Book Review: Memoirs of a Cavalier by Daniel Defoe

memoirs of a cavalierI have to confess that I was temporarily bamboozled by this book. It’s written so realistically, and Defoe (of Robinson Crusoe fame) claimed he stumbled upon this memoir and published it after cleaning it up a bit. It follows the adventures of a young English aristocrat, first through some of the big battles of the Thirty Years War in Germany and then through most of the big actions of the English Civil War.

As it turns out, it’s fiction, but well-researched and a really enjoyable read.  Published in 1720, it’s an early example of an historical novel although at the time, the public was also mostly convinced this was a real memoir.

The story’s protagonist, a nameless young cavalier, begins his adventures in continental Europe in 1632. He leaves England unsure of what he wants to do with his life, and his first few military experiences in France and Italy leave him feeling disenchanted with that career path. Then he goes to Germany as a guest of the Imperial army and is present at the sack of Magdeburg. It’s one heck of an eyewitness account that seemed pretty accurate, based on the research I’ve done.

But the cavalier’s real goal is to meet the already-legendary Swedish king and military genius, Gustavus Adolphus. When he finally does so he’s duly impressed and decides this is someone worth fighting for. Back in England, his father raises a cavalry regiment for him, which our guy then leads in numerous engagements on behalf of Sweden and the Protestant side in the Thirty Years War.  But once Gustavus Adoplphus dies, he sees no reason to stay and returns to England, where trouble is already brewing.

When the English Civil War begins, our cavalier becomes well, one of the cavaliers, again leading a cavalry regiment attached to Prince Rupert. He doesn’t really get into the politics, but it’s pretty understandable that many of the young aristocracy would take the side of the king. The cavalier is not without respect for his opponents and eventually comes to hero-worship Thomas Fairfax, the great parliamentary general (Cromwell? Cromwell who?) while deploring King Charles’s indecisiveness and Prince Rupert’s hot-headedness.

I did notice a few factual errors, like a somewhat mixed-up battle order at Marston Moor and calling Prince Maurice Rupert’s older brother when he was in fact younger, but in general, the whole tale seems pretty well grounded in fact and felt realistic throughout. It was also a lot of fun to read, action-packed from beginning to end. I especially appreciated the detailed accounts of the smaller actions that made up so much of the Civil War; the stuff that usually doesn’t make it into the history books.

The story ends with the defeat of the Royalist party and the cavalier and his friends going into exile. There’s an interesting appendix in which Defoe tries to prove some kind of superstition around significant dates. For instance King Charles did something bad on January 30, and then many years later, he was also beheaded on January 30. Coincidence? He thinks not! There’s a whole list of these kinds of things, and I’m not sure what the point is, but its kind of interesting.

For something written so long ago in relatively archaic language, it was a fun read and I’m sure I’ll read it again some day. It’s also added to my resolve to base my next series on the English Civil War. I’m still trying to keep that obsession at bay until I can finish the series I’m on. It’s good motivation to write faster.

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2 comments on “Book Review: Memoirs of a Cavalier by Daniel Defoe
  1. Natalie K. says:

    “a somewhat mixed-up battle order at Marston Moor”

    I love that you actually caught an error relating to such a random thing! I love historians, LOL 🙂

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