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by Charles Cordell

God's Vindictive WrathThey say you should never judge a book by its cover. In the same vein, you should never judge a book by its title. This book’s title has a clunking feel to it but once you get past the title, you’ll find yourself clattering along in a terrific story of enduring historical importance: the English Civil War.

The murder of Charles I by the regicides and the Restoration of the Stuart Monarchy in 1660 is a popular subject. Charles Spencer’s, Killers of the King and Robert Harris’s new novel, Act of Oblivion bear witness to the topic’s enduring fascination. But those two books look at the Civil War’s aftermath and the vengeance meted out to the men who signed the death warrant for Charles I. This book, by Charles Cordell, addresses the Civil War itself and is the first in his Divided Kingdom series. Cordell is to be applauded for opening our eyes to an extraordinary period of history 1642-1653 and in this, his first book, one of the Civil War’s defining moments, the Battle of Edgehill on Sunday 23rd October 1642, and The King’s subsequent attempt to seize London.

Charles Cordell, a former career soldier and diplomat, has written a work of fiction, but it is historically accurate and true to its time. His research is impeccable and vividly brings to life what it was like to live in England in the early to mid-17th century. As a soldier, Cordell also brings an innate understanding of the way armies went about fighting in the 17th Century, a period that saw a military revolution that was to dominate warfare until the late 19th Century. He captures this superbly well in his descriptions of the Battle of Edgehill though, like all battles, it evolves into a dirty, visceral affair of hand-to-hand fighting with no quarter given. Cordell does not spare us from the sheer ugliness of battle.

Most of us were taught about the origins of the English Civil War; few of us, however, can remember anything about it except The King’s attempt to rule without Parliament and his use of the royal prerogative to raise taxes in a period of hardship and economic depression. What seems irrepressible in most people’s memory, however, are the terms ‘Roundheads’, the ‘Army of Parliament’, ‘Cavaliers’, and ‘The King’s Army’; they are curiously enduring terms. If you describe someone as a bit of a roundhead, people know what you mean, the converse is equally true. Montgomery of Alamein, a roundhead; Alexander of Tunis, a cavalier. They are still amongst us today in every walk of life and profession.

The key to a successful book of historical fiction, indeed any novel, is to have characters that seem real, human, and with whom you can identify in some small but meaningful way.  The English Civil War may have been 380 years ago but the human condition and what drives people to behave in the way they do remain the same.  It is an aspect of his writing that Cordell does extraordinarily well. Francis Reeve, the parliamentarian, ‘Let the power and resonance of God’s word wash over him’, before him, ‘ The host of the wicked, an army of profane Cavaliers and Romish idolaters, the sword of just revenge’. Francis’s brother, Ralph Reeve, a soldier of opposing allegiance in The King’s Lifeguard of Foot, ‘He had chosen to serve his King, to fight for justice, his rights to a fair living, the sheer thrill of being there to join battle against The King’s enemies’.

Some of Cordell’s characters are known to history. Sir Edmund Verney was indeed the Knight Marshal and The King’s Standard Bearer; Capt John Lilburne, a company captain in the Army of Parliament and radical pamphleteer was a well-documented character of his time. It is this juxtaposition of character, real to history or fictional, that makes for such a powerful narrative.

Cordell writes well, the pace relentless but the better for it, his use of words contemporary to their time but not affectedly so. The language is a bit earthy. I had to look up the provenance of the ‘f’ word as it occurs with monotonous frequency, but it came into our language in the 15th Century. His sense of place and atmosphere in the autumn of 1642 in the corner of Warwickshire, Edgehill, and the road to London are both evocative and redolent of the time.

The Battle of Edgehill was inconclusive though many historians point to a parliamentarian victory. In a sense they are right because what followed was The King’s steady advance on London. The King did not take London and the protracted slaughter of the Civil War continued with a great loss of life and echoes that are still heard today. Cordell covers this in part two, ‘The Road to London’, and the Battles of Brentford and Turnham Green in part 3 of the book. Not quite as well-known as Edgehill, their impact was far reaching. Once again, Cordell’s research is exemplary. He knows the value of primary sources to his readers’ imagination.

Cordell has now embarked on his next book in the Divided Kingdom series. We must wish him every success, not only because this book is so readable but also because he has pledged to give 2% of his royalties from the series to support military charities. We should also thank him for bringing to life a period of history that has been largely forgotten but has parallels today as we face up to a Britain that seems noticeably less sure of itself. With the death of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II and the beginning of the third Carolean era, the old certainties have gone. The roundheads and cavaliers are in plain sight.

Paul de Zulueta

Myrmidon Books Ltd



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