In the cold autumn of 1643 Susan Rodway wrote to ‘my king love’, her husband Robert. A candlemaker by trade, he was away fighting for Parliament and she hadn’t heard much from him, unlike her neighbours in the London parish of St Dunstan-in-the-West who all had news from their husbands. Their daughter, Hester, was just a baby and their young son, Willie, was sick. She was alone and scared. ‘I pray you to come home if you can come safely … I thought you would never have leave me this long together.’ Signing off ‘Your loving wife’ and vowing to pray ‘till death I depart’, she entrusted the letter to the Hampshire carrier and waited. Seventy miles away, on the morning of 6 November, Robert woke up in the village of Chilton Candover, lying in a frozen field with five thousand other soldiers. Fires the previous night had not only been for warmth but also to celebrate England’s deliverance from Gunpowder Treason in 1605. This Protestant army prayed for God’s favour again as they trudged off through the snow, ten miles to their destination, Basing House.
The Rodways, like tens of thousands of other families, were nearly a year into a bewildering, unnatural war. Mobilised troops struggled to work out where they were, never mind what they were doing or why. Robert Rodway was 28, but many of his fellow soldiers in the Westminster Red Regiment were much younger, just apprentices. None had fought before; only a few in Sir William Waller’s whole army had experienced battle. They trusted in providence, thought of home and tried to obey the orders barked at them. There was dense fog, and the men were only yards from their objective when the cluster of buildings, with their crenellated towers, domed turrets and mullioned windows – the whole enclosed by a defensive wall – became visible. At 1 p.m. the sun cleared the mists and the Royalist garrison opened fire. Waller replied with an artillery barrage that began mid-afternoon and lasted into the night. An entreaty to the defending marquess of Winchester to surrender with honour was refused. Fighting the next day was at closer quarters, first with Winchester’s men shooting through loopholes, then hand to hand. Fathers and husbands who months earlier had been busy at their trades and dandling children on their knees were now stabbing and beating their countrymen to death.
On the third day the Roundheads were forced to retreat. The reasons were strategic and logistical, but the troops were also reeling from a harrowing experience. Waller had been appalled to see three of his men, dragged from a fire with unsurvivable injuries, having their throats gently cut by an old soldier, who trusted a comrade would show him the same mercy were he ever in the same state. The general dismounted his cannon and marched his troops to Basingstoke. This had been the first major assault on Basing House, but there would be more.
The site of the Tudor palace had been a locus of human activity and power since the Stone Age. A timber fortress stood there, on the banks of the River Loddon with views across the valley, from the 12th century until 1531, when Henry VIII granted William Paulet a licence to rebuild. A feudal castle evolved into a stately home fit for royalty, said to be ‘the greatest of any subject’s house in England’. Its nickname, Loyalty House – after the marquess of Winchester’s motto ‘Aimez Loyauté’ – set the tone for what became a palace of lavish hospitality for a landed elite. Its brick ramparts and defensive ditches were romantic flourishes harking back to past dramas of domestic discord, but Paulet’s great-great-grandson, John Paulet, the fifth marquess, had to use the fortifications for real. At the start of the civil war in 1642, Basing House’s aesthetic virtues were second to its strategic significance, namely its command of the main road heading west from London. To puritan polemicists, it was also tainted by Stuart moral corruption, a ‘limb of Babylon’ dripping with effeminate decadence and idolatrous popery.
A preliminary sally in July 1643, when the Parliamentarian commander Colonel Richard Norton had expected ‘much spoil and little opposition’, had ended in failure. It was the first sign that taking Basing House would involve more than strolling through the parkland and bashing down the door, and should have made Waller less sanguine when he showed up in November. He returned a few days after his first assault, and this time Winchester allowed the attackers to creep close to the walls before peppering them with case shot. As many as eighty Roundheads died in a few minutes. Survivors were knocked from their scaling ladders by women hurling bricks and abuse: ‘Come up Roundheads if ye dare!’ Instructed by their mistress, the marchioness, Honora Paulet, maidservants peeled lead from the roof for musket balls. Once again, Waller was routed.
By the end of the year the settled opinion was that Basing House was more like the Tower of London than an effete stately home, ‘strongly walled about with earth raised against the wall of such a thickness that it is able to dead the greatest cannon bullet’. The grand residence was on a war footing. First it became a garrison then a refugee camp for families from Oxford. Trenches were dug and holes for muskets chiselled through the walls. Ancient trees were felled to deny attackers cover and cottages pulled down to open up clear lines of fire. Homes were pillaged for everything from livestock and cereals to weapons and plate to bedlinen and clothing. An oasis of leisure became an anthill of defiance. Capturing it, one Parliamentarian newsbook conceded, would be ‘difficult work’.
Loyalty House’s weakness was that its inhabitants, however loyal to the crown, were disloyal to each other. Not all Cavaliers were Catholics, however crudely propagandists painted them, and two groups lived apart, worshipping in separate chapels and divided by class as well as religion. The schism was writ large in the fact that the garrison had two governors: Winchester, a nobleman loyal to the old religion, and Colonel Marmaduke Rawdon, a Protestant of mercantile rank. They didn’t get on. Winchester swaggered about in a shining breastplate, but had adapted to war less well than his house had. A cannonball that crashed into his bedroom sent him running out without his breeches, earning him the nickname ‘the untrussed marquess’. Tactical decisions were made unilaterally then either challenged or undermined. Winchester and Rawdon schemed against each other.
The house became something like a miniature walled city, but it was not continuously besieged. News and supplies were delivered. Guests arrived, notably the botanist Thomas Johnson, the engraver William Faithorne and the elderly architect Inigo Jones. There was a wedding. Spies came and went. Deserters were caught and hanged. A plot to betray the house was uncovered. Then, early in 1644, the massing of Royalist forces around Winchester suggested a showdown was imminent. In March, Royalist hopes of regaining control of London were dashed at the Battle of Cheriton, after which the defeated commander headed north to Basing House, where he and what was left of his straggling army licked their wounds. On 21 May the victor, Waller, once again lined up Basing House in his sights but was ordered to Oxford instead. Still in the area, however, was Colonel Richard Norton. In the first week of June the Royalist garrison was catastrophically ambushed by Norton while out on a pre-emptive spree, and the second siege began. By now the house had become ‘a great annoyance to all the country’, but it was not long before Norton himself was summoned away to support Waller. A month later Colonel Herbert Morley – ‘Horrible Herbert’, the Royalists called him – demanded Winchester’s immediate surrender ‘to avoid the effusion of Christian blood’. The marquess dismissed this as ‘a crooked demand’ and stalemate set in.
It lasted all summer. Smallpox struck, food stocks dwindled, and eighteen-pound stone balls and exploding mortar shells thundered down. Honora Paulet sneaked off to Oxford for help. The Royalist commanders were reluctant to venture so deep into enemy territory. But the marchioness appealed to Cavalier honour and Colonel Henry Gage, a cocksure believer in God and himself, led his men to Basing House, orange ribbons in their hats. They sacked Basingstoke for provisions, which were delivered to the house, and Gage went back to Oxford a blushing hero. The siege, however, continued into November, by which time both sides had had enough. Norton had lost nearly a third of his men and was gone by the time Gage returned to find a depleted garrison who looked more like ‘prisoners of the grave than the keepers of a castle’.
There was a third siege in October 1645, by which time the Royalists had effectively lost the war at Naseby, and Basing House had ceased to be a symbol of loyal resistance and was more of a liability. Rawdon had begged Charles I to face down Winchester (who himself had been to Prince Rupert, the duke of Cumberland), but the king failed to keep his promises. Basing House was ‘hobbled by religious factionalism, clashing egos and a weak king’. Cromwell arrived with the big guns (literally), and, murmuring scripture, blasted Basing House and its ‘nest of Romanists’ into submission. The New Model Army surged in, the ragged defenders crawled out of their holes and the game was up. The treasures of the house – its jewels, plate and tapestries – vanished in minutes; the quaking inhabitants had the clothes stripped from their backs. The marquess was carted off to the Tower of London, as church bells pealed through the city in gratitude that Babylon had finally fallen.
Agripping account of the agony at Basing, The Siege of Loyalty House is also a potted social history of the civil wars and how they started. Jessie Childs, a gifted storyteller, begins with an immersive evocation of London: all the sights and smells of the narrow streets, and their sounds: the hawkers’ cries, cartwheels on cobbles, the endless bells. Yet this timeless bustle was about to be breached by time: crashing waves of politics and religion and, beneath, the grinding undertow of social and economic change. The book ends with the permanent alteration of that world as revolutionary England sprang back into royalist shape, followed six years later by the apocalyptic erasure of the Great Fire.
Childs describes a nation on the edge: Stuart authoritarianism and devotional regression; appeasing foreign Catholics; then the retaliation of the ‘ancient constitution’ and puritanism unconfined in an iconoclastic frenzy of stained glass smashed and surplices repurposed as menstrual cloths. Light shone on the popish plot hiding in plain sight. Familiar causes, their passions dulled by schoolroom familiarity – Ship Money, the Bishops’ War, the Grand Remonstrance, Parliaments Long and Short – are reanimated by Childs as she captures the sense of politics clattering out of control. Fifteen thousand Londoners petitioned to abolish episcopal hierarchy, the earl of Strafford was executed for ‘high misdemeanours’ and puritans exulted in their ‘annus mirabilis’ – 1641 – until October when Catholic rebels in Ireland rose up against Protestant settlers, who were ‘planet-strucken’ with fear. Things came apart. Quarrels spilled over into public protests that degenerated first into scuffles then gun fights. ‘It is strange to note,’ Bulstrode Whitelocke lamented to the House of Commons, ‘how we have insensibly slid into this beginning of a civil war by one unexpected accident after another.’
Few men wanted to fire the first shot or even pick a side, still less leave their glowing hearths to go campaigning. One can imagine the mood of the gardener who stopped writing about tulips in his notebook and began a new section headed: ‘The Postures of the Musket’. And when the gardeners and grocers, cobblers and carpenters did pick sides they couldn’t always say why. Roundheads had liberty and true religion, but Royalism, Childs explains, was ‘a complicated, fidgety beast that tended to defy explanatory moulds’. What was happening? Who had they become? These were questions for God, who answered in omens and judgments, and for the London astrologer William Lilly (whose horoscope for Basing House foretold its fall). The uncertainty was terrifying. The battles of Edgehill and Newbury were ‘lengthy … costly and inconclusive’. Feared things never happened or nearly happened or resulted from whims and accidents, from decisions made off the cuff and on the hoof.
Characters step off the page: Marmaduke Rawdon, a self-made hippomaniac whose motto was ‘Win gold and wear gold’ (and whose family later made a fortune off the backs of slaves in Barbados); the tolerant chaplain Thomas Fuller, who looked like a butcher and was ‘the perfect walking library’; and John Berkenhead, ‘a slick young journalist … sometimes funny, frequently cruel’. We find Rawdon at Turnham Green ‘scoffing hot pies’, and James I’s daughter Elizabeth Stuart, not yet the Winter Queen and painted in her pomp, ‘all coral lips and candyfloss hair’. There are ‘snobs’, men get ‘tooled up’, ‘culture wars’ rage, and a poor man called Atkins ‘shat himself’. Childs also has an eye for detail. A puritan woodturner recklessly eats a pear without lifting his heart to God. We hear not only of Archbishop Laud’s sequestered library but also his tortoise, which reputedly lived for another hundred years after its master – ‘that grand enemy of the power of godliness’ – was executed; and Charles II’s opulent household, which after a decade of austerity boasted a chocolatier, a bowling green attendant and a cormorant keeper. The prose sparkles with puns, rhymes and alliteration: ‘fearless, earless William Prynne’; the Witchfinder General stalking ‘the fen-sucked fogs of East Anglia’; Johnson the botanist, unbothered ‘by the raising, or razing, of altar rails, but he would dive into a bog for a butterwort’. Childs is close to her sources – and shows them when she needs to – but most of the hard work is hidden, like complex wiring behind a well plastered wall.
Today all that is left of Loyalty House is the barn – a popular wedding venue – and some ruins, cellars and tunnels where ghost tours are offered. Civil War re-enactors gather there bearing muskets and pikes. A tattered daybed is perhaps the only surviving piece of furniture; there are also portraits of the marquess and marchioness, Honora looking coolly entitled in silks and lace and pearls. Only a sketchy engraving of the house remains, attributed implausibly to Wenceslaus Hollar. A hole made by a cannon ball in the barn wall is still there, and early in the 20th century soldiers’ charcoaled graffiti were found in an excavated cellar then lost during a snowstorm. Artefacts include shards of Delftware, Venetian glass, Chinese porcelain – even an ivory cup from West Africa. There are also bullets and buckles, keys and scissors, thimbles and combs. And bones: the detached skull of a broad-faced soldier; the skeleton of a seven-foot man found in an orchard by a woman burying her pet rabbit. Somewhere there may be a stash of gold. In the 1960s the estate’s owner sent a team of frogmen down a well, but in vain.
‘Basing House appealed to the public imagination,’ Childs writes. ‘It was alluring and dangerous, charmed and damned.’ It had meant so much, for different reasons, to both sides in the war – and then it was no more. Winchester survived the Tower thanks largely to Honora’s efforts and regained the estate after the Restoration in 1660, when, as Honora put it in a letter, they could at last ‘begin to breathe in a more calm and fresher air’. The marquess wrote a book in praise of great women in history – an indirect tribute, it seems, to his impressive wife. Charles Paulet, his son by his first wife, supported William of Orange at the Glorious Revolution and restored the family to wealth and favour. He built a new house south of Basingstoke, and what was left of Loyalty House – it had been ravaged by fire and ordnance – was demolished. By then thousands of bricks had been removed, randomly and systematically, many of them finding new life in nearby buildings. It was small compensation for the devastation and deprivation the war had caused to the local population, whose homes had been wrecked and burned, and their farms plundered.
Childs’s book conveys the raw emotion of events, especially the trauma of the siege itself. ‘Rancid meat, puddle water, bombs, disease, desertions, pain, grief, exhaustion and daily cruelties’ – the list of sufferings could come from most sieges in history. One might add the nerve-shredding anxiety of the prospect of a slow death by starvation or sickness, or a sudden one by surprise attack. Childs addresses the problem of how to realise the horrors of such an old war, muted by costume drama recreations of ‘wrong but wromantic’ Cavaliers and warts-and-all Roundheads. Beyond the famous battles – Edgehill, Marston Moor, Newbury, Naseby – the typical engagement was something less than a skirmish. Anyone wishing to experience this, Diane Purkiss has suggested,
should walk down a long lane lined with a five-foot hedge, and suddenly come under musket fire from inside the hedge. Or they might stand drinking at a cattle trough, hear thundering hoofbeats, and be cut on the cheek with a cavalry sabre. Accounts of such fights rarely stress any military objective; once the action started, the goal was to stay alive.
Even in an era of high mortality, of plague pits and gibbeted felons, the physical effects of combat were shocking. At Basing House perhaps 2500 men were killed or injured. Limbs were smashed and severed, faces caved in by case shot, the brains exposed. A soldier without a forehead regained mobility until, as his surgeon predicted, he fell into convulsions and died ‘howling like a dog’. At Newbury a whole file, six deep, was beheaded by a single cannon ball. Organs and intestines flew in men’s faces and scarred their minds, inuring them to horror or proving they could never be desensitised. This, and the dehumanising effect of killing, changed men – the aristocrats, an ascending officer class and the humble citizen soldiers, shit-scared, thinking of their families, shaking with cold and fear. In her aim ‘to recover the shock of that experience and to look upon the face of the war’ Childs could be describing the trenches of Ypres or Bakhmut or the sieges of Leningrad or Mariupol.
Robert Rodway returned to his wife Susan, his son Willie and baby daughter Hester, waiting for him in Bell Yard, off Fleet Street. It was once assumed that he had perished at Basing House on 12 November 1643; his regiment certainly suffered the highest losses that day. It’s more likely, however, that he limped back with other survivors, whose cry after the first siege was ‘home, home!’ What we know for sure is that Susan Rodway’s letter never reached him. It was intercepted by Royalist troops, brought to Oxford and published in a newsbook as proof that Parliamentarian morale was low.
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