Grokking people: Cavaliers & Roundheads

Almost twelve years ago, when I joined The Economist, a kind and well-meaning colleague pulled me aside for an introduction to our culture. I had naively asked about an internal power struggle that had occurred many years before but involved some people who were still around. “Ah,” said my conversation partner, in a wry British way,

that’s when the Roundheads won the day.

“The what?” I asked.

Another colleague had overheard us and now joined in, closing the door to the hallway.

It doesn’t concern you, Andreas, because you’re not English. But it’s about Roundheads and Cavaliers.

You see, The Economist, being British–indeed English–has these two types within it, and out of this changing mixture comes the cocktail that is our culture.

I think my colleagues were wrong that this only concerns Englishmen. If you read on, I think you’ll agree that there are Roundheads and Cavaliers among, and inside, all of us.

Some historical context

The terms Roundhead and Cavalier go back to the English civil wars in the 1640s.

On one side were the parliamentarians, who wanted to get rid of the king. They were:

  • Puritan
  • angry, dour, outraged, earnest.
  • for Cromwell
  • a tad humorless

They also, at least in the beginning, liked to dress plainly and cut their hair short, which made their heads appear, at least to the other side, “round”. So their opponents called them Roundheads. Here is a good portrait of one:



On the other side were the royalists, who wanted, as the name implies, to keep the king. They were:

  • anything but Puritan, and indeed rather good at indulging
  • rather less good at being outraged, thanks to a certain inbred nonchalance
  • against Cromwell
  • flamboyant in style, and always ready to wink and chuckle at the insanity of it all.

Here is a good portrait of one (by the great Frans Hals):



I think you get the point. I mean, you must get the point. Just look at them.

Fast forward to today

Let’s not dwell on how the king lost his head and all that; these things happen. The reason these terms endured, at least in the English upper class, is that they describe types, and possibly archetypes.

The English brought these types to America. They sent the Roundheads to Massachussetts and the Cavaliers to Virginia. Both strands are still alive in America today. But the Roundheads won. Individual Americans may be one or the other, but American culture as a whole is reliably Roundhead:

  • earnest, literal
  • always ready to be outraged and indignant
  • not naturally given to irony

By contrast, in old England, and at The Economist in particular, the balance has tilted slightly toward the Cavaliers. These are cultures of irony, in which too much outrage and earnestness is, well, unseemly. (And yes, I think that’s why so many American Cavaliers like to read us; their home press makes them feel lonely, we make them feel at home.)

Add: subtlety

At this point, a number of you may be preparing to be, ahem, outraged. So let me introduce some nuance and preempt some misunderstandings (there’ll be a few anyway).

First, this is not about Left or Right. It’s about temperament. Let’s just take some examples from the right side of the spectrum:

Roundhead Cavalier
Thatcher Heath
DeLay Reagan

Second, it’s not either/or, whether in individuals or cultures. Rather, I think that Roundhead and Cavalier relate roughly as Yang and Yin do:


But, just as each of us is somewhat more Yang or more Yin, each of us also tends to be more Roundhead or Cavalier.

12 thoughts on “Grokking people: Cavaliers & Roundheads

  1. You make English history come alive more than did my teachers (masters) in (high) school, although this isn’t saying much. So I hope I don’t damn you with faint praise.

    As I read your piece I thought of the adjective, “cavalier”, and will assume the proper noun”Cavalier” stems from it, or is it the other way round?

    Thinking back to Obama/McCain, I consider Obama a Roundhead, and McCain a Cavalier. How say you?

    As for myself, I like to think myself more Cavalier than Roundhead, but I suspect I flatter myself. And I would imagine Cavaliers have more friends than do Roundheads. So they (Cavaliers) would be better party people. On the other hand, Roundheads might be better Party people.

    I won’t go on any more.

    • I think the adjective cavalier comes from the noun Cavalier. So because the Cavaliers were nonchalant, cavalier came to mean not showing proper concern.
      Cavalier itself must be related to caballero and chevalier, and so to chivalrous, I would think. At the end of the day, it’s about an attitude.
      I fully agree with you that McCain’s natural state is Cavalier and Obama’s Roundhead. But McCain still has some of that outraged Puritan in him when he fights earmarks and such. Obama has some pragmatism that a true Roundhead would find scandalous. Hence my Yin and Yang theory.
      Tony Blair was a Roundhead. HW Bush (senior) was a Cavalier, I think….
      In my follow-up I propose a frivolous self-test…

  2. Everything I know about Oliver Cromwell I learned from Morrissey. I think my bumper sticker would say, ‘Another Puritan Against Cromwell…’ (ironic, but not very catchy)

    I have an in-law, Walter McDougall, who has written several ‘door stops’ as the family likes to say. He’s a foreign policy scholar and Pulitzer Prize winner at Penn. One of his most readable books is ‘Freedom Just Around the Corner.’ He takes this discussion further as these groups (among others) populate the U.S. He describes the U.S. as a nation of hustlers (in every sense of the word) and discusses language and culture above and below the Mason Dixon line. (He also has a massive book about the Pacific Rim that might be helpful for understanding California – not for beginners).

  3. These labels are fun. We all like to identify with certain qualities, group ourselves, and then understand why we do what we do and why we think how we think. We become our own free psychologist.

    For example, I took an encounter group training in 1980. There I learned that most humans fall into one of four groups: Pleasers, Manipulators, Avoiders, or Blamers–all negative types that get in our way of being real like the Velveteen Rabbit.

    It came as no surprise then to learn that I was a Pleaser. When Pleasers get tired of being fake and pleasing, they slide up the axis into top-dog status and become Blamers….not a pretty picture.

    When J.K. Rowling came up with the Four Houses and the Sorting Hat in the Harry Potter Series, I decided that I would wear a Gryffindor Hat and not a Hufflepuff’s because I identified with Hermione.

    What you are doing here is fun and stimulating, especially by plugging in modern day politicians and others into types…archetypes as you would say.

    The Hannibal Blog is way Cavalier despite the earnestness of its author.

    I want to be a Cavalier with a penchant for irony, but alas, with my outrage that leaks into rants, I humbly submit my Roundhead status.

    A pleaser Roundhead who can become a blamer when things don’t go her way.

  4. How curious. I am just noticing that this post is getting bad ratings: an average of 1 and a half stars.

    Would those who are rating it badly care to comment what makes it so bad? (I’m not asking that you out yourself, I’m merely curious as a writer.)

    Personally, i thought the post was fun.

  5. I don’t agree that Americans are, as a whole, unironic. It’s just a different kind of irony, because our cultural expectations are different. Americans are comfortable with bad faith arguments (cf. broadcast advertising, presidential campaigns, etc.) to the point that one might reasonably assume we really believed them, but we don’t. We just can’t be bothered anymore with working out which parts to believe; instead, we’re taught a provisional irony about entire realms of communication (especially politics). That’s the Cavalier aspect of American culture, anyway.

    There’s also a Roundhead longing that makes itself heard in various ways — Christian radicalism, New Sincerity and the Obama campaign to name a few — but the recurring theme of our history has been the frustration of this urge, not its consummation in reality. At this moment, a certain contingent of serious Roundheads (among the upper middle classes?) are rebelling from the notion that commonplace deceits necessitate some kind of ironic detachment, but they’re going to learn to their disillusionment that good faith can go catastrophically wrong too.

    It’s all, as you say, a bit yin and yang.

    • Thanks for this very thoughtful response, Enochj.

      Whenever a reader of The Hannibal Blog thinks this deeply about one of my posts, it makes my day.

      I quite agree, btw.

  6. Late comment to a great post.

    You might consider the German-ness of the Roundheads. Maybe particularly the Saxon-ness.

    I write as a ferociously literal minded Canadian of Saxon parentage. I start my day by putting my head in a block-press. Aaaahhh, there that feels better, alles Klar.

    • A promising train of thought, Fred.

      The trouble is that both the Cavaliers and the Roundheads were equally “English” and thus equally Saxon (and Celtic, and Norman, and…).

      But I am nitpicking. Yes, let’s blame this one on the Krauts. 😉

  7. Interesting trying this on Australian Prime Ministers and other politicians. Ours recently have all seemed to be Roundheads, but there were quite a few Cavaliers in the past. Working backwards:

    Tony Abbott (Coalition i.e. conservative): Roundhead. Super fit. Tries to show he has a sense of humour and fails. (But his predecessor as party leader, Malcolm Turnbull, is a definite Cavalier.)
    Kevin Rudd (Labor): Roundhead. Could present himself as caring and sharing but was insufferable to anyone who had to work for/with him.
    Julia Gillard (Labor): Roundhead. Known for her viral video lambasting Abbott for sexism. ‘Schoolteacher’ air.
    John Howard (Coalition): Roundhead. Raised dullness to an art.
    Paul Keating (Labor): His remorselessness made him a Roundhead, but he had a Cavalier flamboyance.
    Bob Hawke (Labor): Totally Cavalier.

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