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I’d Rather Be a Roundhead Than a Cavalier

To debate both the historical and present-day significance of this divide, Intelligence Squared brought together two acclaimed historians: Charles Spencer to defend the Roundhead cause, and Anna Whitelock to make the case for the Cavaliers.

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?



Jonathan Freedland

Guardian columnist, author and broadcaster

Guardian columnist and former foreign correspondent. He is the presenter of BBC Radio 4’s contemporary history series, The Long View, as well as two podcasts, Politics Weekly America for the Guardian and Unholy, alongside the Israeli journalist Yonit Levi. He is a past winner of an Orwell Prize for journalism. He is the author of twelve books, the latest being The Escape Artist: The Man Who Broke Out of Auschwitz to Warn the World.

Anna Lisa Whitelock

Historian, author and broadcaster

Historian, author and broadcaster. She is a Reader in Early Modern History at Royal Holloway, University of London, and regularly appears in the media to talk about monarchy, royal bodies and other aspects of political and social history. She is the author of Elizabeth’s Bedfellows: An Intimate History of the Queen’s Court and Mary Tudor: England’s First Queen.

Charles Spencer

Historian and author

Author of four books, including the Sunday Times bestseller Blenheim: The Battle for Europe (shortlisted for History Book of the Year, National Book Awards) and Prince Rupert: The Last Cavalier. His latest book is The Killers of the King: The Men Who Dared to Execute Charles I which tells the stories of the men who signed Charles I’s death warrant.