Wednesday 16 May 2012

Roundhead or Cavalier (or a bit of both)?

I imagine serious historians must tear their hair out at programmes like Roundhead or Cavalier: Which One Are You? which was on BBC 4 last night (though I noticed quite a few of them among the contributors: they must have been reading this). Me, I gave up a couple of minutes in, when the presenter described Cromwell as an ‘egalitarian’. From the little I saw, the programme committed the cardinal sin of history documentaries: reading modern debates and divisions back into an era utterly unlike our own.

Nevertheless, the parlour-game format around which the programme was built – where can we see the ‘two tribes’ of Roundhead and Cavalier in contemporary Britain, and which one do you belong to? – is a bit of harmless fun. The trouble is, speaking for myself, it’s not a question I find easy to answer – not any more, anyway. Once, in my far-off youth, it was all so much simpler. Brought up a Methodist, with early stirrings of socialist sympathies, I was an instinctive Roundhead. As a child, ‘Oliver Cromwell’ was probably my favourite in the Ladbybird history series: I felt a natural sympathy for the spiritual simplicity, the political reformism, even the clean, proto-modern lines of the uniforms, clothes, hairstyles. As for the Cavaliers, they were so obviously everything we aspiring-working-class Nonconformists were against: hierarchy, pomp, ritualism, tradition.

But then, as I grew older, it became more complicated. In my early twenties, I had a short-lived flirtation with Catholicism. That’s to say, I converted, but lapsed soon afterwards, though I retained strong residual sympathies in that direction, and if I were ever to become a practising Christian again, I can’t imagine belonging to any other denomination. I was inspired by the Catholic Worker movement and the liberation theologians of Latin America, and my conversion fractured the connection within me between Protestantism and political radicalism. (It helped that evangelical protestants, the modern-day heirs of seventeenth-century Puritanism, tended to align themselves with the political right). Left-wing Catholicism offered me a way of being traditionalist and sacramentalist in religion, while supporting social justice on the political level.

Complicating things still further, my researches in family history led to the discovery that my father’s forebears had been Aberdeenshire Episcopalians who (so family tradition had it) fought for the Bonnie Prince in the ’45: indeed, my great-great-great-grandfather bore the name Charles Edward Stuart Robb in his memory. As a result, I became fascinated by the Jacobites and by extension the Stuarts: their cause seemed far more glamorous than that of their dour Presbyterian opponents, with their grim sabbatarianism and censorious kirk sessions (before which some of my ancestors were apparently hauled for various offences against purity and sobriety).

My theological and genealogical sympathies have also inspired some recent revisionist historical reading, from which I’ve learned, inter alia, that it was the Catholic Mary Stuart who tried to introduce a degree of religious tolerance to Scotland, only to be thwarted by the fanatically Calvinist and misogynist John Knox, just as it was her great grandson James II, who, for all his autocratic ways, wanted to extend religious rights to both Catholics and Dissenters, a policy that in part prompted the so-called Glorious Revolution – supposedly the foundational moment of modern liberal democracy, but from another perspective a coup by the Protestant elite. As for Charles II, he was just a lot more fun than his predecessor Cromwell: I enjoyed reading Jenny Uglow's biography, especially the unforgettable image of Charles and James rolling up their sleeves to help put out the Great Fire.

Then, last year, I read Michael Braddick’s superb revisionist account of the English Civil War, a period I’d never really studied properly before. Braddick sees the various internecine wars of the seventeenth century in these islands, not so much as the beginnings of English political radicalism, but as a continuation of the religious conflict sparked by Henry VIII’s rupture with Rome in the previous century. I found the book revealing about the religious as well as the political beliefs of those who rebelled against Charles I. I don’t think I’d realized before quite how important Calvinism was to the religious outlook of the Puritans: rather than simplicity of worship and equal access to the scriptures being their prime motivation, as the Whig version of history taught us to believe, it was their core belief in the doctrine of predestination - in the divine election for salvation of a chosen few (and therefore the uselessness of human ‘works’) - that galvanised their opposition to Church and King. Far from the Puritans being egalitarians or proto-democrats, this was about the most elitist worldview imaginable, not to mention one that tended towards a strident paternalism, a knowing-what’s-best for the unsaved and unwashed.

For all of Charles I’s many faults and missteps, Braddick’s book showed the battle for legitimacy between crown and parliament as much more finely balanced  than I remembered. And the victory of the parliamentary cause seemed, in the end, more like a military coup than a democratic revolution. In recent years, there has been a tendency to confer retrospective secular sainthood on groups like the Levellers and to throw an ahistorical social-democratic patina over the Roundheads generally. But reading Braddick’s history, Cromwell seemed more like Lenin or Mao than Attlee or Bevan. As for the New Model Army, seeking to impose their theocratic will by force of arms and (when in power) banning Christmas, closing down theatres and imposing strict dress codes, one was reminded less of the dear old Labour Party than of the Taliban or the Iranian Revolutionary Guard.

And if you want to see what happened when the Puritans got a chance to found their own God-bothering commonwealth, just think of New England later in the seventeenth century: the memory of what happened at Salem is a useful corrective to any notion that they foreshadowed modern egalitarian tolerance. Nearer to home, the three words ‘Cromwell in Ireland’ should be enough to undermine any simple notion of a great democratic liberator.

It goes to show that you shouldn’t try to interpret past conflicts in terms of modern categories. ‘Roundhead’ and ‘Cavalier’ aren’t timeless universals, but labels with very particular meanings in a very different historical context. The same goes for ‘Tory’ and ‘Whig’ in the next century, labels which are easily misconstrued in terms of today’s Conservative-Labour divisions, when in fact (for example) Tories began as supporters of the insurrectionist Jacobite Pretender, while the original Whigs were those dour and paternalist Presbyterians again.

Two more points. What if, rather than representing two persistent ‘tribes’ of Britons, the Cavaliers and Roundheads reflect two complementary aspects of the British spiritual and political psyche that were unnaturally split apart some time in the sixteenth century (the Reformation having a lot to do with it)? And what if, rather than representing a cleavage in society, these labels reflect a fault-line that runs through each of us? After all, it was said of Robbie Burns that he was both Jacobin and Jacobite, a paradoxical position that sounds impossible to sustain, but one with which I have an instinctive sympathy. What if there’s both a bit of the Roundhead and a bit of the Cavalier in anyone with any kind of sympathetic imagination, and the struggle isn’t to decide which one you are, or to defeat one or the other, but to reconcile the warring tendencies within oneself...?


jams o donnell said...

I recorded the prog but I don't think I will waste any time with it now.

No Good Boyo said...

Excellent post, Martin. Radio 4 is becoming more like an audio-stream BBC TV every day, with a few honourable exceptions. There was and is a libertarian/authoritarian strand that cut across the Roundhead/Cavalier divide.

I have my own trivial take on it here: