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.
Downton Abbey really is a wretched piece of tripe: a parody of a parody. But television seems to drift farther from reality in almost every respect these days.ReplyDelete
As for the Civil War: what a choice! Like a lot of revolutions, the initial causes seemed valid points of contention. By the end, though, the chaos and destruction had empowered the most unpleasant and irrational lunatics and those who had decided life was worth living stepped adroitly aside and let them run about unchecked until the madness exhausted itself. All in all, I think my preferred status for those years would have been American colonist (but not Massachusetts!) or continental traveler.
Ah, you've seen it, Calvin! I'm glad you agree.Delete
The irony of the whole Civil War, Commonwealth and Protectorate period is that Cromwell ended up with personal and prerogative powers that Charles I could never have imagined possible. Incidentally, though you may very well know this already, if the Grand Remonstrance of 1641 had failed to pass through Parliament Cromwell was intent on emigrating to the American colonies, doubtless Massachusetts. :-)
Calvin, I suspect that's why MY family came over here - why suffer through the horrors of living in a war zone, when you can live in the fresh, fertile soils of Virginia! :-)Delete
It just occurred to me - we colonists were loyal to the crown (hence the University of Virginia's athletic teams are known as "The Cavaliers", and the state's nickname "The Old Dominion" came to us because Charles II elevated us to the status of a Dominion in recognition of our support for the King. This all being true, what were the relations like between Virginians and England during Cromwell's dictatorship? I did a quick check w/a search engine and found that Parliament dispatched a pair of frigates (with troops) to compel our allegiance and Governor Berkeley (of "Berkeley Plantation" fame) quickly surrendered. Despite this, many Royalists soon immigrated to the colonies - I wonder how much of a factor their latent dislike of Parliamentarians (for murdering their King) played in the future rebellion of the American Colonists?
CB, that's an interesting conjecture.Delete
Ana, sorry that I'm just getting around to providing you w/the source of my information - I am operating a bit slow off of the mark these days :-(Delete
I thought that you might find it useful on a professional basis (I admit, though, I have NO idea how far along you are in completing your doctorate) as it describes what was going on during your [stated] period of interest, but focuses on how those events affected the life of the Englishmen residing on OUR side of the Atlantic.
It is: "The early relations between Maryland and Virginia" (by John Holladay Latané and Herbert Baxter Adams), which I found online at: books.google.com/books?id=ftGw4vyW-qYC&jtp=1
Even if you can't make any use of it for your thesis, you might enjoy reading about what effect the war in the Mother country had on us over here. It goes a loong ways towards explaining why we Virginians don't have much to do w/Marylanders :-P
CB, it's actually a bit earlier than my period of interest as well as being a little off focus. No matter; I think the whole subject is fascinating, something worth investigating in its own right.Delete
We have our share of problems in the states but I would not under any circumstances want to live in England!ReplyDelete
Hey, it's not as bad as all that! Actually, if Ed Miliband ever becomes PM that will be the last straw for me.Delete
While your writing is excellent, I have enjoyed your content very much. The fact that these people do not seem to echo my current lifestyle. Yet, it seems these people are sometimes sad to a degree. I guess bystanders are always more objective than the roles in the dramaReplyDelete
Hello, James. Thanks and welcome. Ah, a bystander is something I shall never be. :-)Delete
I thought Downton is a fantastic drama in many ways, not only in plot and narrative structure. Here is my short tribute to the story so far.ReplyDelete
Thanks, Rehan. I tied to like it. I came to the first series with huge expectations. I admire Fellowes as an actor and as a writer. My disappointment was thus all the greater.Delete
Hi I was very interested in the BBC series you mentioned about the CavaliersReplyDelete
(being a Cavalier myself) do you have any full links to the doco?
I'm sorry Lee, I don't.Delete