In the 1640s England was devastated by a civil war that divided the nation into two tribes – Roundheads and Cavaliers. Counties, towns, even families and friends were rent apart as the nation pledged its allegiance either to King Charles I (supported by the Cavaliers) or to Parliament (backed by the Roundheads). Some 200,000 lives were lost in the desperate conflict which eventually led to the victory of the Roundheads under Oliver Cromwell and the execution of the king in 1649.
The ideas that circulated in that febrile climate 350 years ago have shaped our democracy and also created a cultural divide that still resonates today. The Cavaliers represent pleasure, exuberance and individuality. Countering them are the Roundheads who stand for modesty, discipline and equality.
To debate both the historical and present-day significance of this divide, Intelligence Squared brought together two acclaimed historians: Charles Spencer defended the Roundhead cause (in spite of the fact that his forebear the Ist Baron Spencer fought for the Royalists), and Anna Whitelock made the case for the Cavaliers.
For Earl Spencer the defeat and execution of Charles I mark the beginning of the end of the ‘ridiculous’ concepts of medieval kingship and the birth of constitutional rule that we take for granted today. The Roundheads, he’ll argue, fought for respect for the fundamental rights of man, against the arrogance of Charles I and his belief in the Divine Right of Kings. In Spencer’s opinion this process left the British monarchy in a state that has been broadly palatable over the succeeding centuries.
This would all be compelling stuff if it were entirely true, thinks Anna Whitelock, but to her mind it’s a rather selective polemic. The ‘victory’ of the Roundheads, she’ll point out, was emphatically reversed with the restoration of Charles II in 1660 and one only needs to look to the 1680s when the Crown humbled Parliament to argue that the Roundhead cause did not irrevocably set a course towards constitutional monarchy. Moreover, Whitelock will argue that the Cavaliers have been maligned by history: while largely remembered for their long locks, loose living and doomed royalism, these men and women were in fact remarkable witnesses to their age: freethinking individuals, many of them artists and intellectuals, who maintained their activities in the face of puritan suppression and sobriety.
Which side are you on – Roundhead or Cavalier?