God’s Fury, England’s Fire

by Nick

God’s Fury, England’s Fire. A New History of the English Civil Wars.
by Michael Braddick.
London: Penguin Books, 2008.

In the summer of 1642, the bookseller Nathaniel Butter [DNB] put on sale a quarto pamphlet about a strange fish caught at Woolwich. A relation of a terrible monster [EEBO] told the story of a fish shaped like a toad, but with the hands and chest of a man. It was five feet long, with the tail alone a foot long, with two huge fins on each side. The wife of a butcher was so terrified by it that she swooned and exclaimed: “Oh the devil in the shape of a great fish”.

What has this got to do with a history of the English civil wars? An obscure tale to us, the significance of the fish to contemporaries was easier to see. Toad-fish and other monstrous births were omens: Pliny the Elder, for example, had said that toad-fish only came ashore in exceptional circumstances. The only time known to Pliny was during the year Nero was born. The Jewish historian Josephus likewise told a story about a heifer giving birth to a lamb in Jerusalem, six months before the city was sacked by Vespasian. There were also more recent examples, such as a whale being beached at Dieppe just before Francis I was taken prisoner at the battle of Pavia. The author of the pamphlet did not mince his words about the possible significance of the toad-fish:

These unnaturall accidents though dumbe, do not withstanding speake the supernatural intentions and purposes of the Divine Powers, chiefely when they meete just at that time when distractions, jars and distempers are a foote in a Common-weale or Kingdome.1

The fish was landed at Woolwich on 15 July 1642. Three days earlier, Parliament had resolved to raise an army for the defence of the king and for the preservation of true religion. The pamphlet underlines the fact that England stood on the brink of military conflict by bundling the toad-fish story with an account of a skirmish at Hull, which was being besieged by the king’s forces. The immediate question of any reader would have been whether Pliny and Josephus were right: was the ominous creature a sign of destruction to come?

The story of the toad-fish helps to give us some of the social context as England went to war. It’s the kind of story that would never feature in a straightforwardly political or military history of the civil wars. But it’s just one of a huge range and number of sources that Michael Braddick uses to write his history of the wars, a history which shows the renewed influence of social history on the study of early modern politics. In recent decades, English seventeenth century historiography has been split between the two: revisionist historians of the politics of the civil wars moved away from Marxian analysis in a rejection of interpretations like that of Christopher Hill and Brian Manning, but in doing so arguably lost some of the wider social context to the period. By contrast, although the “new” social history of early modern England also moved away from Marxian historiography, it did so by finding inspiration in other disciplines, like anthropology and sociology. As a result, the two became for a time rather separate. God’s Fury marks a growing trend to reconnect the two strands. It firmly answers Patrick Collinson’s call in 1990 for “social history with the politics put back in, or an account of political processes which is also social”.2

Braddick’s structure is both chronological and thematic. The narrative starts with a summary of Reformation politics in the three kingdoms, and a character sketch of the Personal Rule, before proceeding through the Bishops’ Wars, the politics of the Long Parliament, the Irish rebellion, and then into the war and its key landmarks – Edgehill, Marston Moor, Naseby, the Putney debates, the trial of Charles I. So far, so traditional. But Braddick breathes new life into this structure by using each chapter as a jumping-off point for wider social or political themes.

A chapter on the Irish rebellion, for example, allows him to dwell on the construction of factional politics in print, as pamphlet and newsbook writers sought to counter each other with increasingly lurid stories. Braddick analyses some of the atrocity stories that started to circulate once news of the rising broke in London. He also carries out a close reading on a pamphlet that relates how John Pym was sent a plague-sore plaster in the post, and how he unwrapped it theatrically on the floor of the Commons. The pamphlet carried a large woodcut of Pym on the front and generally does much to impress on its readers Pym’s importance to the defence of the kingdom. The pamphlet was printed for W.B., who Braddick deduces to be the bookseller William Bowden. Bowden had published a number of tracts about Catholic plots, and was quick to stock pamphlets about the alleged atrocities carried out during the rising. Braddick hypothesises, convincingly, that Bowden was part of a network of printers and booksellers publishing rumours about the rising but also bolstering Pym’s position within the Junto. But he goes further than this, too, linking the incident in to a wider treatment of the development of the newsbook, something which would transform the political and public sphere in the 1640s and onwards. Braddick is particularly strong on the importance of print culture more generally. Joad Raymond and Jason Peacey are both thanked in the acknowledgements and the influence of their work is clear – Braddick is very good at analysing print culture as a thing in itself rather than just as a source for other themes, in other words as something that was one of the drivers of events.

Another very effective example is a section looking at astrology and prophecy. Braddick uses a foray into the works of William Lilly as a wider exploration of the importance of astrology: how astrologers took sides, how the popular market for astrology developed, and the importance of prophecy too. He explores the influence of Mother Shipton, as well as looking at the royalist George Wharton’s famously inaccurate prediction about the battle of Naseby. Braddick uses thematic passages like this extremely effectively to place the political, military and religious conflicts in a wider social context. They are interesting in themselves as self-contained summaries of the latest academic thinking on particular points – some of the footnotes are discursive essays in themselves. But they are never digressions. They serve to explain not just the course of events, but why things happened as they did: what it was about 1640s England that meant the wars turned out in a particular way.

It’s significant that Braddick starts his book with a summary of Reformation politics. Even the title immediately makes it clear that religion is going to play a central role in his narrative. The narrative that Braddick is outlines is of a religious crisis with political implications – Charles I’s mishandling of the Personal Rule may have been a trigger in the shorter term, but for Braddick the conflicts of the 1640s hark back to the crisis of the 1620s, and even before that to the unfinished business of the Elizabethan settlement. 25 years on from John Morrill’s seminal lecture to the Royal Historical Society about Britain’s wars of religion, Braddick’s account picks up and expands these themes.3 He combines this with a strong sense of popular agency and ideology in explaining why it was that those outside Westminster went to war. He is sensitive in dealing with the fact that views held in one year could mean one type of allegiance, whereas the same views held 12 months later might mean choosing an entirely different allegiance. And (drawing on John Walter and Andy Wood) he unpicks the complexities of popular allegiance exceptionally well, sketching out how local political and religious ecologies could drive allegiance in particular directions while not making it inevitable – a good example being the Derbyshire tin miners, who on paper ticked all the boxes to side with Parliament, but who supported the king in return for remission on the tithe of tin. The political turn in social history makes its influence felt here, with Braddick being careful to suggest that what might on the face of it look like economic motives to choose sides should not be dismissed as non-political.4

If I have any criticisms, one is that the book, for me, slightly fails to capture fully the military aspect to the wars. Descriptions of battles fall slightly flat, although they are certainly detailed and comprehensive. Another slight letdown is that the book does not fully engage with the arguments of John Adamson’s The Noble Revolt, although this is not Braddick’s fault: The Noble Revolt emerged as God’s Fury was going to press. But Adamson’s book is likely to change the high political narrative of the early 1640s, as well as make historians think further about the connections between the Junto and London crowds. It will be interesting to see what future works of synthesis make of Adamson’s arguments.

But this is a rich and rewarding book. I learned a lot from it, and it has made me reconsider my approach to some of the key issues in this period (for instance my views on the politics of the Personal Rule). And I suspect I will be dipping in and out of it for some months to come. It manages to combine an incredibly comprehensive synthesis of current scholarship with a pacy narrative and strong arguments. If you’ve got any interest in the period at all, it’s a must-buy.

If you’re interested in getting some other opinions about the book, there have been a number of reviews elsewhere:

  • Guardian. Keith Thomas liked the book but felt let down by Braddick’s post-modern conclusions.
  • Spectator. Robert Stewart praised it for marrying an account of high politics with a dissection of why the English people went to war.
  • FT. Diane Purkiss gave it a mixed review, criticising the book for summarising topics she would rather have seen more on, but acknowledging the book’s usefulness for undergraduates.
  • THES. R.C. Richardson disagreed with Purkiss, arguing that it was unlikely to be used as a textbook but praising the narrative and its coverage.

References:

1. A relation of a terrible monster taken by a fisherman neere Wollage, July the 15. 1642. and is now to be seen in Kings street, Westminster (London, 1642), p. 3.

2. Patrick Collinson, De Republica Anglorum: or, History with the Politics Put Back (Cambridge, 1990), p. 14.

3. John Morrill, The Religious Context of the English Civil War, in Morrill (ed.), The Nature of the English Revolution, (London, 1993), ch. 3.

4. Andy Wood, The Politics of Social Conflict: the Peak Country, 1520-1770 (Cambridge, 1999), and Riot, Rebellion and Popular Politics in Early Modern England (Basingstoke, 2002); John Walter, Understanding Popular Violence in the English Revolution: The Colchester Plunderers (Cambridge, 1999).