Roundheads and Cavaliers: where did the Civil War nicknames come from?
Professor Mark Stoyle explains the history behind two nicknames that came to represent the royalists (Cavaliers) and the Parliamentarians (Roundheads) during the Civil War…
The terms aren’t modern and actually first spring up – in the context of the Civil War – in London, in late 1642/early 1643. Certainly, in the propaganda of the time, you can see images of long-haired, foppish Cavaliers pitted against sober-looking, shorthaired parliamentarians.
The word ‘Cavalier’ actually comes from the Spanish word ‘caballero’ (gentleman) and it had connotations of foreignness, of being a trooper or an armed horseman. And it was also tied up with images of gentility. So it became a very handy propagandist tool for the parliamentarians, because once you start to call people Cavaliers, you invoke the idea of snobbish aristocrats who are looking down on ordinary people.
The word Cavalier also conjures up images of violent foreigners, particularly those associated with Spain, which was a country hated by Protestant men and women at the time and which was viewed as the heartland of European Catholicism. And, of course, there’s also the other meaning of the word cavalier: of being reckless, high-handed, swaggering, drinking and so on – the antithesis, if you like, of the stout Protestant English man or woman.
The origin of the word ‘Roundhead’ is a little harder to trace and doesn’t have any obvious roots in other words. The classic explanation is that it reflected the short hair of the London apprentices who were very prominent in their support of Parliament at the beginning of the Civil War. Another possible explanation, which I’ve always been interested in, is that, before the Civil War, if you were seditious and opposed the government, particularly in religious terms, you could have your ears lopped off as a form of punishment. There is one rather gruesome example of a man who had already had his ears cut down once to the stumps, but then had the remaining stumps cut off for the same crime!
- Read more | 10 key battles of the Civil War
I do sometimes wonder if the term Roundhead was almost created as a nasty joke – to invoke the image of seditious, Puritanical individuals who had had their ears cropped as a result of their hostility to the established church.
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You can listen to the full interview with Mark Stoyle on our Everything You Wanted To Know About podcast episode
Did Roundheads and Cavaliers really dress so differently?
In a word, no. The idea of gaily dressed Cavaliers in plumed hats doing battle with helmeted Roundheads is a Victorian misconception.
Armies in the Civil War of 1642–51 were dressed in exactly the same way and any cavalryman, Roundhead or Cavalier, offered the opportunity of wearing a helmet, breastplate and thick leather coat would have jumped at the chance.
Until the establishment of Parliament’s New Model Army whose soldiers were uniformly clothed in red, infantry regiments were clothed in whatever colour uniform their colonels chose for them. As a result there were regiments on both sides wearing the same colour coats – red, blue, green and white- and this could lead to considerable confusion on the battlefield.
The armies tried to get round this in a variety of ways. Cavalrymen were given coloured scarves or sashes to wear. These were normally red for the Royalists, tawny orange for the Parliamentarians. An army might adopt a ‘field sign’ to distinguish its soldiers – maybe a bit of greenery stuck in the hat – and was usually given a ‘field word’ – a simple phrase to shout out as a kind of password.
Obviously field words were hardly secret, field signs could be swiftly removed (the Parliamentarian general Sir Thomas Fairfax avoided capture by doing this at the battle of Marston Moor) and at the battle of Cheriton in 1644 both sides took to the field with something white in their hats as a field sign and shouting out ‘God with us’ as a field word!
Mark Stoyle is professor of history at Southampton University. His books include A Murderous Midsummer: The Western Rising of 1549
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