the historian T. B. Macaulay observed. After all this the Restoration of the monarchy in 1660 came as one huge Cavalier party.
Alas, the Roundheads, like the poor, are always with us. I grew to political maturity during the rule of Lord Protector Tony Blair, who headed one of the most namby-pamby, tut tut, naughty naughty, don’t do this, don’t do that administrations in English history, the sort of disapproving regime that would have delighted Cromwell. Fox hunting, a sport dear to my Cavalier heart, was banned, not because it gave pain to the fox, but because it gave pleasure to the hunters.
A whole series of bad laws and pettifogging rules followed, legislation that infantilised the whole nation. Those who don’t live here would have been amazed at the sheer pettiness of it all. As I wrote in a previous post, many of the hard Labour laws were simply a charter for council jobsworths, the army of snoopers set to police the rules.
In Birmingham Zippo’s Circus was threatened with prosecution if the clown act blew an exploding tuba, this being considered a ‘live music performance’ and thus requiring a licence. And then there was the seventy-five-year-old blind man who was issued with a £40 fixed penalty notice after his dog pooped in a field, or people returning from a supermarket in
Brighton who had their wine confiscated for being in possession of alcohol in a public place. Even Cromwell’s Major Generals may have baulked at some of this nonsense.
Julian Fellowes, the actor and writer, was interviewed on the show, saying that Cavaliers are the natural enjoyers of things and Roundheads their critics. He was talking specifically about the forms of popular culture, frowned upon by the lovers of high art. He was talking about Downton Abbey, his own smash TV hit, though he never said so directly.
Ah, now I switch sides; here my inner Roundhead comes out. You see, I came to Downton Abbey, I saw Downton Abbey and I hated Downton Abbey, a view I made clear in my review (Carry on Upstairs Downstairs, 15 March, 2011). That fellow Fellowes should not delude himself, though; I hated it not because of its popularity but because it is a risible parody of Edwardian England. Everything was out of place; there is far too much chumminess in this pastiche, far too much of the déclassé. There is, in other words, far too much of the Leveller in the Abbey.
On reflection, maybe this is not a Roundhead criticism at all. Only a Cavalier knows the proper order of things. Only a Cavalier knows the value of snobbery. Only a Cavalier knows that Levellers need to be kept under hoof.