Wily Dandies in Rustling Silks

Article excerpt

Byline: NED DENNY

REPROBATES: THE CAVALIERS OF THE ENGLISH CIVIL WAR by John Stubbs (Viking, [pounds sterling]25) ALMOST four centuries on, the idea of the cavalier is still sufficiently potent to be part of a stock phrase, a speechmaker's cliche. When we speak of someone having a cavalier attitude, we summon an archetype that has its roots in the English Civil War -- and probably much further back than that. If no longer quite denoting the "petulant, disdainful, violentminded dandy" of Puritan umbrage, the phrase suggests nonetheless a sneering haughtiness, an inclination to ride roughshod over the feelings of others. Picture, if you dare, a silken-curled George Osborne in rustling silks and the image is complete.

As John Stubbs shows in his wonderful survey of the period, cavalier has meant different things at different times. The word is derived from the Spanish caballeros, which simply means gentlemen with the right to bear arms: the courtly ideal, scholar and soldier in one. Yet its early use in this country was entirely negative, bound up with xenophobia. When Parliamentarians used it in the early 1640s, observes Stubbs, they saw "a degenerate creature, bred up on Continental trifles and polluted with popery; a fraud and a boaster, a glossy, superficial type, forever gambling what he had borrowed, in perpetual debt to his tailor".

Soon, however, the insult was being worn with pride. For King Charles's chaplain, the cavalier was "a child of honour ... of a clearer countenance and bolder look than other men, because of a more loyal heart". As the war advanced, cavaliers became associated with acts of wild bravery and outrageous cunning; if the roundhead is a wary plodder, the cavalier "sets his life at a pin's fee, throws himself into the breach for a fleeting triumph or resounding gesture".

Greatest of all the loyalist generals was the Earl of Montrose, a minor Scottish chieftain whose tactical genius employed wit in the truest sense of the word. …