Memoirs of a Cavalier

by Daniel Defoe

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Last Updated on January 11, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1847

First published: 1720

Type of work: Novel

Type of plot: Adventure romance

Time of work: 1630-1648

Locale: England and the Continent

Principal Characters:

The Cavalier, the unidentified second son of a landed family in England

Captain Fielding, the Cavalier’s friend and traveling companion

Sir John Hepburn, the Cavalier’s friend in the Swedish army

Gustavus Adolphus, King of Sweden and Protestant champion in the Thirty Years’ War

Charles I, King of England, served by the Cavalier in the English Civil War

The Story:

The Cavalier, son of a landed gentleman in the county of Salop, was born, according to his own report, in 1608. As a child, he was taught by good tutors; as a young man, he was sent to Oxford University, where he spent three years deciding that he was not interested either in continuing academic life or entering one of the professions—law, the Church, or medicine. His father hoped the young man, who was his favorite son, would settle down near his home. He even agreed to settle an estate worth two thousand pounds per year upon the young man; but the Cavalier, much as he loved his father and appreciated the offer, decided, with his father’s permission, to travel on the Continent.

In 1630, the Cavalier crossed the Channel and began his adventures in life. Fielding, a college friend, went with him. Because of his martial bearing, the friend had been nicknamed the “Captain,” and the name stuck to him. After some minor adventures on the road, the Cavalier and his friend arrived in Paris. Their stay was cut short when the Cavalier killed a man in a sword fight and the two friends left the city hurriedly to escape the authorities. They journeyed to Italy and traveled there for some time, returning later to France to observe how Cardinal Richelieu was administering that country for his king. Again the two Englishmen found themselves in trouble from which they were extricated by the Queen Mother, who gave them a pass that enabled them to travel on to see the fighting between the French forces and those of the Duke of Savoy. Unimpressed in Italy by the antiquities of Rome and by the Italian people, who seemed much degenerated from their Roman ancestors, the Cavalier and his friend traveled northward into central Europe, arriving in Vienna in 1631 and then going on into Bavaria. In Germany, they had a chance to see the fighting between the Protestant Germans, led by the Elector-Duke of Saxony, and the Catholic forces headed by Emperor Ferdinand. One of the dreadful experiences the two Englishmen had was to observe the end of the siege of Magdeburg. The fall of that city was marked by terrible looting, rape, and murder; the city itself was almost completely destroyed and the population reduced to a mere handful from an original population of more than 25,000 souls.

After the fall of Magdeburg to the Catholic forces, the Cavalier and Fielding journeyed on until they encountered the invading army of Gustavus Adolphus, King of Sweden, who had joined the Protestant Germans against Emperor Ferdinand. The Cavalier was quite impressed with the Swedish army and the person of the Swedish King, to whom he was introduced by Colonel Hepburn, a friend of the Cavalier’s father who had taken service in the Swedish army. Fielding joined the Swedish forces, as did the Cavalier after a time, serving first as a gentleman volunteer and later as a commissioned officer. The Cavalier distinguished himself many times in the Swedish service. His father raised a regiment of cavalry and, with the consent of the English king, sent it to Gustavus Adolphus, who made the Cavalier its colonel. In addition to his service as a commander, the Cavalier also became a special attendant to the King and sometimes his emissary. Captured by the Imperial forces shortly before the Battle of Lutzen in which Gustavus Adolphus lost his life, the Cavalier was allowed to continue his travels after he had given his parole.

In 1635, the Cavalier found himself in Holland, where he observed the Dutch army under its famous commander, Prince Maurice, opposing the forces of Spain. Later in the same year, the Cavalier returned to England, where he rested for some months until he was called from his inactivity by Charles I, who asked the Cavalier to enter his service in the campaign against the Scots. Serving as a gentleman volunteer rather than as a commissioned officer, he found the campaigns against the Scots little to his liking; there was little real action, only minor skirmishes, and the war was over religious dissent, a cause in which the Cavalier could see little reason.

At the outbreak of the English Civil War, the Cavalier had little feeling about war from a moral standpoint. He considered himself a professional soldier who did his duty honorably; he did not worry particularly about the causes of war, the countryside that was devastated, or the injuries done to its populace. As the war continued, however, he saw that England as a country was losing, whether victory fell to King Charles or to the Parliamentary forces that opposed the monarchy.

When the Civil War broke out in 1642, the Cavalier was still serving Charles I in the Scottish campaigns. He continued to follow the monarch, although he recognized that the King was ill-prepared to battle for his throne. Rather than take a commission, the Cavalier still fought as a gentleman volunteer in the royal troop of guards. Later, when his father was injured, the Cavalier took the command of the Royalist force that his father had recruited.

Fighting in many of the minor battles of the Civil War, the Cavalier saw most of the action as the armies marched and countermarched, sometimes to do battle, sometimes to escape it. During the great battle at Edgehill, however, the Cavalier realized that he had a greater stake in the war than the interests of a professional soldier. From that time on, he wished that an honorable peace could be arranged between King Charles and Parliament.

During his years of campaigning for the monarchy, the Cavalier had many adventures, but he was fortunate to escape with no serious injury. Even a dangerous mission as a disguised spy turned out well. One effect of the war that angered the Cavalier was the activity of the Scots against King Charles. The Cavalier thought that the Scots had no call to make war on the monarch, who had acceded to all their demands, even to abolishing the episcopacy in favor of the Scots’ native Presbyterianism.

Toward the end of the war, the Cavalier’s father was taken prisoner by Parliamentary forces. The Cavalier offered to take his father’s place, but his father was able to buy his freedom by giving his parole and paying four thousand pounds. A short time later, the Cavalier was cut off from the Royal army. He and a group of companions managed to escape, making their way by sea to Cornwall, where they joined Lord Hopton’s forces. When the King surrendered to the Scots, who later turned him over to the Parliament, Lord Hopton’s troops also surrendered. The Cavalier, like other Royalists, was given the choice of leaving the country or peaceably going home. The Cavalier returned to his home, content that he had served his King, his country, and his honor as best he could. Having given his parole that he would take no further part in the war, he retired from active life.

Critical Evaluation:

The year 1720 was an eventful one in the career of Daniel Defoe, for in that year he published three works: THE MEMOIRS OF A CAVALIER, CAPTAIN SINGLETON, and his SERIOUS REFLECTIONS OF ROBINSON CRUSOE. Like the other book-length narratives by Defoe, THE MEMOIRS OF A CAVALIER did not originally carry the author’s name, a circumstance apparently intended to lend an air of authenticity to his realistic work. Over the years, attempts have been made to prove that Defoe merely edited the memoirs of some real person, but scholars are now in agreement that this book, along with others by Defoe, was his own creation and that he probably had no specific person in mind as the original for his fictional narrator-protagonist. One interesting feature of the novel is that its hero is a member of the upper class, while the usual Defoe hero is taken from the middle or lower classes, groups that Defoe knew at first hand, as he did not know the life of the upper class. The Cavalier who narrates the story is similar to other Defoe creations in that, uninterested in religion as a young man, he is worldly and materialistic. Also noteworthy is the fact that Defoe, a Protestant himself and a Dissenter from Anglicanism, glorifies the Protestant side in the Thirty Years’ War but has little to say for the English Protestants who rebelled against the monarchy and the Anglican Church during the 1640’s.

Defoe has been called the first social historian, and certainly in his many prose fictions he explored the varied levels of the tempestuous society that he knew so well. THE MEMOIRS OF A CAVALIER dealt with a somewhat higher level of society than he usually portrayed in novels such as MOLL FLANDERS (1722) and ROXANA (1724), but here, too, every detail is accurate and true. Defoe’s plain, direct style and accumulation of detail hold the reader’s interest through all of these pseudoautobiographies. Defoe always wrote in the first person; through this device, he could enter into the minds of his heroes and heroines, analyzing their motives for their actions. The men and women he wrote about are all placed in extraordinary circumstances, few more so than the Cavalier, and all struggle through a life that is a constant battle.

The Cavalier engages in actual warfare, is a participant in the making of history, and is caught in the turmoil of the larger world. Nevertheless, like Defoe’s other protagonists, he is essentially a loner. The unnamed Cavalier must stand alone amid the vastness of the concrete realities of the world, so meticulously and exhaustively detailed by the author. This approach to the hero provides the reader with a unique perspective; one feels that the ultimately tragic human condition is represented by the Cavalier and that Defoe’s vision of life as reflected in these pages is essentially bleak.

Defoe’s active life is reflected in THE MEMOIRS OF A CAVALIER. As a writer of government pamphlets and a spy, Defoe traveled and came in contact with many different aspects of society in many parts of Europe. The restlessness that was apparently a vital part of Defoe’s makeup as a man is present everywhere in this “memoir.” The Cavalier, born with status and money, could have settled down to the life of a country squire, but he chose to enter into the violent and ever-changing world of the seventeenth century. Ultimately, he found a kind of peace, but not until he had passed through political and moral trials.

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