For a place that witnessed the longest and bloodiest siege of the English Civil War, the ruined Basing House in Hampshire is a curiously bland and unsuggestive site. Only the most fertile historical imagination can conjure from its surviving ditches, mounds and walls any sense of the building’s now-vanished size or splendour; still less any understanding of why so many thousands fought and died for its possession.
During the 1640s, however, few military engagements bulked larger in popular consciousness, or occupied more column inches in the weekly newsbooks, than the siege of Basing House: the subject of this enthralling new book by Jessie Childs. Built near the London-Salisbury road as one of the great “prodigy houses” of the 1530s – part mock castle, part courtyarded Tudor palace – and with only a series of improvised earthwork bastions by way of modern defence, “Loyalty House”, as Basing became known to Royalists, acquired a journalistic prominence out of all proportion to its military worth.
This was partly because it was a gift to Roundhead propagandists. Basing’s royalist owner, John Paulet, 5th Marquess of Winchester – at that point England’s most senior Catholic peer – was useful because he seemed to substantiate the parliamentarian claim that the Cavaliers were really a party of “Papists-in-arms”. Puritan clergy gleefully prophesised the day when Basing’s walls, “like [those] of Jericho”, would come tumbling down.
To the acute embarrassment of the godly, however, Basing’s walls refused to oblige. Though the garrison’s fighting strength was rarely above 300 soldiers, the house withstood successive attempts to take it: twice in 1643, and again in the summer and autumn of 1644, when even a six-month siege failed to break the garrison’s will.
Only in October 1645, when the “king’s cause” had already been lost, did Basing fall. And even then the garrison refused to surrender, forcing its latest besiegers – a 6,000-strong force under Oliver Cromwell – to take the house by storm. Somewhere between a third and a half of the garrison’s defenders were massacred in the savage final assault.
All of this has the makings of a gripping story of pluck and soldierly derring-do. In the hands of a historian less gifted than Jessie Childs, it could easily have ended up as just another specialist book on the conflict’s military history, of interest to few beyond the circle of Civil War re-enactment buffs and specialists in siege-warfare.
Childs, it turns out, can discuss Civil War ballistics and demi-culverins with the best of them. But the trajectories that interest her here are not those of cannon and shot, but of the defenders’ multifarious lives: careers that extended from the last years of Elizabeth through, in some cases, to the 1660s, and which converged for three traumatic years in the 1640s in the defence of Loyalty House.
It is a peculiarly rich set of convergences. Apart from the prickly marquess and his bellicose marchioness (she would strip lead from Basing’s roof to cast as musket balls), the garrison’s leading figures included one of Stuart England’s greatest botanists, the apothecary Thomas Johnson; the print-seller and goldsmith Robert Peake, London’s principal importer of Counter-Reformation devotional art; and the engraver William Faithorne, one of the century’s leading portraitists. Even the septuagenarian Inigo Jones, Stuart England’s finest architect, was in the garrison by 1645, probably brought in to advise on the house’s Italian-inspired earthwork defences.
Nor were Basing’s defenders simply the “nest of Papists” their enemies alleged. True, one of the two regiments defending the house had been raised by Winchester and included a number of his co-religionists. But the other had been raised by the City tycoon and West Indies trader Marmaduke Rawdon, and was officered by Protestant Londoners; it was this regiment that provided the majority of Basing’s fighting men.
The lives of these Londoners are an essential element of Childs’ story, and it is the capital, therefore, that provides Loyalty House with its evocative opening and closing scenes. With the sort of coup de théâtre that only the most brilliant archival research can pull off, Childs brings up the curtain at the start of her narrative to reveal not Winchester’s sprawling palace, but the noisy laneways and steepled skyline of 1630s Snow Hill: the tiny pocket of London, north of Holborn and just to the west of Smithfield Market, where so many of Rawdon’s future soldiers – Peake, Johnson and Faithorne among them – plied their trades and lived their prosperous, pre-war lives to the sound of its ever-present bells.
Few books on the Civil War convey so powerfully the human cost of that voluntary choice: the horrific effects of field artillery, which made “men’s bowels and brains [fly] in our faces”; the psychological impact of a long siege, in which the phantom image of Death’s soldiers “muster[ing] together in such hideous shapes” could be as oppressive as any hunger or thirst; or the morally degenerative power of war, whereby Rawdon’s once well-disciplined soldiers became, by 1645, “little better than racketeers and highwaymen”.
Childs is just as adroit in providing the wider political background against which this drama was played out: from the war’s origins and course, through to the politics of Royalist Oxford and Parliamentarian Westminster. All this is done with such clarity and economy that her book doubles as a fine introduction to 1640s England as a whole, quite apart from the engrossing story of Basing and its defence.
There is only one serious lacuna. The nature of royalism – the inwardness of all that loyalty on display at Loyalty House – is never investigated. What drew Londoners like Peake and Rawdon to sacrifice their comfort and prosperity in the service of an embattled king? Were they fighting to defend the constitutionally free-wheeling, Spain-admiring King Charles of the 1630s – or the parliament-constrained, Protestant-cause-defending monarchy that had been created by the political revolution at Westminster between 1640 and 1641? And if the latter, did they really believe that the royal leopard had changed his spots?
Childs’ response to these questions is not so much an answer as an evasion: “Royalism was a complicated, fidgety beast that tended to defy explanatory moulds.” Perhaps so. But without wrestling with that beast it is impossible to go beyond the question of how Basing’s garrison suffered, to why.
This reservation apart, The Siege of Loyalty House: A Civil War Story is a magnificent achievement. Rarely has such fine-grained focus on a single event been used so effectively to open up wider perspectives on that fractious age. And as an account of what it was like to live through the bloodiest and most traumatic decade in England’s history, it has few rivals.
Dr John Adamson is a Fellow of Peterhouse, Cambridge
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