As Jessie Childs notes in the introduction of her book, The Siege of Loyalty House, the English Civil War claimed a greater proportion of British lives than the First World War. And yet, perhaps inevitably, our understanding of the scale of a conflict that wreaked unfathomable destruction and violence on the British population has dimmed over the centuries.
Childs’ book is “an attempt to recover the shock of that experience and to look upon the face of the war through the story of one particularly dramatic episode”. That episode is the siege of a Royalist stronghold, the lavish Basing House mansion, by Parliamentarian forces.
The Siege of Loyalty House plunges us into the heart of a vicious conflict through a gripping and immersive portrayal of one of its defining episodes. The tale of this desperate, frequently brutal siege yields an illuminating insight into the dynamics of a war that tore the country apart.
A ‘nest of papists’
When Parliamentarian forces began what turned into a protracted three-year siege of Basing House in August 1643, it was well-established as one of the country’s most opulent stately homes.
The Hampshire property was a little over a century old, having been built in 1531 by William Paulet, 1st Marquess of Winchester, on the site of an old Norman motte and bailey castle. The resulting house was realised on an impressively grand scale, comprising 300 rooms and 14 and a half acres of grounds.
Basing House was a ‘princely’ residence fit for royalty. Indeed, it was well-accustomed to royal visits, partly due to Paulet’s standing as a prominent statesman and history of royal service – Henry VIII made him Controller of the Royal Household – but also because the lavish property evidently accommodated the royals in a manner to which they were accustomed. Edward VI, who bestowed Paulet with his title, is known to have spent three days at the house in 1552. Elizabeth I enjoyed her 1560 stay so much that she returned twice, in 1569 and 1601.
When the Civil War erupted in 1642, Basing House stood out as an overt Royalist bastion. The Paulet family, now headed by John, the 5th Marquis of Winchester, were committed supporters of Charles I. The family motto, supposedly engraved with a diamond onto every window at Basing House, was Aymez Loyaulté, “Love Loyalty”. They were also prominent Catholics; their loyalties couldn’t have been more clearly signposted.
Basing House, or as Paulet came to call it ‘Loyalty House’, became a refuge for Royalist supporters and an obvious target for Parliamentarian censure. This so called ‘nest of papists’ also happened to be located on the main road from London to the West Country, a key strategic route during the Civil War.
Promising that he would hold Basing in the King’s name forever, the Marquis of Winchester garrisoned the House in anticipation of a Parliamentarian siege, which promptly arrived in November 1643.
The Siege of Loyalty House
The first siege of Basing House was preceded by a Parliamentarian attack in July 1643. It was a relatively modest assault, certainly compared to the sieges that would follow, and was held at bay by the Marquis and his men. Anticipating an imminent escalation, Charles I sent a garrison to support their efforts. Under the command of Lieutenant-Colonel Robert Peake, 100 men bolstered Basing’s defences.
A further 150 soldiers, led by Colonel Marmaduke Rawdon, who became the military governor of Basing House, arrived in time to defend the house against the first significant siege.
Under Rawdon’s leadership Basing was transformed into a formidable fortress. Extensive reinforcements, including earthwork banks, ditches and bastions, were created and the artillery was augmented. By the time the Parliamentarian forces, led by Sir William Waller, attacked, the Basing garrison numbered about 400 men.
At dawn on 7 November 1643, the Parliamentarian siege began with 500 musketeers opening fire. The attack drove Royalist forces back to the main house, allowing advancing Parliamentarian units to seize the outbuildings they’d been occupying.
But the Royalists counter-attacked, bombarding the outbuildings with cannon fire, and forcing the musketeers into a retreat. It was an emphatic retaliation and Waller’s men were discouraged. Over the course of the next two weeks, morale continued to slump as the cold, wet weather worsened.
When Waller sensed the potential for mutiny, he withdrew his forces to the nearby town of Basingstoke. He attempted another assault on 12 November but made only faltering process before his disillusioned troops refused to advance in the face of Royalist flanking fire.
The following summer a Royalist raid on a Parliamentarian outpost was scuppered by Colonel Norton’s cavalry, leading to the death or capture of 100 Royalist soldiers. Basing’s garrison was seriously depleted – Rawdon could now only call on 250 men to defend the stronghold.
A large Parliamentarian army was swiftly assembled in an attempt to take advantage of Basing’s diminished defences. Norton decided to set up a blockade and intermittently bombard the house rather than risk a direct assault. He hoped to starve out the Royalists.
The Marquis of Winchester refused to surrender, however, and Rawdon’s garrison put up a spirited defence. But they could only hold out for so long. Dwindling supplies and steadily advancing Roundhead entrenchments meant that something had to be done. The Marquis appealed for help and, despite Royalist forces being in short supply, Colonel Henry Gage managed to raise a force of 400 musketeers and 250 horses.
Gage’s men embarked on a gallant rescue mission, succeeded in driving back the Parliamentarian siege and gained access to Basing House to deliver much needed ammunition and gunpowder. The following day they commandeered livestock, wheat, malt and cheese. With supplies comprehensively replenished and flagging morale revived, the Basing House garrison was able to see off a second siege.
The Fall of Basing House
By the summer of 1645, Basing House had resisted two years of besiegement. But the Parliamentarians were relentless in their determination to take the Royalist stronghold and mounted a third siege. By then religious tensions in the mansion had mounted: the Marquis, a Catholic, had petitioned King Charles to remove all Anglicans from his property, including Marmaduke Rawdon, who had played a critical role in Basing’s defence during the first two sieges. Rawdon departed with his regiment as a result, leaving a significantly reduced garrison.
The third siege of Basing House began with the considered deployment of artillery by Colonel John Dalbier, an expert military engineer. The bombardment commenced in September 1645. Within a month Basing House’s walls were significantly weakened. Oliver Cromwell arrived on 8 October accompanied by some of the most powerful siege guns available to the Parliamentarians, including a canon-royal, which fired a 60-lb shot, two demi-cannon firing 30-lb shot and at least one mortar.
With Basing House encircled by an array of heavy artillery and thousands of men, Cromwell demanded that the besieged Royalists surrender, warning that no mercy would be shown if they didn’t comply. Despite the seemingly desperate situation that now confronted him, the Marquis once again refused.
A heavy bombardment followed on 12 October. After two days, Basing’s defences were breached in multiple places and Cromwell ordered the final assault. Parliamentarian forces attacked from several directions, completely overwhelming the 300 or so Royalists. The brutal attack lasted just two hours.
It lived up to Cromwell’s promise of no mercy: Royalist civilians and Catholic priests were slaughtered alongside soldiers and Cromwell allowed his troops to plunder the house’s many valuables. At some point during the wild looting, Basing House caught fire. The resulting 20-hour inferno left the lavish Tudor mansion – the site of desperate Royalist resistance for two years – in ruins. Basing House had finally fallen.
Our May book of the month
Jessie Childs’ The Siege of Loyalty House is History Hit’s Book of the Month for May 2022. Drawing on unpublished manuscripts and following the lives of artists, apothecaries and merchants, Childs presents an immersive and original history of the English Civil War.
The Siege of Loyalty House is published by The Bodley Head, an imprint of Penguin Books. Jessie Childs is a historian and author of God’s Traitors and Henry VIII’s Last Victim, which won the PEN Hessell-Tiltman Prize for History and the Elizabeth Longford Prize for Historical Biography, respectively.