Cavalier poets

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cavaliers. Nickname for the royalists who fought for Charles I during the civil wars. Like ‘roundhead’, ‘cavalier’ originated as a term of abuse. Stemming from the Spanish word caballero, it was meant to connote catholicism, foreignness, and immorality. The word was current by the summer of 1642, and referred to the disorganized and untrustworthy men who had backed the king in the Bishops' wars (1639–40) and the army plots of 1641. Dissolute and turbulent individuals such as George, Lord Goring, and ruthless and brutal soldiers of fortune such as Prince Rupert, lent some plausibility to this caricature of the king's supporters. Parliamentary propagandists accordingly disseminated an image of the typical cavalier as a rakish individual consumed by the pursuit of illicit pleasure and personal gain, a man devoid of moral principles.

Rather than reject the nickname, the royalists redefined it for their own purposes. They saw themselves as well-born and -bred men who out of loyalty and conscience had chosen to defend their king. They stood for the old English tradition of gentility and valour at arms. Politically they asserted that Charles I, as supreme governor of the church, was God's anointed deputy. To defy him therefore was rebellion against God. Recent research has determined that, rather than being footloose young bachelors, most royalist officers were respectable married gentlemen. What bound them together was the principle of unconditional loyalty to the person of the king, whether or not they agreed with his particular words or actions. Combining contempt for the lower classes with a loathing for rebellion, many of them made enormous material sacrifices for their cause, in addition to hazarding their lives. Apart from a dislike for the Irish, they harboured little antagonism towards Roman catholics, many of whom supported the king as the lesser of two evils. The statement of Sir Beville Grenville prior to the outbreak of the Civil War sums up the simplicity and the curious pessimism of the royalist creed: ‘The [king's] cause must make all those that die in it little inferior to martyrs. And for mine own part I desire to acquire an honest name or an honourable grave.’

Ian Gentles

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Cavalier poets, a group of English poets associated with Charles I and his exiled son. Most of their work was done between c.1637 and 1660. Their poetry embodied the life and culture of upper-class, pre-Commonwealth England, mixing sophistication with naïveté, elegance with raciness. Writing on the courtly themes of beauty, love, and loyalty, they produced finely finished verses, expressed with wit and directness. The poetry reveals their indebtedness to both Ben Jonson and John Donne. The leading Cavalier poets were Robert Herrick, Richard Lovelace, Sir John Suckling, and Thomas Carew.