English Civil War studies continue to be a magnetic field for historians and literary scholars; Michael Braddick's 90 pages of endnotes and 30-page bibliography of secondary works bear ample witness to his many predecessors.
His book, providing a narrative history of the years 1637 to 1649, always keeps the general reader in mind and is constantly giving definitions of terms that might be considered "difficult".
But it is unlikely to be pressed into service as a textbook by students in a hurry. By and large its structure would require too much "excavation" for that and it is conventional in locating the "Revolution" of these years firmly in the post-1646 period. In that respect, as in others, this book stands in marked contrast to David Cressy's England on Edge: Crisis and Revolution 1640-1642 (2006), which made a vigorously argued case for seeing revolution as the preliminary to civil war, not its consequence.
Credible portraits emerge in these pages of Charles I, Archbishop Laud, Fairfax and Cromwell, and a palpable sense of drama pervades the text. Braddick is particularly good on the drift into war, the origins of Royalism, the complexities of neutralism and neutralisation, taxation (his own particular research field), war aims and outcomes, army surgeons and surgery, prophesying and astrology, Clubmen and Levellers, tensions between Independents and Presbyterians, Army and Parliament, and the "problems" of parliamentarian victory.
And Braddick never loses sight of his title - God's Fury, England's Fire - drawn from a contemporary tract underlining the religious resonances of civil war. He keeps the narrative moving at a very brisk - indeed sometimes breathless - pace and skilfully blends a huge number of national and local threads and personal experiences and memories of the 1640s conflicts. We get a vivid sense here of the teeming plurality, contrasts, ambiguities, divisions and responses of these years.
The author's style has its unfortunate occasional lapses. References to the "chattering classes", "inchoate bellyaching", "scams", "fair cops", "panicky politics" and "softening up the public" tend to jar. On the other hand, he sometimes has an enviable knack of summing things up in a neat turn of phrase. (Essex grabbed "stalemate from the jaws of victory" and "the second civil war is the story of a dog that didn't bark" are just two examples.) The book is reasonably priced and well produced save for the illustrations - contemporary woodcuts and engravings - which are far too small and indistinct for the most part to function as intended.
Braddick's book will not eliminate its competitors, and given its emphasis on plural meanings it would be a contradiction in terms if this were possible, but God's Fury, England's Fire is so lively, compelling and up to date a survey that it will certainly give them a very good run for their money.
R. C. Richardson is professor of history, University of Winchester, and author of The Debate on the English Revolution.
God's Fury, England's Fire: A New History of the English Civil Wars
By Michael Braddick
Published 28 February 2008