This article is taken from the June 2022 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.
Late in the summer of 1641, with Charles I deep in dispute with his Parliament, alarming reports reached Westminster of Catholics amassing arms at Basing House in Hampshire. At this point in time, few expected civil war, but plenty feared an imminent Catholic plot. Recent reform to the Church had introduced lavish ceremonies which looked, to many eyes, like the trappings of Rome, and Charles himself was married to a Catholic.
More to the point, England’s Catholics had done it before. Every year, people marked the anniversary of the Gunpowder Treason, which was already stuck in the national consciousness as the quintessential Popish rebellion: an armed coup plotted by dissident aristocrats gathering weapons on their great rural estates and planning subterfuge at the highest levels.
Yet civil war came, and when it did it would be nothing like the “Popish Plots” of Protestant imagining. It would be fought over constitutional as much as religious divides. And, rather than a rebellion, it would be an armed struggle between two competing fiscal-military organisations — effectively between two competing states.
The English countryside became militarised
The English countryside became militarised. Now, it was not just a landscape. It was territory. The great houses were no longer places for covert plotting; now they were centres of command and control. And few were more important than Basing House.
Hampshire today is a pleasant place: gentle and verdant with rolling chalk hills, shaded woodlands, and quiet valleys. But in the 1640s it became contested and dangerous: a dark, malevolent land of violence and death. People looked upon one another with suspicion, and riders were ambushed and killed as they travelled at night. Parish churches were stormed, towns starved and bombarded. Armies of musketeers, pikemen, and cavalry traversed the folding lanes of the county looking to bring bloodshed and plunder.
Basing House was a Royalist stronghold. It was home to aristocratic Catholics, and while a small number of aristocrats sided with Parliament, vanishingly few Catholics did. Its story, and the story of the parliamentarian attempts to take it, is a remarkable one, drawing in some of the great characters of the age. Most famous are the architect Inigo Jones and the engraver Wenceslaus Hollar, but Jessie Childs’s new history gives us many other fascinating lives, too.
There is Robert Peake the art dealer and Thomas Johnson the apothecary. There is Marmaduke Rawdon the merchant, and at the centre of everything were John Paulet the Marquess of Winchester — who owned the house — and Honora his Irish wife.
Through these characters, Childs skilfully recounts the origins of the war: the breakdown between Charles and his political class, the turbulent first sitting of the Long Parliament, and the chaos of the winter of 1641-2 when popular demonstrations and a blundering attempt at a coup by the king brought England to the brink.
It allows Childs to explore, too, the fascinating world of seventeenth-century England: its religion, its scientific progress, and the birth of its trade and empire. These are everyday lives in an extraordinary period, and it is an enjoyable read, even as we know that our protagonists’ destinies will lead them to that great looming mansion in Hampshire, from which some would not return.
Once the fighting begins, we largely move behind the brick walls and mud bulwarks of Basing House itself. To Childs’s credit, though, the enemies at the gates are given flesh and blood, too. There is the theatrical Puritan firebrand Hugh Peter, a founder of Harvard and a preacher to the parliamentarian forces; there is Thomas Harrison, the charismatic religious radical; and there is the man initially tasked with taking the House, William Waller.
Famous for the moving friendship he retained with the royalist Ralph Hopton, the genteel Waller’s early success would see him lauded as “William the Conqueror” on the parliamentarian side. But Basing House eluded even his considerable talents, and, in the end, it took an even more impressive figure to breach the ramparts.
Late in 1645 the royalists were cascading towards defeat. They had lost the set-piece battle at Naseby to Parliament’s New Model Army, followed by further catastrophes in the west. Now one of Fairfax’s deputies was engaged in mopping up operations in the south including, at last, the still-unyielding Basing House.
One of the reasons this book works so well, and is so engaging, is that Childs is able to use the tale of the house, which is ultimately one of siegecraft, musketry, and hurtling cannonballs, into one that encompasses the whole English conflict.
It is not microhistory as such, but it deftly weaves the bigger story around the main drama of the siege. The subtitle has it as “a Civil War story”, and this feels remarkably apt. For it is not just a story from the Civil War, it is a story about the Civil War, and to a point it is the story of the Civil War.
A crucial theme is encapsulated in the book’s denouement. The deputy sent to pacify Hampshire for the New Model was Oliver Cromwell. He had been in the thick of the fighting from the start, and before then was an earnest — if obscure and scruffily-attired — Member of Parliament. But Cromwell really rose to prominence in 1644 and 1645, on the back of his military abilities. He represented a new approach to the war: the pursuit of total victory even at the cost of sharp bloodshed.
Cromwell’s brutal efficiency brought the siege to its end
It was Cromwell’s direct — even brutal — efficiency that brought the siege of Basing House to its end. The walls fell and many of the garrison were killed. Slaughtered, too, were a number of Catholic priests in a moment of violence that was representative of the way the war was heading. Cold-blooded murder of female camp followers had been perpetrated by royalists in Cornwall and by parliamentarians after Naseby. King Charles had allowed a bloody storm of Leicester which had cost many civilian lives, and Cromwell would go on to oversee the horrors of Drogheda and Wexford in Ireland. The chivalry of Waller and Hopton would come to seem a long way in the past.
The appearance of Cromwell at the end of the book is emblematic in another way, too. In early 1645 the astrologer William Lilly was astute enough to predict that this year “The nobility and gentry who have continued many generations are sinking and an inferior sort of people … are ascending”. Cromwell the minor gentleman was the very embodiment of these relatively lowly men. His cracking the walls of an aristocratic citadel such as Basing House is nicely appropriate, though the radical ways these “inferior” persons would later push the revolution lie beyond the scope of this book.
The Siege of Loyalty House is exciting and scholarly, vivid and accessible. It is a perfectly-crafted triumph of narrative history: a book that should attract readers daunted by the complexity of the times or put off by the usual scrum and powder of Civil War military history. In fact, it is one of the most pulsating books on seventeenth-century England I have read for many years. The research that underpins it is impressive. But, above all else, it is the kind of book that immerses the reader in an alien world, making the raw experience of life in troubling and violent times feel completely real.
Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print
Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10Subscribe