God’s Fury, England’s Fire

Cover of "God's Fury, England's Fire: A N...

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The English Civil Wars, which were fought  from 1642-1649 were every bit as significant event in English History as the American Civil War was in the history of the United States. It is often said that the American Civil War was a fight of brother against brother. This was not true except perhaps in the border states. The English Civil War really could be a fight between brothers. There were few consistent patterns which determined which side any one individual might take. Even in regions that were solidly in favor of the king or Parliament, there were those who supported the other side.

Indeed, the English Civil War could be considered the first of the modern revolutions that have changed the world, predating the French Revolution by a century and a half. This war, which began as a dispute over King Charles’s royal prerogatives to rule and raise money without the consent of Parliament, and over questions involving the extent of the Reformation over the Anglican Church, became, once shots were fired, a war to determine how England, and to some extent Scotland and Ireland, were to be governed. Was the king to rule by divine right or did the people, through Parliament possess the sovereignty?

As the war continued, positions hardened and became more radical. By the end of the decade, the Levellers were calling for the end of the class system and something like a modern idea of democracy. There are arguments over how much freedom of conscience should be granted for dissenting religious views, and just what were the dissentients, the ones who favored the traditional forms of worship and the authority of bishops, the Presbyterians, or the Independents? By the end of the war, Charles I had been executed and England became a republic. Even though the English Commonwealth only lasted until 1660 and ended with the restoration of King Charles II, the English Civil Wars had a lasting effect on the political development of Britain and ultimately led the way to Britain’s modern constitution.

Michael Braddick’s God’s Fury, England’s Fire is a comprehensive history of the English Civil War and the crises that preceded it. Braddick explores in detail the issues and factions which led to the breakdown of England’s political system in the years preceding the war. While this is a history of a war, Braddick seems less interested in the military history, which he does cover more than adequately, than in the ideas raised by the war. He spends quite a lot of space describing the arguments raised by the writers of pamphlets from differing factions and the role of public opinion in determining the positions held by more prominent actors in the struggles. (The fact that the decreasing cost of printing made it more possible for more people to put their opinions out into the marketplace of ideas was one of the factors that made the kingdom harder to control.) Braddick also tries, with some success, to give an idea of what the war was like from the perspective of individual soldiers and the villages where much of the fighting took place.

God’s Fury, England’s Fire should not be, perhaps the first book to read about the English Civil War but it is indispensable in learning about the issues over which the combatants fought.

 

 

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