“The Wounded Cavalier” as a key to understanding British history

What do we see ?

Three figures in the countryside, either in or just outside a wood. They are between a single very mottled, slender and not very old oak tree (foreground, slightly off centre to the right and also leaning slightly to the right) and a lone low stone wall that runs right across the background  of the picture. The wall is broken to the right of the tree. Behind the break in the wall is what looks like a spruce tree, which in the 19th century was being used as a Christmas tree. There are many ferns and brambles in the foreground

The season is autumn, recognisable from the ferns’ colour and the yellow oak leaves, and humanly, from the colours of the clothes of the figures. The period is that of the English Civil War, perhaps c.1650 (fading Cavalier)

The cavalier (perhaps between 20 and 40 years old)  is sitting with his legs out parallel on the ground; he is supported by the woman. Only the book carried by the standing man, the cavalier’s  lower legs and feet (in light brown boots) and his dark purple hat with its white feather and yellow (golden?) brooch protrude into the space to the right of the tree. At his feet amid the brambles are some playing cards (?). On them is a heart. The cavalier’s sword broke, the blade is still stuck in the tree, the tip is pointing to the cavalier’s guts. A red butterfly is either sitting on or crawling up the part of the blade that is to the left of the tree. It may  therefore be crawling in the direction of the tree and the large book (most likely a Bible) held by the man standing in dark clothes behind the tree. The cavalier’s  right hand lies listless on the ground; under it is his red, blue and yellow coloured sash. The golden hilt of his broken sword lies just beyond his hand, pointing up at the tree. His trousers and cape are dark purple; his hair, beard and moustache are golden yellow. He wears a light-coloured steel breastplate. His shirt is white and his face is very pale. His eyes are almost closed and his mouth slightly open. He could be speaking or trying to speak. He could seriously or mortally wounded.

The woman (who looks between 25 and 35) is wearing the clothes of a Puritan lady, identifiable from the sombre colours, lack of decoration and white shoulder cover. Her right arm is behind the cavalier supporting  him while her left hand holds a handkerchief over the wound in his neck where some blood can be seen. Her gaze is down towards the ground but at some distance from the cavalier. She appears to be listening to what he is saying or else thinking; she has a thoughtful expression. The cavalier has his left hand on  her left hand.

The man watching them both, standing in the middle of the picture very vertical, behind the tree is a Puritan, perhaps between 25-40 years old, identifiable from his black clothes, tall black hat, short white collar. He has a broad (leather?) sash over his shoulder from right to left. It goes down towards the big book (probably the Bible) he is carrying in his (invisible) left hand; his right hand – visible – hangs down by his side. The look on his face is ambiguous but not particularly sympathetic. His face is at the same level as the withered oak leaves hanging down from the tree. The book has two white book markers in it in the middle (Old Testament?). The book is same colour as the cavalier’s boots and is situated close to the break in the wall. The broken blade of the sword finishes at the book and the level of the Puritan’s hand so that it appears as if the Puritan is holding a sword that proceeds from the Bible down diagonally  towards the cavalier’s guts.

Everything to the right of the tree (except perhaps the book) is not as it should be or is in decay (it could be said that spiritual knowledge in  a book is also in decay). Broken wall, so wall doesn’t function. Feet not on ground, so no human uprightness, heart at feet, as it were trodden below them, hat on ground, so not covering the head but the earth.

What do they seem to feel and what do we feel ?

Cavalier: gentleness, gratitude.

Woman: tenderness, compassion, thoughtfulness, love (?) acceptance

Man: antipathy, scorn, bitterness, distance, contempt, loathing, shame (?) confusion (?)

We: the pathos of the whole situation, pity and  sadness for the cavalier, curiosity, interest, admiration for the woman, antipathy toward the Puritan

What can we think ?

A fight has probably taken place around the tree. The cavalier’s assailant(s) has/have gone. He was probably defeated when his sword got stuck in the tree and snapped. The blade is diagonal but nevertheless by the tree and the blade we are reminded of the Cross. The Puritan as a kind of negative St John figure with his Holy Scripture and the woman as Mary – the two figures traditionally seen at the foot of the Cross. The cavalier is all radiant but dying – his era is over, and his age of history passing with autumn. The future is with the Puritan and his wife/fiancée/love(?), for she is going with him, not the cavalier, even though it is possible (as shown by the hearts, the hands?) that she and the cavalier know each other or are even secret lovers. The cavalier is a symbol of nobility, aristocracy, monarchy, all the old order that is rooted ultimately in the classical world of Greece and Rome and the ancient theocracies of Asia – the beautiful otherworldly (for westerners) realm that is also relatively feminine in mood.

The Puritan man symbolises the new dominant age coming – ruled by a new theocracy, one that is more earthbound, book-bound and abstract rule-bound, rigid unyielding, disciplined, uniform and effective – more masculine and western in nature. Ultimately, the Puritans and other Dissenters like them would lose their civil rights after the Restoration and many would turn to industry and commerce. Many would become the leaders of the new  industrial (black and brown) age of the satanic mills. The cavalier therefore represents the end of the distant past (that culminated in the Middle Ages); the Puritan represents the more recent past  – the age from the Reformation to 1900 (or arguably, the 1960s). The Puritan, even if he does not hate the cavalier, cannot overcome his antipathy enough to give him help and comfort nor can he even show it. He does not even read to him from his Bible but simply stands detached and observes. He is a lonesome figure, whereas the other two have formed a relationship, albeit temporary, despite being on opposite sides. Ultimately, he too will need comfort; his book will not suffice.

The woman represents the future. She is a woman but she is wearing the sombre masculine uniform clothes of the Puritan. She is between them both, embracing the past in love and compassion even as she prepares to go into a dark future. She faces this future in acceptance. She thus embraces past, present, future. She has a thinking heart and a compassionate soul. She is not ruled by opinions and ideology or any other label but by her own individualised humanity. She makes her own moral choice not to reject this dying enemy but to comfort him. The woman is the English Folk Soul between the Devil (Lucifer) and Satan (Ahriman). Like Christ on the Cross between the two thieves, she welcomes the one but the other holds himself off. She empathises with the cavalier, goes down to his level, embraces and gets close to him, pays attention and listens to him, even though he will soon be the past. Her flexibility of soul is what Britain will  need in the coming decades and centuries.

    William Shakespeare Burton 

William Shakespeare Burton (1830-1916) was on the fringes of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, that select group of seven British artists who strove in an almost Rosicrucian manner to be faithful both to the world of physical Nature and to the world of the numinous spirit revealed in Man. In “The Wounded Cavalier” Burton unites the spirit of Gabriel (Earth Nature) and Michael (Sun Spirit) to produce a marvel of a painting that communicates a very great deal about the spirit of Britain. According to Rudolf Steiner, the period 1510-1879 was influenced by the Moon archangel Gabriel who always draws Man into incarnating deeper into things, including into physical existence; during this period natural science and nationalism developed, with all that it brought for the intensification of national cultures. Since 1879 we have been in the age of the Sun archangel Michael, who brings the opposite impulse – the spiritualization of life and thought, the overcoming of nationalism and the spread of a cosmopolitan spirit.

The painting also points to a key period in British history 1649-51. Steiner describes how there is a time in a nation’s history its guardian archangel (Folk Spirit) descends from the spiritual world as far as the etheric life plane above and around the people and their land and from there can work into the Folk Soul of the people (their collective feeling life, or as Jung called it, their collective unconscious) to the point where their very physical culture is deeply affected. Prior to that point, the archangel, who is, as it were further removed from the people, only influences the people’s  soul life. This crucial point for Italy was 1530, for France 1600, for England 1650 and for Germany 1750. What happened in England c.1650? Oliver Cromwell was at the peak of his power. He had effectively won two Civil wars and would finally defeat Prince Charles at the Battle of Worcester 1651, the final end of the Civil Wars; he had carried through the execution of King Charles I in 1649 – the first time a monarch had ever been publicly executed in the history of Christendom. He had demonstrated England ‘s ability to control Scotland and Ireland by his ruthless military campaigns. He dominated Parliament. He was a very religious man in his own Puritan way and sought to bring about a Puritan purification of England. Puritanism stressed the individual soul, its personal relation to God and the individual conscience. His secretary John Milton, called the Commonwealth ‘a paradise on earth’; Cromwell ‘s royalist enemies thought it was hell and that the world had been turned upside down. The philosopher Thomas Hobbes would have agreed; in 1651 he published his materialist doctrine of support for authoritarian rule, Leviathan. Hobbes inoculated into the English that fear of anarchy (‘the war of every man against every man’ in which life is ‘solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short’) and respect for authority that they have had ever since. England was now Europe ‘s first large scale Republic since the days of Rome. The British army and navy were strong, effective, and feared. Britain’s commerce was rapidly expanding, and Cromwell had a dream of colonial empire. His government seized the first colony by military force, Jamaica, in 1655. This would become England’s main sugar-producing territory, based on slavery of course; the English became increasingly hooked on sugar and what it did for the organism. The Commonwealth government also forced a war with England’s main commercial rivals, the Dutch (1652-54) after passing the Navigation Act in 1651 which sought to restrict exports and imports to English ships. This was maintained and built on by later governments and became a major factor in  England’s global trade expansion.

Cromwell was clearly ‘England’s Bismarck’ – greater than Bismarck in fact as he was involved in all three realms: religion, politics, and economics. The German empire Bismarck created lasted only 48 years, whereas, although the Commonwealth itself did not survive beyond  1660 (Cromwell died in 1658), what Cromwell achieved in terms of trade, military might, parliamentary power, control of Great Britain, the cultural influence of Puritanism arguably lasted until the mid-20th century. He created the basis for Britain ‘s industrial take-off 100 years later and thus the basis for Britain ‘s world role for good or ill. A large part in Britain’s financial strength after 1750 was played by Jews, and they were readmitted to England by Cromwell in 1656, having been banished since 1290. Cromwell readmitted them because he hoped for their aid in shifting Europe’s financial centre from Amsterdam to London, and because of his Puritan Biblical beliefs that the Second Coming would not occur until the Jews returned to the Holy Land and that God had chosen the English to make this happen. All in all then, Cromwell was a towering figure in British history at just the time Steiner claimed the English Folk Spirit descended into the English Folk Soul. Interestingly, England’s last great composer before the  20th century, Henry Purcell, was born in the last year of the Commonwealth 1659. From now on, England was to put her main energies into more worldly things.

The fading of artistic culture, so strong before Charles I, and the rise of the commercial and industrial  culture, is also obliquely suggested in The Wounded Cavalier. In this sense, it is somewhat similar to Turner’s Fighting Temeraire, which shows a beautiful old ship of the line, caught in the rays of the golden sun, being towed away by an ugly little steamer for scrap as the sun rises on a new industrial age.

In the mid-19th century when the industrial age was carrying all before it, there was a great sense of nostalgia and pathos (as well as mawkish sentimentality) for the age that had preceded it and the culture that was being lost. Three years after this painting was exhibited, in 1859, Tennyson would publish his hugely popular Arthurian  Idylls of the King, whereas Darwin would publish his theory of our ape-like origins, Origin of Species. The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood had been founded in 1848, the same year as the Spiritualist movement took off in America , but Marx and Engels in the same year issued their Communist Manifesto of materialism. These were just a few of the contrary symptoms of the  19th century’s constant cultural struggle between an ahrimanic element dominating the surface of society in science, technology and industry, and a luciferic element beneath it in the subconscious which manifested in the arts: between them the confused human soul. The mediaeval neo-Gothic style  was finding ever more acceptance as the Romantic mood in the arts permeated society as a reaction to the dominance of industrialism and it would continue to make headway in the arts throughout the 19th century.

Finally, the painting was painted and exhibited in 1855-6, the period of the Crimean War (1853-6). This was the last major war in which British soldiers fought in the splendidly colourful (and luciferically beautiful) uniforms typical of the Napoleonic era and also the last war in which the ramshackle corruption and inefficiency of the British Army were tolerated. After the war, the ahrimanic scientific element penetrated the army also, as systems were tightened up and merit and efficiency became more the watchwords of the military. The Crimean War was also the war in which Florence Nightingale came to national prominence and founded her nursing movement, as well as being the first war which was subject to modern reporting techniques with frequent illustrations and even photographs from the front. The image of the gentle woman comforting a dying soldier would have been one very much on people’s minds at this time.

The Wounded Cavalier (painted 1855, exhib. 1856) by William Shakespeare Burton (1830-1916)

When this painting (length 104cms) was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1856 (painted 1855), it caused a sensation. Why ? Because of the extreme naturalism and realism with which the painter had rendered the natural suroundings of 3 subjects. Five years after the success of the Great Exhibition at Crystal Palace, three years before the publication of Darwin’s Origin of Species, this was the high noon of early Victorian materialism. The first photograph had been taken by Niepce only 17 years before. The glorification of science and technology was already beginning to infect wide swathes of Victorian society. What so many visitors to the Royal Academy wanted in 1856 was a photographical faithfulness in art to what their physical eyes saw around them. They marvelled at the way in which the artist had dug himself into a hole at ground level to get right down to the eye level of the flora and fauna he wanted to paint. This accurate grasping of the physical world, a further example of western humanity’s much vaunted mastery over Nature, was what they exulted in. One cannot help feeling that those who saw the painting in this way must have missed the artist’s main point.

For more on William Shakespeare Burton, see


and http://www.avictorian.com/Burton_William_Shakespeare.html

This page was created on 17th Sept. 2006 Last updated 31.10.2018



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