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Reprobates: The Cavaliers of the English Civil War, By John Stubbs

Cavaliers liked bullfights, so it seems. In 1623, the heir to the British throne and his father's much-resented favourite, the Duke of Buckingham, galloped from London to Madrid on a doomed and suitably quixotic mission to secure a Spanish marriage for the future Charles I. As Charles's suit for the Infanta's hand dragged on to no avail, a member of the royal party used the time to study Spain. James Howell, a Welsh-born courtier and incisive travel writer, took note of the Madrileños' "habitual delight" at the bullring. Much later, after the captive Charles Stuart had lost his head in Whitehall when convicted as a traitor in January 1649, the exiled Royalist statesman Edward Hyde made his way to Madrid to seek Spanish aid against Oliver Cromwell's victorious regicide regime. The moderate Hyde, later the first major historian of the "Great Rebellion", also put in his time at the corrida. He admired its "ritualistic and theatrical" qualities but sniffed an undertow of bloody chaos: "something beyond all control".

Perhaps that drama in the sand, both glamorous and gory, spoke to the Cavaliers' uneasy negotiation of high style and brute force. And people who believe in an unbroken continuity in the fault-lines of British history might say, in so many words, plus ça change.

"Cavaliers" are the sort of folk who would merrily visit the bullring on holiday; "Roundheads" would stay fastidiously away. Yet much of John Stubbs's energy and talent in this colourful, subtle and provocative group-history of Royalist poets, politicians and adventurers is taken up with blurring those glib dichotomies in the dappled light of history. Feasting on poems, diaries, plays, masques, letters and biographies, Reprobates introduces us to a seething cast of waverers, opportunists, idealists, plotters and clowns. Its cavaliers are often torn in their allegiances, "more comfortable with irony than with absolutes". So ditch those stereotypes. Puritan army wife (and writer) Lucy Hutchinson admired her music-loving husband's head of "fashionably long hair". Meanwhile, in the 1630s, the sober, sombre Charles I oversaw an austere, even puritanical, court.

Stubbs concludes that "People remain more complex than their partisan labels allow". This comes after a flamboyant parade of chancers, dreamers, turncoats, heroes, idiots and hedonists who grab the reader's shoulders and force a drink on us as if in some dim-lit, tallow-smoked City or Westminster tavern of the 1630s, with stakes on the table, tarts on the prowl, tempers on a short fuse and drawn swords likely over women, gambling – or, as the rifts over Charles's rule without Parliament deepened - politics.

Most of Reprobates, a follow-up to Stubbs's scintillating life of John Donne, unfolds even before "cavalier" had solidified into a term of abuse for a volatile loyalist – "a debauched, alcoholic, ex-army bully, over-privileged yet desperate". He begins with the pleasure-loving sons of the 1620s, chafing against their grave old Elizabethan fathers.

Two-thirds of a book stuffed almost to bursting-point with character and incident (savour it in sips, not gulps) have passed before, at the Battle of Edgehill in October 1642, "the scale of the carnage the country could expect" emerged. Stubbs cites a contemporary estimate of 6000 dead on the gentle slopes of Warwickshire in the first pitched battle of the wars. That sounds much higher than recent figures, a result of his choice (which has benefits and drawbacks) to plunge us deep into the feelings, ideas and beliefs of the time, not referee modern verdicts.

But accept even a figure of 2000 killed, adjust for population size, and imagine the national trauma now of finding 25,000 corpses on the meadows of Middle England. Somehow the humour, grace and sheer theatricality of the cavalier wits grow in stoic stature as the darkness falls. As for the their casual – cavalier – sexism in pursuit of maid, wife or widow, the Puritan preachers often showed a nastier hatred of the daughters of Eve. In come-to-bed lyric and hellfire sermon, both libertine and prude proved "similarly oblivious to women as people".

Key members of the Reprobates company (in a book that could be subtitled "WestEnders" for its shifting and knitting plot-lines) come to look like bigger, braver fellows at the tragedy develops. John Suckling, on-off poet and dramatist and absurd wannabe soldier, pranced around the City with a pantomime army. Yet, in the heat of a deadly engagement with the Scots, he discovered that "he really was a cavalier" – in the gallant, death-defying sense. The major figures – such as George Herbert, Thomas Hobbes, even the young and not-so-puritan John Milton – eloquently receive their due. Yet Stubbs's soft spots lie among the show-offs, performers and aesthetes: those who, like poet-courtier Thomas Carew, "saw nothing in life as intrinsically unholy" and "did not believe in sin so much as in lapses of spirit or taste".

The book's method echoes that of one of its major sources, John Aubrey. In Brief Lives, Aubrey assembled anecdotes, gossip and recollections about the writers, thinkers and doers of his era into a glittering patchwork. As Stubbs notes, this "cavalier" approach to biography picks out stray fragments and disputable yarns, stagey surface not hidden depth. Who presumes to know where the human essence lies? Only a canting Puritan. So "There is no concluding the life of person."

If Suckling, who faded away (a probable suicide) in Paris as blood was first spilled in earnest, takes second place in this rank of boozy, braggart heroes, there is no contest for the first. Had Stubbs adopted a more "Roundhead" approach to his material, aiming to follow the progress of a single soul, then Reprobates might well have become a life of Sir William Davenant.

Oxford innkeeper's child, Shakespeare's godson and (he later hinted) actual offspring too, tireless self-promoter as poet, dramatist, courtier, warrior and impresario, Davenant is the great, and greatly comic, survivor of this age. With his ruined nose (caused by a mercury cure for syphilis, not the pox itself), bumptious manner, frantic social climbing and curious innocence, Davenant staggers through Reprobates like a 17th-century version of Woody Allen's Zelig. He knows everyone and he goes everywhere.

Quitting pub, brothel, theatre and court, Davenant hared off to the wars and against all odds made himself a true player: trusted emissary for Queen Henrietta Maria, secret cross-Channel messenger, even - improbably - Royalist gun-runner in chief. Under the Commonwealth, this "public figure of fun" managed to survive because no one, even bitter foes, could take him seriously enough to hate him. Yet he cleverly re-introduced discreet dramatic performances - in his home, at first - in the censorious late 1650s. When made a virtual "dictator" of the revived stage under Charles II, he brought theatre "in from the cold" – and established a kind of West End ethos that still persists, in its cavalier way.

It grates to end on a carping, rebel note. But Stubbs's dashing and daring book has been let down badly by its publisher. A work that canters through a true golden age of English visual style – from the portrait studio of Antony van Dyck, brilliantly evoked, to the gorgeous symbolic masques of Inigo Jones and the country houses and gardens that offered poets and statesmen a respite from strife and grief – contains not a single illustration. Not one, in a hardback priced at £25. The Penguin Group this week boasted of a rise in annual profits of 26 per cent, to £106 million. What a right-royal swindle. This reviewer's inner Puritan is spoiling for a fight.