Cavaliers in the English Civil War

Written by frank b. chavez iii
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Cavaliers in the English Civil War
The English Civil War ended with the death of King Charles I. (Photos.com/Photos.com/Getty Images)

In 1642, antagonism between England's king, Charles I, and Parliament broke down into civil war. Each side gave the other a derogatory nickname. The royalists called the parliamentarians "Roundheads," while the parliamentarians called the royalists "Cavaliers." The royalists embraced this term as a symbol of their breeding and loyalty.

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Charles I

King Charles I antagonised Parliament in many ways. Many Puritans feared he would take away his people's rights and return Protestant England to the Roman Catholic Church. He had even married a French Roman Catholic. He imposed many controversial taxes, tried ruling without Parliament's input and frequently persecuted his political foes. In 1639, he tried imposing a new prayer book on Scotland. The Scots rebelled in a pair of wars called the Bishops' Wars. When Charles I sought financial aid for raising an army, Parliament demanded fundamental changes to the way he ruled. He responded by dissolving Parliament. Between 1640 and 1641, the new Parliament dismantled many of the King's policies and arrested or drove out many of his government ministers. By the summer of 1642 the royalists and the parliamentarians were arming for war.

Origin of "Cavalier"

The parliamentarians derived "cavalier" from the Spanish "caballero," meaning "horseman." As an insult it was meant as a reference to foreignness, Catholicism and immoral behaviour. It originally referred to the untrustworthy men who fought for Charles I during the Bishops' Wars. The parliamentarians stereotyped the cavaliers as greedy men obsessed with worldly pleasures and personal gain. Their examples of cavaliers included the brutal mercenary Prince Rupert and the ambitious royalist military commander George Goring.

The Cavaliers

The Cavaliers were predominantly noblemen and wealthy landowners. They claimed the nickname as a description of their highborn status, gentility and valour. They felt people should remain loyal to the king regardless of whether they supported his words or deeds. They also believed that as the head of the Church of England, the king was God's deputy and that rebelling against him was really the same as rebelling against God. Contrary to the stereotype, the majority of cavalier leaders were respectable married gentlemen, not greedy brutes. Some, such as Sir Bevil Grenville, considered dying for the king's cause a form of martyrdom.

The War

The Cavaliers and Roundheads faced each other in many battles. On October 23, 1642, the battle of Edgehill ended in a draw, and Charles I retreated to Oxford, which became his wartime capital. Throughout 1643, the Cavaliers made several unsuccessful attempts at taking back London. Those battles are primarily remembered for the rise of the Parliamentarian leader Oliver Cromwell. In 1643, the Parliamentarians formed an alliance with Scotland. Aided by the Scots, the Roundheads defeated the Cavaliers at Marston Moor in July 1644. Under Cromwell, the Roundheads won a decisive victory at Naseby in June 1645. In June 1646, Oxford surrendered, but Charles I escaped and sought the protection of the Scots. In 1647, the Scots handed Charles I over to Parliament. After a second brief war, Charles I was beheaded on January 30, 1649.

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