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Adrian Tinniswood
Reprobates: The Cavaliers of the English Civil War
By John Stubbs (Viking 549pp £25)
Davenant: the Noes have it

When I was an Eng Lit student back in the early 1970s, a time when deconstruction wasn't a proper word and everyone thought critical theory had something to do with physics, any attempt to mix history and literature was regarded with deep suspicion. Mightn't it help our reading of 'Easter 1916' if we knew a bit about the rising itself, we asked tentatively? No, said our teachers: that would 'lead us away from the poem'. Then didn't Yeats help to explain Irish history? No: literary sources were unreliable. In any case, we weren't there to study history. We were there to study 'the Text'.

No matter what the work was or who produced it, that text existed in its own sealed world. Literature fed on itself, and external narratives, whether they involved Tudor politics or Wilfred Owen's war or Thomas Hardy's Dorset, were off the menu.

John Stubbs's excellent Reprobates: The Cavaliers of the English Civil War is an example of how much we lost by that puritanical approach; or more accurately, how much can be gained from blurring the boundaries between disciplines. Part literary biography, part social and political history, with a dollop of incisive lit crit thrown in, Reprobates offers a fresh perspective on mid-seventeenth-century royalism. Text and context inform each other, and both are the richer for it.

But be warned. Reprobates has one of the most misleading subtitles I've met with in recent years. The English Civil War has little more than a walk-on part - Charles I doesn't raise his standard at Nottingham until page 325, and he's already lost his head by the end of the next chapter. And the book is not really about cavaliers.

Sure, royalist stalwarts like Henry Jermyn, Endymion Porter and the archetypal cavalier Prince Rupert do put in an appearance. But the real focus of Stubbs's book is the cavalier poets, that motley collection of royalist writers who gathered around the aging and irascible Ben Jonson in the late 1620s and 1630s and went on to seek their fortunes at court, simultaneously memorialising and mythologising its decline. The self-styled 'Tribe of Ben' - William Davenant, Thomas Carew, Sir John Suckling and the rest - remain resolutely minor figures, both in literature and in history. Most are remembered for a single poem, like Sir John Denham and 'Cooper's Hill', or even a single line, like Richard Lovelace's 'Stone walls do not a prison make' or Robert Herrick's 'Gather ye rosebuds while ye may'. Some aren't even remembered for that. Can you recall anything Suckling wrote?

As you'd expect, they're great supporters of Stuart orthodoxies. Davenant salutes Charles I as 'the glory of the western world'. Herrick offers a succinct statement of the divine right of kings: ''Twixt Kings and Subjects ther's this mighty odds,/Subjects are taught by Men; Kings by the Gods.' The royalists' yearning for a landscape secured by old certainties finds elegant expression in 'Cooper's Hill'; and their militancy is neatly summed up by Suckling when he asks if, when the honour of the nation hangs in the balance, 'we should not draw our Swords,/Why were we ever taught to weare 'em, Sir?'

Alongside the fierce loyalism, which Stubbs rightly stresses, there exists an almost adolescent immaturity: in the fin-de-siècle eroticism of Herrick's poems to Julia (a relationship which involved no tongues - 'I abhor a slimie kiss'); and the laddishness of Suckling's lines commemorating Carew's latest brush with the clap: 'Troth, Tom, I must confess I much admire/Thy water should find passage through the fire'.

They're an endearing bunch, though - always broke, always on the fringe of things, always promising the grand gesture and rarely carrying it through. As a young man, Davenant wrote to the Privy Council with a wild offer to blow up the French arsenal at Dunkirk in revenge for the English defeat at Ré the previous year. 'I shall performe this service, though with the losse of my life', he vowed. But he didn't. Suckling, described by Aubrey as 'the greatest gallant of his time', was mocked all over town after a rival in love thrashed him in public. When Suckling tried to get his own back a few weeks later with the decidedly ungallant help of a dozen hired thugs, the same rival put up such a spirited defence that the greatest gallant of his time jumped in his coach and fled. He was mocked some more.

Under Stubbs's affectionate but forensic gaze these reprobates seem like figures of fun in a Restoration comedy rather than the heroes they so clearly believed themselves to be (he makes the telling point that their successors, rakes like Buckingham and Rochester, were altogether more deadly and more dissolute). They prospered - although rarely to the extent of being able to pay their tailors' bills - during the 1630s, and few actually fought in the civil war. Carew was dead by the time it started, having been racked with syphilis and remorse; so was poor old Suckling, who committed suicide in 1641 after an abortive attempt to live up to his self-image by storming the Tower and freeing the Earl of Strafford. Lovelace was, according to his friend Thomas Stanley, 'during our civil wars confin'd to peace'; while Herrick, already middle-aged, kept his head down in his Devon vicarage until he was ejected from his living in 1646. Only Denham - 'the most dreamingst young fellow' - and Davenant saw active service.

Davenant has a starring role in Reprobates. Born in 1606, he was Shakespeare's godson, although in later life he often hinted darkly at a closer relationship. While in his twenties he won fame for the court masques he wrote in collaboration with Inigo Jones, and lost his nose to syphilis and the quicksilver used to treat it. (In 1650, when he was facing a treason trial for a plot to export the royalist cause to the Americas, the Commons voted against proceeding with the case. 'Some Gentlemen, out of pitty, were pleased to let him have the Noes of the House, because he had none of his own.' My, how we laughed.) By the time he dropped dead at his own theatre one spring evening in 1668, Davenant had succeeded Jonson as poet laureate, fought for the king and been knighted for his 'loyalty and poetry', written a string of successful masques, acted as a secret agent for Henrietta Maria during her exile in France, staged the first English opera, and, in a mid-life career change, become a successful theatrical manager and masterminded a renaissance in English drama. His fascinating story weaves its way so artfully through the pages of Reprobates that the book sometimes reads like a biography of the Noseless One with an unusually large cast of extras.

But Reprobates is more than a paean to a half-forgotten poet and his friends' fondness for tilting at windmills. With considerable skill and insight Stubbs brings to life an age, a literary movement and, for all their many faults, a group of individuals whose commitment to the king's cause helped to shape the history of England.

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Adrian Tinniswood's latest book, Pirates of Barbary, is published in paperback by Vintage in March.