Reprobates: The Cavaliers of the English Civil War

Mark Stoyle finds that an otherwise interesting survey of 17th-century notables promises more than it delivers on the English Civil War

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Reviewed by: Mark Stoyle
Author: John Stubbs
Publisher: Viking
Price (RRP): £25

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Anyone expecting John Stubbs’s new book to provide a general history of the royalist party during the civil conflict of 1642–46 will be sorely disappointed.

What Stubbs offers, instead, is a loosely connected account of the lives and times of a series of more or less literary gents (many of whom, but by no means all, would serve King Charles I in various capacities during the Civil War) from the reign of James I to the Restoration and beyond.

The cast list is a dazzling one. At different times, such celebrated figures as John Aubrey, Thomas Carew, Sir William Davenant, Robert Herrick, Inigo Jones, Ben Jonson, Endymion Porter, Sir John Suckling and George Villiers, Duke of Buckingham, take centre stage, while dozens of other players are introduced more fleetingly.

The author’s fondness for taking up characters and then dropping them again – sometimes to reintroduce them, sometimes not – means that the reader has to work quite hard to keep up with who is who, and to discern why (or, indeed, if) the individuals being discussed are relevant to the story in hand.

John Milton and the fanatical Scottish Presbyterian Archibald Johnston of Wariston, both of whose lives and writings Stubbs considers at some length, surely find themselves in rather strange company here. And, while Stubbs’s treatment of Johnston, in particular, is poignant and affecting, it is not entirely clear how his account of these two men helps to advance our understanding of ‘the Cavaliers’.

If Stubbs’s book has a central figure, it is the poet Sir John Suckling, “the greatest gallant” of the prewar Caroline court, who is best known to posterity for having supplied Charles I with a splendidly attired troop of cavalry to fight the Scots in advance of the abortive First Bishops’ War of 1639.

Stubbs provides a vivid portrait of Suckling and of the often distinctly rackety circles in which he moved, tracing the poet’s progress from the “halcyon days” of the 1630s to the altogether darker ones of 1641, when – following Suckling’s involvement in an abortive plot against the king’s opponents in parliament – the term ‘Sucklingtons’ was coined in order to denote the nascent proto-royalist faction.

Having fled from England soon afterwards, Suckling died in Paris during the summer of 1641. It has to be said that, with his death, Stubbs’s narrative loses something of its fizz.

The final third of the book – rather ironically, the section which deals with the Civil War itself – is the least successful and, while the writer William Davenant is now promoted
to replace Suckling as the central connecting figure, he does not fulfil this role quite so well. Instead, it is Stubbs’s discussion of the Wiltshire antiquary, John Aubrey, which most compels the reader’s attention here.

Stubbs is generous in his praise of Aubrey, noting that “we have his persistence to thank for preserving much of what we know about many of the people assembled in this book”.

Indeed it might not be going too far to describe Reprobates as, in some respects, an homage to Aubrey’s Brief Lives, as a work which – like that superlative collection – provides its readers with a scatter of striking snapshots of some of the most mercurial and talented figures to have swirled around the early Stuart court. 

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Mark Stoyle is professor of early modern history, University of Southampton