God’s Fury, England’s Fire review

I’m not sure when, if ever, this review will appear in print, so thought I would post here anyway. As you can see, my impressions of the book are very similar to those of Mercurius Politicus.

The Truth about the English Revolution

Michael Braddick, God’s Fury, England’s Fire. A New History of the English Civil Wars (Allen Lane, 2008), pp. 758, £30.

It was Phillip Guedalla who said ‘history repeats itself: historians repeat each other.’ As the hundred and fifty plus pages of notes and bibliography accompanying Michael Braddick’s book demonstrate, writing a single-volume history of the English civil war is now something like attempting Monty Python’s ‘All-England Summarize Proust Competition.’ In the past few years alone we have been treated to three major popular histories of the civil wars and revolution: Austin Woolrych’s Britain in Revolution (2002); Diane Purkiss’s, The English Civil Wars: A People’s History (2006); and John Adamson’s The Noble Revolt (2007), none of them under 500 pages in length.

It is much to Braddick’s credit that he is able to cut a swathe through this dense thicket of historical writing on the civil wars and offer a genuinely fresh reading of England’s only true revolution. This is a ‘new’ history in two important senses: it summarises the most recent scholarship on the 1640s to present a narrative that is as up-to-date as possible and it supports that excellent synthesis of recent work with original research utilising the still under-explored evidence of cheap print.

Braddick takes his title from one of these civil war pamphlets, a relatively obscure work by John Benbrigge which offered a providential reading of Charles I’s surrender at Oxford in April 1646. Benbrigge viewed the defeat of the King as a divine punishment upon England for the sins of the nation. Yet, as Braddick points out, providence was a common political language in the 1640s, used by both Royalists and Parliamentarians to justify their actions. Competing claims based on similar authorities led the civil war to become a conflict over the meaning of truth itself. The difficulty of resolving truth-claims led some, like the members of Samuel Hartlib’s intellectual circle, to look to science to provide certainty. For religious radicals, tired of the seemingly endless claims and counter-claims based upon scripture, it led to a rejection of biblical authority. The 1640s then, were characterised by a cacophony of competing professions of truthfulness which not even ultimate Parliamentarian success on the battlefield could quell.

If Braddick’s book is alive to the anxieties, uncertainties and confusion of the day, it is also refreshingly honest about the difficulties and imponderables facing historians. For example, in his discussion of popular allegiance, Braddick rightly states that there is yet no fully satisfactory general explanation of why people chose sides in the civil war. The best that we can say is that we have a number of excellent local studies of allegiance which show us that it was a very complicated business, and the reasons why people chose sides varied from region to region and over time. This might have tested the patience of Braddick’s editor, (literary editors tend to prefer historians to skate over such vagaries) but it is a more truthful approach than is usually on display in mass-market works of history.

This recognition of the complexities confronting both contemporaries in the 1640s and their historians doesn’t prevent Braddick from providing a gripping narrative. A particular strength of the book is the way in which it combines a detailed discussion of the military campaigns with a nuanced treatment of the political debates. Political historians tend to be put off writing about military matters, even though the influence upon politics of events on the battlefield is obvious. Likewise, military historians are often too wrapped up in describing troop formations or assessing generalship to ask what these battles were being fought for. Braddick achieves this feat without ever allowing the reader to forget that these were very cruel wars with very high human costs.

We know how the story ends, with the trial and execution of the King in 1649. What is less certain is what the events of the 1640s mean. Throughout the work, Braddick strenuously avoids the terms ‘revolution’ or ‘revolutionary.’ In an open-ended conclusion he tells us that some of the writing that emerged from the ‘creative chaos’ of the 1640s (Thomas Hobbes, the English Levellers) might have fashioned a path from the world of the Reformation to that of the Enlightenment. Yet Braddick resists the persistent Whiggery that lurks beneath most works of recent popular history, the commonplace (and largely unsupported) assertion that past revolutions gifted present freedoms. If Braddick’s answer to the question of what the 1640s signified is less definitive than we are used to getting, it is also, again, more truthful.

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