“Roundhead” was the name given to the supporters
of the Parliament during the English Civil War. Also known as Parliamentarians, they
fought against King Charles I and his supporters, the Cavaliers, who claimed absolute power
and the divine right of kings. The goal of the Roundhead party was to give the Parliament
supreme control over executive administration. Most Roundheads appear to have sought a constitutional
monarchy, in place of the absolutist monarchy sought by Charles I. However, at the end of
the Civil War in 1649, public antipathy towards the king was high enough to allow republican
Roundhead leaders such as Oliver Cromwell to abolish the monarchy completely and establish
the republican Commonwealth. The Roundhead commander-in-chief of the first Civil War,
Lord Fairfax, remained a supporter of constitutional monarchy, as did many other Roundhead leaders
such as Edward Montagu and the Earl of Essex; however this party was outmaneuvered by the
more politically adept Cromwell and his radicals, who had the backing of the New Model Army
and took advantage of Charles’ perceived betrayal of England by allying with the Scots against
Parliament. England’s many Puritans and Presbyterians
were almost invariably Roundhead supporters, as were many smaller religious groups such
as the Independents. However many Roundheads were Church of England, as were many Cavaliers.
Roundhead political factions included Diggers, Levellers and Fifth Monarchists.
Origins and background Some of the Puritans, but by no means all,
wore their hair closely cropped round the head, or flat, and there was thus an obvious
contrast between them and the men of courtly fashion with their long ringlets.
During the war and for a time afterwards Roundhead was a term of derision—in the New Model
Army it was a punishable offence to call a fellow soldier a Roundhead. This contrasted
with the term Cavalier to describe supporters of the Royalist cause. Cavalier also started
out as a pejorative term—the first proponents used it to compare members of the Royalist
party with Spanish Caballeros who had abused Dutch Protestants during the reign of Elizabeth
I—but unlike Roundhead, Cavalier was embraced by those who were the target of the epithet
and used by them to describe themselves. Roundheads appears to have been first used
as a term of derision toward the end of 1641, when the debates in Parliament in the Bishops
Exclusion Bill were causing riots at Westminster. One authority said of the crowd which gathered
there, “They had the hair of their heads very few of them longer than their ears, whereupon
it came to pass that those who usually with their cries attended at Westminster were by
a nickname called Roundheads”. The demonstrators included London apprentices and Roundhead
was a term of derision for them because the regulations to which they had agreed included
a provision for closely cropped hair. According to John Rushworth the word was first
used on 27 December 1641 by a disbanded officer named David Hide, who during a riot is reported
to have drawn his sword and said he would “cut the throat of those round-headed dogs
that bawled against bishops”. However, Richard Baxter ascribes the origin
of the term to a remark made by Queen Henrietta Maria at the trial of the Earl of Strafford
earlier that year; referring to John Pym, she asked who the Roundheaded man was.
The principal advisor to Charles II, the Earl of Clarendon remarked on the matter, “and
from those contestations the two terms of Roundhead and Cavalier grew to be received
in discourse, … they who were looked upon as servants to the king being then called
Cavaliers, and the other of the rabble contemned and despised under the name of Roundheads.”
Ironically, after Anglican Archbishop Laud made a statute in 1636 instructing all clergy
to wear short hair, many Puritans rebelled to show their contempt for his authority and
began to grow their hair even longer though they continued to be known as Roundheads.
The longer hair was more common among the “Independent” and “high ranking” Puritans,
especially toward the end of the Protectorate, while the “Presbyterian” faction, and the
military rank-and-file, continued to abhor long hair. By the end of this period some
Independent Puritans were again derisively using the term Roundhead to refer to the Presbyterian
Puritans. Roundhead remained in use to describe those
with republican tendencies up until the Exclusion Bill crisis of 1678–1681; the term was then
superseded by Whig, initially another term with pejorative connotations. Likewise during
the Exclusion Bill crisis, the term Cavalier was replaced with Tory, a term introduced
by the opponents of the Tories, and also initially a pejorative term.
Macaulay, Thomas Babington. The History of England from the Accession of James II 1.
New York: Harper & Brothers. p. 105. ISBN 0-543-93129-3. Hanbury, Benjamin. Historical Memorials Relating
to the Independents Or Congregationalists: From Their Rise to the Restoration of the
Monarchy 3. pp. 118, 635. Hunt, John . Religious Thought in England,
from the Reformation to the End of Last Century; A Contribution to the History of Theology
2. General Books LLC. p. 5. ISBN 1-150-98096-6. Roberts, Chris. Heavy Words Lightly Thrown:
The Reason Behind Rhyme. Thorndike Press. ISBN 0-7862-8517-6.
Worden, Blair. The English Civil Wars 1640–1660. London: Penguin Books. ISBN 0-14-100694-3.
Attribution This article incorporates text from a publication
now in the public domain: Anonymous. “Roundhead”. In Chisholm, Hugh. Encyclopædia Britannica
23. Cambridge University Press. p. 772.