The English Civil War and Literary Battle Lines

Introducing Literary Criticism A Graphic - Owen Holland 2015

The English Civil War and Literary Battle Lines

As well as the literary dispute between “ancients” and “moderns”, the 17th century was punctuated by the small matter of the English Civil War (1642—51), between Royalists (Cavaliers), who supported King Charles I, and Parliamentarians (Roundheads), some of whom advocated a constitutional monarchy and others a republic.


Down with the King!

Treason! You round-headed dog!

Notable literary figures played an active role in both sides of the revolution. Writing polemical tracts for the Parliamentarians, John Milton (1608—74) defended the legitimacy of the people’s right to execute a guilty sovereign in The Tenure of Kings and Magistrates (1649) and Eikonoklastes (1649).

The loyalties of Andrew Marvell (1621—78) were more divided, as is suggested in “An Horatian Ode upon Cromwell’s Return from Ireland” (1650). Some have read the poem as a straightforward encomium, whereas others have pointed to its possible ambivalence.

Marvell wrote that “Much to the Man is due”, but his closing couplet signals ambiguity about the continuing likelihood of social strife unleashed by the beheading of Charles I on the “Tragick Scaffold”:


The same arts that did gain/ A pow’r, must it maintain.

Other poets, including Robert Herrick (1591—1674), Thomas Carew (1595—1640) and Richard Lovelace (1617—57), sided in verse with the Cavaliers, glorifying the crown and satirizing their opponents.


The work of the Roundhead and Cavalier poets, such as myself, stands in stark contrast to Plato’s argument …

Poets should play no part in the construction of an ideal commonwealth.

It is notable, though, that during the years of Oliver Cromwell’s Protectorate, after the war, there was a revival of puritan anti-poetry ideas, partly in revolt against the refined literary culture of Charles I’s court, deemed by the Roundheads to be frivolous and morally questionable.

The Cavalier poets responded with witty satires against the Roundheads. Satire remained an important political weapon after the Restoration (the period after the Protectorate in which the monarchy was restored), as seen in Hudibras by Samuel Butler (1613—80). Butler’s mock epic narrative poem was published in three parts in 1663, 1664 and 1678.


It satirizes the puritanical zeal of the Roundheads in the Civil War by centring on the adventures of the pompous, roving knight, Sir Hudibras.