The Virginia Cavalier


The Virginia Cavalier is a concept that attaches the qualities of chivalry and honor to the aristocratic class in Virginia history and literature. Its origin lies in the seventeenth century, when leading Virginians began to associate themselves with the Royalists, or Cavaliers, who fought for and remained loyal to King Charles I during the English Civil Wars (1642–1648). The myth gained popularity in nineteenth-century southern literature by authors such as George Tucker, William Alexander Caruthers, John Esten Cooke, and Mary Johnston, whose work presented a romanticized masculine portrait of the elite authority in Virginia in the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries and expressed nostalgia for Virginia’s supposedly aristocratic origins. Tying into a history that progressed from patriarchal to paternal, the Cavalier myth reinforced the illusion of benevolent male authority during the antebellum and post–Civil War periods, and is still present in modern iconography depicting Virginia’s past. By circulating a version of Virginia history that is dominated by the ruling class, the Cavalier myth marginalizes the role that other groups played in the state’s social development and disregards the growth of the institution of slavery under an ethos of supposed honor and benevolence.


The Eve of the Battle of Edge Hill

In its early English usages, the word “cavalier” is used to describe a courtly gentleman or a gallant military man. During the English Civil Wars, the word became a term of reproach used to describe Royalists who supported King Charles I and welcomed war in his name; it also came to mean careless or offhand. Eventually Royalists appropriated the term, using it to convey bravery, chivalry, and loyalty. This positive connotation of the word is the one that took hold in Virginia culture in the seventeenth century.

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.

Tobacco Tamper

Still, there is at least some historical basis for the identification of Virginia with Cavaliers. Virginia became a royal colony in 1624, meaning that it was subject to the king’s authority and administered by a representative of the Crown. Under English rule, the colony’s planter elite enjoyed increased political autonomy and comparatively relaxed trade regulations, which resulted in a more profitable tobacco trade. But in the 1640s, as clashes between Charles I and Parliament became more frequent, Virginia planters began to fear for their economic and social well-being. This anxiety was exacerbated when Parliament attempted to reinstate the Virginia Company—a move that, in the words of the historian Carla Gardina Pestana, “cemented the link between monarchy and relief from company exploitation” in Virginians’ minds. The king’s assurances that the Virginia Company would not be restored under his rule helped solidify leading Virginians’ Royalist leanings, as did the influence of the colony’s governor, Sir William Berkeley.

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.

Sir William Berkeley

While Virginians were not involved in the military aspect of the wars in England, they resisted its new Commonwealth government in 1649, proclaiming Charles II after receiving news that Parliament had tried and executed Charles I. To retaliate, the Commonwealth ordered a blockade of the colony. Governor Berkeley, his council, and the House of Burgesses ultimately surrendered to Parliament in 1652, but Virginia’s demonstration of loyalty to the monarchy helped reinforce its Royalist identity. In self-identifying as Royalists, Virginians may have attached the military attributes of Charles’s army to themselves. These characteristics were reinforced in the eighteenth century and inform the interpretation of Virginia history beyond the revolutionary period.

The Gentleman Adventurer

The Plantation

Increasingly, patriarchal planter culture dominated Virginia society in the eighteenth century. With this consolidation of authority came the reinforcement of the gentleman planter identity. While historians such as Carl Bridenbaugh and T. H. Breen have demonstrated that tobacco planters were by no means idle, the continuation of a strict social order that put the wealthy landowner at the top allowed the planter’s role to develop into that of a lordly administrator presiding over a sometimes-vast plantation. Coinciding with the established prominence of a handful of planter families in the east was a push to expand the western frontier as a means to encourage trade with the Indians and provide a barrier against French incursion. The interest in the west provided entrepreneurs and adventurers (often landed gentry) the opportunity to try their fortunes on the frontier, and in the early and middle part of the century, expeditions and settlements beyond the eastern seaboard increased.

Alexander Spotswood

Of these excursions, the best known is likely Lieutenant Governor Alexander Spotswood‘s 1716 trip over the Blue Ridge Mountains and into the Shenandoah Valley. Spotswood and roughly fifty of Virginia’s most prominent men spent weeks hunting and drinking as they moved west to claim the territory for the king. Spotswood named the members of the expedition the Knights of the Golden Horseshoe, attaching attributes of chivalry to those who took part in the expedition. Four years after the expedition Arthur Blackamore romanticized the journey in an epic poem titled Expeditio Ultramontana. In biblical and Arthurian language he described Spotswood and his fellow travelers: “O’er Hills and Dales the Noble Task persu’d; Up steepest Mountains in his Course did run, Whose Tops were ‘bove the Clouds, and Rivals to the Moon, Condemn’d the Length and Danger of the Way. So he might farther stretch his Royal Master’s Sway.” Blackmore’s poem reinforced the idea of the Knights’ loyalty to the king, tying the expedition to its Royalist origins while creating a mythologized identity of the gentleman adventurer.

Commission in the Virginia Militia

Another aspect of life in colonial Virginia that informed the Cavalier myth was the military muster—the ritual of assembling the area’s able-bodied men for military inspection and training. This practice enabled a formalized grouping of individuals based on social rank. According to the historian Rhys Isaac, the muster offers a “microcosm of male-dominated Anglo-Virginian society” in which the authority to muster tenants, freeholders, and gentry rested with those connected to Virginia’s prominent families. The relationship between the top ranks and the rest of the assembled men was dependent on a legally installed system of, as Isaac puts it, “dignity, honor, and obligation”—a continuation of the positive characteristics associated with the Royalists a century earlier.

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

Hunting Horn at Mount Vernon
Hunting Horn at Mount Vernon
Maker's Mark on Hunting Horn
Maker’s Mark on Hunting Horn

Virginia associated gentility and gallantry with its male leadership into the early nineteenth century. While the American Revolution (1775–1783), with its emphasis on democracy, broke the Royalist connection to the term “cavalier,” the elite authority in Virginia continued to be typified by men like George Washington, who successfully managed his landholdings while also pursuing military, sporting, and leisure activities. The heroes of the American Revolution exemplified characteristics of the cavalier gentleman as they fought with distinction to protect the ideals of the new republic. In the nineteenth century, as Virginia embraced its regionalism under increasing outside criticism of slavery and the plantation system, historians and novelists attempted to galvanize the symbol of the male patron-protector, projecting an image of a hero whose mission was to uphold the traditions of the Old Dominion in the face of encroaching outside influence.

The Nineteenth Century and the Creation of the Cavalier Myth

A Virginia Cavalier

In his book The Cavalier in Virginia Fiction,the literary critic Ritchie D. Watson Jr. notes that although the image of the Cavalier “is more an embodiment of certain ideals of character and conduct than an objective historical representation of an actual class of men,” its origin is historical: “there existed in Virginia during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries a class of wealthy planters who provided the broad outline for the Cavalier myth. Many of these planters were in fact gentlemen of distinction, and they aspired to follow a distinctive code of conduct.” As Chesapeake planter culture declined early in the nineteenth century—producing fewer of these “gentlemen of distinction”—romanticizing the Cavalier figure in history and fiction became more common.

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.”

Shining Shafts Engaged and Disengaged in Lightninglike Play

While Tucker and Kennedy exhibited some objectivity in their work, the fiction of William Alexander Caruthers and John Esten Cooke indicated a new trend toward the subjective romanticizing of Virginia history. Both writers wreathe their plots in allusions to medieval symbols, holding up the quest, the duel, and courtship of a fair maiden as exemplars of heroic male assertion—reinforcing southern regionalism by assigning noble attributes to the masculine youth of old Virginia. The influence of the work of Scottish historical novelist Walter Scott on mid-nineteenth-century southern literature sparked a renewed interest in medieval mythology, prompting the use of the term “chivalry” to stand for Southern ideals while “barbarism” expressed the ideals of the North.

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.

Patrick Henry

While Caruthers’s work focuses mainly on the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, Cooke wrote about the events leading up to the Revolutionary War. He portrays the decades preceding the Revolution as Virginia’s golden age, and while Cooke himself claimed that he criticized Virginia aristocracy in his works, literary critics find language that parallels and sometimes exceeds Caruthers’s aggrandizing Cavalier portraits. Idealized depictions of real-life revolutionaries, such as Patrick Henry, mingle with Cooke’s characters and readers are invited to “fancy” them as “representatives of the old world and the new—the past and future—the court and the backwoods.” Although Cooke’s portrayal of aristocratic characters may sometimes be critical, his overall treatment of aristocratic life, and the Cavalier ethos, is largely sympathetic.

The Civil War and the Lost Cause

Robert Edward Lee Sculpture

The American Civil War buttressed the Cavalier ideal, with the conflict allowing for a renewal of real and romanticized heroism for Virginia’s men. The Army of Northern Virginia, the most successful Confederate army of the war, secured important victories in the eastern portion of the South, and its generals, including Robert E. Lee and J. E. B. Stuart, came to personify the Cavalier archetype. Statues commemorating these Confederate leaders are still present in many Virginian towns and cities, signifying a modern connection to the leadership of Virginia’s fighting men. The erection of statues and memorials in commemoration of Virginia’s fallen heroes, often funded by groups such as the United Daughters of the Confederacy, suggests a continuum of the gentleman warrior ideal beyond the Civil War and well into the twentieth century.

Pastime Stories

After the war, Confederate apologists sought to reconcile their loss by painting the South as defender of an old order of life that upheld the attributes of nobility, gentility, and honor. Novelists such as Cooke, Mary Johnston, and Thomas Nelson Page furthered this interpretation of the war, referred to as the Lost Cause. Like the work of their pre–Civil War counterparts, the work of Cooke, Johnston, and Page uses heroes from Virginia’s colonial past to reinforce Cavalier characteristics, but places an increased emphasis on the contentment of slaves under planter paternalism. In their Civil War novels, writers like Johnston and Cooke lament the folly of the war for both sides, but there is enough nostalgia in their work to suggest regret at the loss of Virginia’s colonial aristocratic origins.

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

University of Virginia Mascot

Today the Cavalier is arguably the single most iconic image of Anglo-Virginian identity. As the official mascot of the University of Virginia, the cavalier, symbolized by an orange and blue rider wearing a plumed hat, prompts students and alumni to cheer their team. The word “cavalier” appears in the names of businesses across Virginia, and historical societies have erected numerous monuments to men whose attributes embodied the Cavalier ideal. But to many, the image of the Cavalier no longer represents the dominance of the ruling class over the history of the state.

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.

  • Watson, Ritchie D. Jr. The Cavalier in Virginia Fiction. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1985.
  • Isaac, Rhys. The Transformation of Virginia, 1740–1790. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1982.
  • Craven, Wesley Frank. The Southern Colonies in the Seventeenth Century. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1949.
  • Bridenbaugh, Carl. Myths and Realities: Societies of the Colonial South. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1952.
  • Breen, T. H. Tobacco Culture: The Mentality of the Great Tidewater Planters on the Eve of Revolution. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 2001.
APA Citation:
Michie, Ian. The Virginia Cavalier. (2020, December 07). In Encyclopedia Virginia. https://encyclopediavirginia.org/entries/virginia-cavalier-the.
MLA Citation:
Michie, Ian. "The Virginia Cavalier" Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Humanities, (07 Dec. 2020). Web. 22 Jun. 2024
Last updated: 2023, September 08
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