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Who Were the Cavaliers?

Mary McMahon
By
Updated May 23, 2024
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In the English Civil War, the supporters of King Charles I were referred to pejoratively as the “Cavaliers,” a word which carried charged meanings in 17th century England. The Cavaliers generally referred to themselves as “Royalists,” referencing their support for the King of England in his struggle against the Parliamentarians. The term “Cavalier” certainly caught on, and many references to Cavaliers and Roundheads can be heard in discussions of the English Civil War.

The English Civil War was actually a series of wars, not just a single conflict, in the mid-1600s in which the King struggled for power against the Parliament. The Parliamentarians disapproved of the actions of the Monarchy, and they wanted to empower themselves to make better decisions for England. There were three conflicts in all; the Second English Civil War actually ended with the regicide of King Charles I, and the third was sparked by rebellion in Ireland and Scotland before it was ultimately put to a stop by the Parliamentarians.

The Parliamentarians referred to their opponents as Cavaliers in the hopes of belittling their position. The term is derived from the French chevalier, for knight, and it was meant to imply a certain sense of self righteousness and fashion consciousness. The Cavaliers were perceived as reckless supporters of the King, and the term was supposed to suggest carelessness, hard drinking, and impious living. The term was also a reference to a line in Shakespeare, in which cavaliers are implied to be swashbuckling, arrogant individuals.

Ultimately, the Cavaliers started to adopt the term for themselves, trying to turn it into an empowering and honorable title rather than a demeaning one. As contemporary writings suggest, several Cavaliers spoke in eloquent defense of the Royalist position and their lifestyles. They also retaliated with a pejorative of their own: Roundhead, for the simply dressed and plainly styled Puritan Parliamentarians. The term “Roundhead” is said to be a reference to the tightly cropped hairstyles of many Parliamentarians, which were markedly different from the flowing and carefully styled locks of the Cavaliers.

Ultimately, the Cavaliers lost the English Civil War, but they did not chafe under Parliamentary rule for long. A mere 12 years after Oliver Cromwell and his fellow Roundheads founded the Republican Commonwealth, Charles II was brought back from exile and the monarchy was restored. The sense of cavalier as reckless or haughty continues to live on in modern English.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a Historical Index researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By anon1007117 — On Jun 04, 2022

My ancestor was Sir Thomas Lunsford of Sussex. He brought 69 family and associate families of the Cavaliers to Virginia Colony. He had no legitimate male sons, only his illegitimate son from some of his many Cavaliers battles for King Charles I in Scotland and Ireland. He claimed William as his only living son. All the Lunsfords in the US have descended from this one young son of Thomas. My Ancestry DNA confirmed English as my main line, however I have Scottish DNA too! In fact, my beard grows exactly like Sir Thomas Lunsford, a Knight and Cavalier for the King and country.

By anon997323 — On Dec 15, 2016

The religious side of the War has not been discussed here. The Puritans were an arrogant lot who thought they were God's only chosen form of Protestantism. Cromwell had allies in New England -- also Puritans. They wanted to destroy other forms of Protestantism like the Anglicans, and also Catholics. The King was the Head of the Anglican Church, while Cromwell was a Puritan (the Witch Burning type). This same opposition returned with the War of Northern Aggression 1861-1865. Most Confederate leaders were Episcopalian (Anglican), the North was trying to destroy both their wealth and culture. Read the book: "JEB Stuart: The Last Cavalier". The Cavalier still exists in Virginia as Mascot to sporting events and also the Australian Army Headdress.

By anon303438 — On Nov 14, 2012

Did the Cavaliers support reason/scientific movement, or the emotional movement in literature?

By Emilski — On Apr 10, 2012

@titans62 - You are absolutely correct and although the Cavaliers are still not anywhere near as powerful as they were back then they are still around today and refuse to accept the royal lineage that lives in Buckingham Palace.

These people that continue to recognize the royal line of people from Charles are called Jacobites and they are people that believe the line was disrupted during the official end to the English Civil War during the Glorious Revolution in 1689 when William and Mary took over.

I find this to be interesting and they even have their own site that shows what the royal line should be and according to them the king of England right now should be a businessman from the South side of London, that probably does not know that they exist and choose to call him the real king.

By titans62 — On Apr 09, 2012

@Izzy78 - That is a good point, but as the articles states, the Commonwealth of England under Oliver Cromwell only lasted for a mere 12 years. Now it did not end because the Royalists took back power, Cromwell simply died and there was not a strong leader to take his place and continue with the changes that had been made.

That being said England went right back to being a monarchy after only 12 years and it was not until the Glorious Revolution of 1689 that more power was given to Parliament for good. I would say that the English Civil War may have set the wheels in motion for this modern type of governance, but it was not until 40 years later that the changes actually occurred for good.

The Royalists, or Cavaliers still held plenty of power and even fought with the Parliamentarians after Charles I was executed until Cromwell eventually died.

I ultimately see the English Civil War as mere a battle in a long war between monarchy minded people and legislative minded people that took nearly 50 years to end.

By Izzy78 — On Apr 08, 2012

@kentuckycat - That is an excellent question that could warrant a very complex answer. I took a grad school class on the English Civil War and to be totally honest I feel that the Cavaliers, in the way you put it, were merely loyal servants to the crown looking to squash the opposition of Parliament, who was trying to garner more power and diminish the power of the Crown.

However, one needs to realize that these were complex times in history and the idea of democracy and personal rights and liberties was not fully established yet and the thought that a king should have complete and total control was only beginning to be challenged.

In a way the English Civil War was the first modern war, or series of wars, that challenged a king's power and tried to shift it over to a legislative body.

This series of wars created the modern version of a democracy that we know today and it was the radicals, or the Parliamentarians, that we have to thank for that happening.

By kentuckycat — On Apr 08, 2012

I know that the Cavaliers were the supporters of King Charles, but does that mean that they were the ones that had to defend the overthrow of the king or had Charles already been overthrown?

I do not know much about the English Civil War besides a few bits and pieces, and the fact that Charles was ultimately executed in 1649, but I would like to know exactly what the Cavaliers were seen as.

Were the Cavaliers seen as radicals that sought to put a dictator back in power, or were they merely loyal servants to the crown that sought to preserve the medieval monarchy from a legislative body trying to take over control?

By anon147717 — On Jan 30, 2011

This website is amazing! Thank you, This helped me a lot with my history homework! If there is anymore information on the Cavaliers, could you put it on? Thank you.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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