Despite the sub title, the English Civil War is not the primary focus of this book: it's more about the context than the conflict. In this book, John Stubbs combines literary biography with political and social history to look at members of a group of royalist writers who gathered around Ben Johnson during the late 1620s and 1630s before seeking their fortunes at court. Those writers - including Thomas Carew, William Davenant, Sir John Denham, Robert Herrick, Richard Lovelace and Sir John Suckling - became known as `The Sons (or Tribe) of Ben' and later as the Cavalier Poets.
Most of these men are minor figures in history, remembered for a single poem `Cooper's Hill' (Sir John Denham) or, a single line: `Stone walls do not a prison make' (Richard Lovelace) and 'Gather ye rosebuds while ye may' (Robert Herrick). William Davenant introduced a number of innovations to the stage and and was also known as a rake who had a disfigured nose as a consequence of treatment for syphilis..
`The title `cavalier' became a badge of partisan pride and the mark of a royalist gentleman; but it is important to remember that it started political life, in the early 1640s, as a term of abuse and reprobation.'
While the archetypal cavalier, Prince Rupert of the Rhine, and other royalist stalwarts such as Henry Jermyn and Endymion Porter appear, the English Civil War occupies a relatively minor part of the book. The Cavalier Poets are great supporters of the Stuarts and their belief in the divine right of kings. As Robert Herrick writes: `Twixt Kings and Subjects ther's this mighty odds,/Subjects are taught by Men; Kings by the Gods.' This loyalty is often accompanied by a romanticised immaturity: these men see themselves as heroes and they often act impulsively.
In many ways, William Davenant is the central character of this book. He was knighted in 1643 by Charles I for his services in the royalist cause. By the time of his death in 1668, he had succeeded Ben Jonson as poet laureate, had acted as an agent for Henrietta Maria during her exile in France, and staged the first English opera (`The Siege of Rhodes'). Davenant had also become a successful theatrical manager.
This book took me into an aspect of the history of the English Civil War I'd not previously thought much about. These were not the cavaliers I had in mind when I first picked up the book: I learned that in John Stubbs's view, being a cavalier is more about outlook than philosophy. For a different perspective on the English Civil War, this book about the Cavalier Poets is well worth reading.
on 2 July 2012
The title of this book is misleading, as is the front cover, which includes roistering, floppy hats, and a seventeenth century lovely holding a basket of apples. Whether this misselling is at the behest of publisher or agent, who knows, but beware: there is not a great deal here on the Cavalier commanders of 1642-51. You get occasional references to Rupert's doings here and there, a few pages on Montrose, but that is it. On the other hand, accepting the book for what it actually is, much enjoyment remains on offer. The book is a sweeping, generational literary biography of a circle of young poets on the margins of power, woven into a personal narrative of the Stuart courts of James I, Charles I and Charles II. It starts long before the Civil War and finishes well after the Restoration, but this grand sweep actually benefits the book, provides a great deal of context and gives one a sense of what it was like to live and come to maturity across this period. Stubbs is at his best when drawing out striking, colourful and telling comments from the sources and his account of the Spanish adventure of Buckingham and 'Baby Charles' is absolutely superb. You can almost smell the heat and poverty of the Madrid streets and there is much poignancy in the failed courtship of the Spanish Infanta. This episode is often glossed over in political histories: but I have never had it explained to me quite so well. It is the level of personal detail which makes the book so immersive; the first three (English) Stuarts are really brought to life. Some people have found the prose a bit hifalutin' but this did not really intrude enough to spoil things. So, despite the misleading title this is an original, superbly researched, and highly original synthesis of poetic biography and grand high-political sweep.
In 1640 Charles the First summoned Parliament for the first time in eleven years. His purpose was to raise funds for his military campaign against the Scots. Parliament refused to grant any money until he acknowledged and rectified old wrongs. The two sides were unwilling to compromise and Charles dissolved it after only three weeks. Shortly afterwards clashes broke out between demobbed officers supporting the king and crowds taking the side of Parliament. According to Edward Hyde each group castigated the other with the names 'Cavaliers' and 'Roundheads'. Although the divisions can be represented along class lines such analysis fails to convey the nature of seventeenth century English society. The Court had its own existence separate from the masses, living within the arrogance of the theory of the divine right of kings. Parliament represented a demand for greater inclusion, not in the economic wealth of society but in the exercise of power by people who could be held responsible for their actions. In pursuit of this policy the Parliamentary party had Thomas Wentworth and Archbishop Laud executed.
The Cavaliers were originally regarded as chivalrous but by the time of Charles 1 were known for their promiscuity, devious pleasures, including the theatre, gambling, sexual decadence and possessing foul mouths. Outwardly conforming to religious practices of the day they aped the Vicar of Bray in their desire to retain favour at Court where intrigue was the order of the day. Whereas the roundheads boasted they took nothing without paying for it, the Cavaliers plundered and stole everything they could. The theatre and poetry were avenues of communication which aroused great interest, especially with the king - much of it was bawdy and some of it critical. It was primarily male orientated with women being regarded as walking temptations. Puritanism, with its anti-merriment agenda, was already present during the reigns of James and Charles. One interesting feature of Stubbs' approach to history is that it arose from his interest in poetry and literature, including masques, rather than pure politics. Jonson and Suckling receive more coverage than is normal in historical writing and, in fairness, Stubbs' narrative is richer as a result. He links the literature and politics of the day in superb fashion.
Dissolving Parliaments that disagreed with him was not confined to Charles alone. Wentworth, Lord Deputy of Ireland, did the same in Ireland in 1634, managing to alienate every faction from Roman Catholics to the Presbyterians of Ulster. 'He sought out every penny of outstanding rent on every scrap of land leased by the Crown' and was resented by critics across all three kingdoms who noted 'Wentworth did not neglect to maintain his own state, buying property, building stables and houses and feasting lavishly in Dublin.' A similar picture emerged of Charles who chose to ignore questions about the liberties of his subjects to demand obedience to himself as king. In 1638 when presented with the Presbyterian 'Covenant' which ruled out harmonisation between the English and Scottish Churches Charles declared opposition to the prayer book to be treason. It didn't help that Charles and his Court had shown no interest in Scottish affairs. The Scots meanwhile declared episcopacy illegal and prepared for war against the English. When the clash came the Scots emerged victorious with Charles accepting the right of the Scottish Parliament to challenge his decisions.
In a sense it was the beginning of the end. Delegations from Scotland and Ireland descended on London demanding the trial of the king's 'evil councillors'. Parliament itself was stripping the king of his powers including his right to choose his own councillors and dissolve Parliament. When Wentworth was condemned to death the sentence could not be carried out without the king's signature which he provided regretfully. By way of contrast Wentworth accepted he should die for the greater good. However, after he died the temporary unity between hostile Irish interests broke down and rebellion followed. Having lost two political advisers Charles was subject to the campaigning of his wife who threatened to withdraw to a nunnery unless Charles took the initiative against Parliament. Neither Charles nor Henrietta were ever moved from the conviction that Charles was God's chosen ruler. Parliamentary sources noted, 'the Kings Counsels are wholly managed by the Queen; though she be of the weaker sex, borne an Alien, bred up in a contrary Religion, yet nothing great or small is transacted without her privacy and consent'.
Charles's opportunity to win the civil war probably disappeared after the battle of Edgehill where Prince Rupert's cavalry were characterised by ill-discipline and lost their early advantage. Before the battle Rupert had argued with his infantry commander which led to the latter's resignation. In military councils he was argumentative and tactless. Admired for his military skill he was despised for his avaricious nature, demanding payment for not sacking cities. As the war progressed the army realised, 'the war would not be won by gentlemen alone.....(but by) a policy of promoting low-born talent over well-connected mediocrity'. However, the indecisive nature of the war allowed the well-connected mediocrity to prosper, despite deep divisions over strategy. The longer the war went on the more vicious it became with Presbyterians and Parliament calling for the execution of Irish prisoners-of-war as a matter of course. Stubbs notes, "As papists, they were scarcely Christian anyway, so the godly reasoned; scarcely human'. Rupert responded by attacking a roundhead camp and killing thirteen of the fourteen prisoners to be killed on the spot.
Charles continued to play politics to the end in the hope he could divide his enemies and exploit differences between the army and Parliament. He was duplicitous in negotiation and could 'hardly expect clemency from the court that was trying him for his life by refusing to recognise it'. The restoration of the monarchy did not restore Stuart power but repeated their error of political fantasy. An excellent book, emphasising the role of literature in history, five stars.
on 14 October 2013
To think of the English Civil War is to think of dandified, gentlemanly cavaliers fighting the cause of the King against the puritanical roundheads and their zeal for social revolution. From this popular image, history has tended to favour the roundheads. For all their perceived priggish distrust of pageantry, dance, colourful dress and fun in general, the forces of Cromwell were seen as the forces of the people, of the common good, and their cause as being just. The cavaliers on the other hand were seen as caricatures of hedonistic, upper crust louts and layabouts who did nought but wear foppish hats and keep the peasants downtrodden.
In recent years this overwhelmingly negative image of the cavaliers [as well as the term itself] has been reassessed to offer a more balanced view of the wide mix of people who actually sought to advance the royalist cause. While still grouping his favoured subjects together as Reprobates, in his new book John Stubbs sets out to investigate the rise and fall of the cavaliers and to provide a balanced account of the men behind the title.
It's particularly noteworthy and surprising, given its subtitle, that Reprobates deals only very briefly with the English Civil War itself. Stubbs begins his account sometime around 1613, several decades before the Civil War actually breaks out, and continues until well into the Reformation. The War itself and the ultimate execution of Charles I seem to occur over the course of just a couple of chapters. Bearing this in mind, Reprobates would not be the ideal first source for someone wishing to learn about the details [particularly the battles] of the Civil War. This is not to say that it is a book lacking in detail, rather that it provides a detailed focus on a rather narrow element of the War.
The reason for this narrow focus is that Reprobates is not really a history of cavaliers either. John Stubbs is here really focused on the `Tribe of Ben', a select [and certainly entertaining] group of royalist literary figures who congregated in the taverns of London and worshipped at the altar of Poet Laureate Ben Jonson. While very few of the group could be considered as brave, noble and committed to their cause [and even fewer of them actually survived to see out the Civil War] they were all drawn by romanticism and undeniable class loyalty to the royalist cause and most fit the image of the token cavalier.
Of those poets under consideration, William Davenant [syphilitic, lost nose] and John Suckling [syphilitic, retained nose] receive the most attention but Henry Jermyn, Thomas Carew, James Howell, Robert Herrick and Endymion Porter also feature prominently. Despite having been largely forgotten by history, these men were interesting and infuriating characters. They wrote noble words but very rarely followed through with noble deeds. Though often occupied with pleasure-seeking, fortune hunting and intrigue, each of these poets had access to powerful relations, rich patrons and famous faces at court and so they were able to witness the political chicanery that led to one of the most destructive episodes in English history. Stubbs uses the lives and works of his selected poets to portray the human face of the royalist cause.
Through Davenant, Sucking and co., Stubbs introduces some of the more famous characters from this turbulent period in history: King James ponders and prefers caution when dealing with European neighbours; Charles I and the Duke of Buckingham undertake a quixotic journey to Madrid to woo the Spanish Infanta; the Swedish King Gustavus demonstrates short-lived military prowess; van Dyck paints portraits of the royal children; and Prince Rupert leads his celebrated cavalry charge. There are plenty of other important characters who do not always receive as much discussion as they seem to merit. Still, it is amazing to witness the extent to which the lives and careers of a group of now fairly obscure poets intersected with the memorable figures and events from the Civil War period.
With Reprobates John Stubbs has succeeded in illuminating a literary movement, the central figures of which helped, however ineptly, to shape the fortunes of a nation. While the Civil War itself is only a relatively minor event in the course of the book, Reprobates offers a unique approach to the social and political history of a tumultuous period in English history and as such is a very interesting and informative read.
on 25 March 2011
What an interesting perspective to take, that of the Cavalier. Previously I had thought the term only to be derogative but now, I understand people had a pride in the characteristics which comprise the persona. A uniquely personalised version of the civil war period in which vignettes bring to life great literary people as they walk and talk amongst other notables. The writing style took a few pages to accustom to, perhaps somewhat verbose and 'coloured' and, dare I say cryptic in places. That soon passes and the feel of the period emerges from the pages.
I have studied the E.C.W. period for more than thirty years but this book has surprised me more than once.
Whilst I am aware of the English Civil War, I have to say that I only really know the key points of the battles between the Cromwell's Roundheads and Charles' Cavaliers. So when I found out about this title from Penguin I jumped at the chance to get to hear about the events that not only lead up to the war, but also to get to know the key players and characters of both sides.
John Stubbs brings to the table not only beautifully researched as well as concise history of the time period, but he does it in such as a way as to grab the reader's attention bringing it together with memorable points that will allow you to get to remember facts long after you've put the title down. It's fascinating, the characters a true wonder of their age and when get the opportunity to bond with the past, a great many lessons can be learned.
All in, this title is one that I really enjoyed and is one that I'll be recommending to others who want to conduct a bit more research, especially with the forthcoming titles to do with the Civil War such as Giles Kristian's The Bleeding Land.
on 13 November 2011
A fascinating book. Stubbs looks at the period from before the Civil War, through the conflict and Commonwealth to well into the Restoration. His focus is a series of cavaliers - the `reprobates' of the title. He is well read, learned, and able to explain his insights, often with a pithy and well-chosen phrase. Stubbs' book has taught me much. My understanding of the period's history and the literature are superior now, after reading Reprobates than before.
Curiously, by its end I was relieved to be finishing this book. What's the problem? Firstly, too often Stubbs writes poorly. The prose in many passages is clotted and stodgy. His register is absurdly high for a book of this type, which is a shame because the choice of language eventually causes a sense of distance between the reader and the subject matter rather than a well-adjusted register giving verve, immediacy and a feeling of rapport. The reader feels like an onlooker rather than a participant.
Secondly, the book is far, far too long. Stubbs' digressions run into the many hundreds, and detract from the central thrust of the argument. A shorter book would surely have been more linear in its story telling, and thereby given the reader a superior grasp of the actual subject matter.
And, thirdly, Stubbs falls into the trap of telling us how clever he is. A truly clever writer lets the logic of the prose speak for itself.
It's all a great pity because the book is good, well researched and relates some excellent stories.
on 11 January 2015
..I do. I really do. What this book brought home to me more than my general interest in the intellectual framework of the 17th century was how everyone was a poet. You don't just work for the King you make his bed and write poetry. How cool would that be?
Davenance(?) is the hero of the book for his strange nose and awful poetry and boastful claims. It is also clear that the 17th century was a more overtly misogynistic time than the 21st...overtly. I love the story of two men fighting over a woman with no recourse as to her feelings or thoughts. Romantic poetry it seems had a narrow lens.
on 5 April 2011
I thoroughly enjoyed this examination of the cavalier culture and its chief exponents before, during and after the Civil War. The author strikes a perfect balance between serious historical and literary study and the exploration of arcane byways and side alleys. Both entertaining and highly informative.
on 15 October 2015
an illuminating and witty insight into the minds of the poets between Shakespeare and Milton and showing the reasons their poetry has by and large been forgotten or ignored