The Cavalier myth generally suggests that after the king was defeated, Royalists flocked to a sympathetic Virginia, helping to create and solidify a distinctive culture based on gentility and an unwavering social order. But most of the English people who immigrated to Virginia in the seventeenth century were not actually from so-called Cavalier families—they were indentured servants or so-called middling folk. What's more, relatively few of the Virginia elite were the king's supporters, even in England.
Religion also was a factor in Virginia's transformation into a perceived Royalist stronghold. Most Virginia planters belonged to the Church of England and regarded Puritans, who held the same religious beliefs as many Parliamentarians, including Oliver Cromwell, as responsible for the war that threatened their king and undermined their security. In 1642 the General Assembly passed legislation requiring all ministers in Virginia to conform to the Church of England and granting Berkeley the right to expel any dissenters. The legislation firmed up the alliance with the Royalist, anti-Puritan cause and gave rise to the characterization of the Virginia Cavalier as one who displayed fealty to the Crown and adhered to the doctrine of the Church of England.
The Gentleman Adventurer
The Virginia militia statute required strict observance of military rank during drilling exercises; as a reward, the county-lieutenant would often give the men generous amounts of alcohol, prompting some contemporary observers to deride the muster as an undisciplined excuse to get drunk. Isaac does not underestimate this aspect of the muster, however, claiming that the militia provided "an important means of formalizing authority in society and assemblies at which the male fraternity of warriors might get drunk together." The combination of military ritual and socialized intoxication merged typical Cavalier attributes such as horsemanship, militarism, rank, honor, and obligation with the archetype's less appealing qualities: carelessness, offhandedness, arrogance, and decadence.
The Revolutionary Period
The Nineteenth Century and the Creation of the Cavalier Myth
Early exhibiters of the Cavalier ideal in literature include William Wirt and John Davis, who attached attributes of the Cavalier to Virginia's English founders, writing of the Jamestown settlement in highly nostalgic prose. In the 1820s and 1830s George Tucker and John Pendleton Kennedy—neither one a Virginia native—wrote of the Cavalier tradition in partially realistic terms, free from the factional treatment that some authors would assign the archetype in the middle and later part of the century. Tucker's Valley of the Shenandoah(1824) and Kennedy's Swallow Barn (1832) do not gloss over the economic decline of the plantation system or the institution of slavery, but they still reveal an admiration of old Virginia, romanticizing the diminishing culture to present, in Kennedy's own words, "an example of plantation life at its best."
Caruthers's novel The Cavaliers of Virginia (1834–1835) takes place largely during Bacon's Rebellion (1676–1677). Caruthers paints Nathaniel Bacon as a dashing hero who carries attributes of the Cavalier—though the antagonist, Robert Beverly, is also guided by a code of honor instilled in him by traditional Virginia culture. Caruthers's last novel, The Knights of the Horse-Shoe(1845), uses Spotswood's 1716 expedition as the basis for a story in which, as the literary critic Watson states, "the Cavalier figure almost completely dominates." Caruthers portrays Spotswood as a pro-expansionist visionary who takes on Arthurian qualities as he leads his knights against treacherous adversaries, proclaiming, "Just as sure as the sun shines to-morrow … I will lead an expedition over yonder blue mountains, and I will triumph over the French—the Indians, and the Devil, if he chooses to join forces with them." At the end of the expedition, Caruthers's Spotswood charges his fellow adventurers to carry golden horseshoes to King George I so the monarch will recognize them as "part of the chivalry of the empire—of that glorious band of knights and gentlemen who surround the throne like a bulwark." This passage, which directly references the Knights of the Round Table, requisitions medieval mythology and incorporates it into a historical event, creating a hybridized, regionalized myth that strengthens the Cavaliers' tie to their Anglican past.
The Civil War and the Lost Cause
Johnston's Civil War novels do, however, represent an end to the period of the Cavalier myth as realism in literature. In The Long Roll (1911) and Cease Firing (1912), Johnston combines the details of modern warfare with the chivalric code, a code that manages to survive despite the described horrors of the modern battlefield. Her work marks the beginning of a period in which authors and readers were able to create and explore depictions of their pasts with more accuracy and less embellishment.
The Cavalier in Contemporary Virginia
A predominating history of Virginia based on the ruling class privileges a certain segment of the population over several other equally important groups and disregards the development of slavery under an ethos supposedly meant to uphold standards of honor and benevolence. Cavalier historicism also appears to discount or marginalize the hundreds of thousands of people who immigrated to Virginia throughout the colonial period and worked as indentured servants or tradesmen. Until the middle of the twentieth century historians employed the Cavalier myth in their narrative to emphasize the importance of the ruling class, but this trend has reversed in the past sixty years. Many modern historians now realize that there are more layers to uncover in the social and cultural history of Virginia.
Cite This Entry
- APA Citation:
Michie, I. The Virginia Cavalier. (2019, April 29). In Encyclopedia Virginia. Retrieved from http://www.EncyclopediaVirginia.org/The_Virginia_Cavalier.
- MLA Citation:
Michie, Ian. "The Virginia Cavalier." Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, 29 Apr. 2019. Web. READ_DATE.
First published: April 29, 2019 | Last modified: April 29, 2019