Book Review: Michael Braddick, “God’s Fury, England’s Fire”

I haven’t been writing much poetry for a while, but I have been reading. This history book might seem a very long way from poetry, but for me it isn’t so far. I studied History at Cambridge (Cambs, not Mass) and became fascinated by the upheavals, conflicts and new thinking of the “English Civil War” and the period following when England became a republic (“The Commonwealth”). I put “English Civil War” in inverted commas because we’ve increasingly realised that there were three interlocking conflicts going on in England, Scotland and Ireland and you have a very incomplete understanding of any of them unless you take in all three.

It was a civil war, all right, from 1642 (a bit earlier in Ireland) to 1646 with a brief second war.

Now the links to poetry are several. Some great English poets such as Milton and Marvell wrote in this period and Milton in particular was an influential activist who held senior government office. The wild hopes and heartbreak of the period lend themselves to literature. And two of my poems, “Marston Moor” and “Forlorn Hope”, are about the period.

You can tell I remain fascinated by the period and that’s why I read a quite new history of the events.

Michael Braddick is interested not only in the political establishment and the generals, but also in “ordinary people” and his book is hugely revealing about how people never rich and famous reacted and how their reactions, collectively, helped to shape events. He’s downright brilliant in explaining how early Stuart English society worked at the local level and how this influenced, and was influenced by, the crisis. He writes with real understanding and sympathy. He writes well.

His account stops with the execution of King Charles I (his particular line being that those who put him on trial did not aim at his death but at him having to plead and therefore accept the validity of the court and new forms of government, but Charles, perhaps from pride, or principle, or political calculation, would not plead and left his accusers with a stark choice). So we don’t hear about Cromwell’s rise to be Lord Protector or his record of providing in many ways effective government, suppressing the more radical movements but failing to achieve a stable political settlement, leading to the Restoration in 1660.

There are a few minor points where Braddick’s factual account differs from the usual and he does not explain why. There is one bit of (I imagine) bad editing which implies that Major Christopher Bethel, the Parliamentarian hero of the battle of Langport, was on the Royalist side. These are minor quibbles. It’s a brilliant book on a fascinating and important period.

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