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Loyalty, Divided: The Doomed Resistance Of A Cavalier Stronghold In The English Civil War
Reviewing 'Loyalty House' by Jessie Childs
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Jessie Childs, The Siege of Loyalty House: A Story of the English Civil War. 2023
“Basing House was, in fact, two houses: a castle fronted by an imposing Tudor gatehouse, and next to it, the Marquess of Winchester’s stately pleasure palace,” writes journalist and author Jessie Childs. “It was ‘seated and built as if for royalty’, recorded an anonymous diarist inside the house.” Called the Old House and the New House, the two structures were connected “by two bridges — one made of stone, one made of wood — and reportedly surpassed [the Old House] ‘in beauty and stateliness.’” Staffing such a spectacle was expensive. Basing House “was said to be ‘overpowered by its own weight,’” Childs writes. Another detractor wrote that "the house stood in its full pride.” Stocked with both obsolete and modern weapons, the armory was “half in the old world and half in the new” when the war began, split much like Basing House itself, says Childs.
Standing on a natural site to command a major crossroad, the manor grounds appear to have been inhabited since the Stone Age, and were first fortified during the 13th century. An English sovereign could not ask for a better symbol of ancient strength. Reinforced with dirt ramparts and a broad ditch, the obsolete brick walls made Basing House a small, yet formidable artillery fortress during the English Civil War. Earning its moniker through three different sieges, Loyalty House ultimately suffered the same fate as its sovereign, and at Cromwell’s own hand. Divided along invisible fault lines, Basing House was ultimately shattered by the relentless storm directed against it.
In 1643 the lord of the manor was John Paulet, the 35th Marquess of Winchester, a Catholic, whose motto was ‘Love Loyalty.’ He was not even supposed to have an armory at all, and it was perpetually short on match and powder throughout the war. As the closest Cavalier stronghold to the rebellious City, Basing House was also a nest of spies, a launching place for raids on enemy posts, and a base for interdicting London trade. Garrison resistance intensified Puritan paranoia about popish plots. In The Siege of Loyalty House: A Story of the English Civil War, Childs recounts the last days of a stone castle, the loves and loyalties of those who lived and died there, and the history of the English nation written in bloody trauma.
Marmaduke Rawdon, factor and antiquary, was a member of the Honourable Artillery Company, a sort of social club for London militia men. Rawdon did not want a civil war because he “had ships to buy and colonies to plant,” but his loyalty to Charles widened a decade-old rift with his peers, as did his generous philanthropy to beautify the churches.
In 1631, the Lord Mayor and aldermen had machinated to make Rawdon captain-leader over the will of the membership, who wanted John Venn, a key parliamentarian for the City during the war. In retrospect, the dispute was clearly a waypoint on England’s path to civil strife, an example of the Old Guard aldermen and other City elites creating the resentments that built up to explosive levels in London during the decade before the war.
A few years after that controversy, hundreds of new members enlisted in the company, making Venn its vice president and future Roundhead leader Phillip Skippon the captain-leader. A cornerstone institution had thus attracted a new kind of character, taking on a new character, that shaped the success of the revolution. “By the end of the decade it exerted a stronger pull on those who felt, like Venn, that the Church was in need of purification than on members like Rawdon who championed its ornamentation,” Childs writes.
Rawdon was no Puritan, nor a Catholic, but a high church Englishman like his king. Many men in the Old Guard of London who joined the Royalist cause, or at least sympathized with Charles even if they did not resist Parliament, were of a similar mind. Put simply, they were out of step with the masses at the very moment in which literacy and the printing press were empowering mass politics for the first time. Rawdon was not forced out of the City all of a sudden, but bit by bit, and then all at once.
Events at the Guildhall in 1641, when rowdy workers nixed the appointment of a Lord Mayor and close ally of Charles, bookended the earlier Artillery Company dispute. Londoners had learned to resist the king. They wanted to tear down the Cheapside Cross and the altar rails in Saint Paul’s. Profligate spending on art and architecture was proof of Catholic influence in the Caroline court, and quite out of fashion.
Worst of all, perhaps, the London men supporting Venn against the king were a faction of colonizing, planting men just like Rawdon — investors (‘adventurers’), shippers, and dreamers, men of property. These men had chafed under the 11-year personal rule without a parliament. Charles I was corrupt. His insoluble cash crisis had become a divisive problem for the livery companies and trade monopolies forced to loan him money. Rawdon saw the storm clouds gather and knew his own trade would be constrained by war.
Childs relates the story of his quiet arrangments to protect his estate and family, how they ultimately failed in London and flourished in Barbados, how Marmaduke Rawdon slipped out of the City and made his way to Oxford, and from there to Basing House, along with others. This character portrait of a pacifist turned Cavalier is one of many in Childs’s chapters on the path to war.
Rawdon’s tale then becomes the narrative twin thread to the marquess, whose loyalty to the same monarch was just as real, but shaped by an older, increasingly obsolete kind of elitism. Class and privilege were complicated — too complicated for too many, in England. Like Basing House itself, there were two parts and two commanders, a split in lines of loyalty that frayed under tension. The fabric of English power was being torn apart. The center could not hold.
In time Rawdon, a professional and a man of action, proved intolerable to the Marquess of Winchester, a man with no stomach for fighting and danger, “despite his colonel’s commission and a portrait of himself in shining armour.” Winchester had built his estate on royal favoritism, accepting the plums which were confiscated from those who fell from the king’s favor.
During the siege, a cannonball penetrated the aristocrat’s bedchamber, missing the marquess but sending him into a panic, whereupon he rushed outside in his bedclothes, insensible, to become “the untrussed marquess” in ribald broadsheets. Winchester further humiliated himself when, having ridden out with a raiding party, he paid the soldiers a salutary bonus and then returned to his fortified manor in safety while the doomed men rode on. “His courage was trumpeted in Mercurius Aulicus,” a royalist news sheet, “but the London press thought him an indolent coward who battened himself from the world.” Rumors of his hoarded food stirred resentment among the defenders. Rumors of his hoarded gold led to betrayals and intrigues.
Winchester wanted Rawdon somewhere else. Rawdon saw the prospect of a more remote posting as royal disfavor. Their contest played out in Oxford the same way that so many disputes had played out before: Charles was reassuring, made promises, denied everything, only to undercut everyone, sooner or later. He was the same way with his military contractors. An informal system of centralized authority could not meet the procurement needs of scattered garrisons. Gunpowder and match were consumables, always in demand but short in supply. Childs has the receipts, carefully recorded by an unknown diarist inside Loyalty House, showing the constant want and welcome, though inadequate and too infrequent, provision of both essentials.
Logistics over contest terrain were always a problem. Relief of Basing House had to compete with other, more pressing military priorities. As the hopes of 1643 gave way to the darkness of 1644, Parliament held most of the country, even if they lacked an army. London pressed Parliament to “New Model” their forces. With the forced sidelining of officers deemed too unwilling to endanger the king’s person, and a mandate to defeat him decisively, Loyalty House was doomed.
Doomed, because lack of unified command was a consistent problem for both armies until 1645, solved in the new modeling of the parliamentary army with a clear mission as well as a clear chain of authority.
Doomed, because when that army arrived at Basing House, it was imbued with a revolutionary spirit, so that unlike the previous armies that had visited, this one was determined to stay as long as the mission required.
Doomed, because Oliver Cromwell brought his siege train with him, and no mere fortified mansion could withstand that much firepower. Not for nothing, Cromwell referred to the dozen siege cannons cast for his Scottish campaign as his “Twelve Apostles.”
Childs exhibits a keen understanding of the military revolution that was taking place during the “Iron Century.” Wartime defenses for Basing House required the movement of hundreds of thousands of wheelbarrow loads of dirt. Sloped earthen walls and ditches made the medieval fortification walls effective against cannonfire, but neither of the main buildings had been designed to resist cannonfire. Caught between old and new, Loyalty House was vulnerable to a modern army equipped with modern artillery.
“Two days of heavy bombardment on 22 and 23 September brought down one of the main towers of the Old House and blew breaches in the New,” Childs narrates. “The bricks were loosened and a crack appeared.” Another aimed shot toppled the turret, bringing down the wall, so that the New Model soldiers could see “‘bedding and other goods fall out of the house into the court’.”
As the big guns belched, so did mortars. “All the while, the granadoes did ‘good execution’,” Childs reports. Observing the dramatic principle of Chekov’s gun, she first explains the mortar grenadoes were the most terrifying weapon of all, for their high ballistic trajectory carried over the castle walls. Disciplined, frequent mortar fire in support of other siege operations was a hallmark of the New Model. In her telling, it becomes the bass drumbeat of final destruction.
Inside of Basing House at the end was the royal architect Inigo Jones, who may have had a hand in designing the fortifications. Childs is careful to say where history is unsure about who did what, and when, while still sketching a strong portrait of every character’s life and career from primary sources. With dexterity, she tells the sad story of Thomas Johnson, London apothecary turned soldier, his love of medicinal plants that led him to write an entire catalog of English flora, and his death from a wound sustained in defense of Loyalty House. Childs uses both stories to illuminate history: the influence Jones had on the architecture of the early United States, the role of Johnson’s work in the development of battlefield medicine. Basing House itself becomes the means to narrate the fortification revolution which was taking place at the time. Her expertise is evident, yet her book is quite readable for the non-expert.
Her story is rich in primary sources, for the topic was a popular one. “Basing House appealed to the public imagination,” Childs writes. “It was alluring and dangerous, charmed and damned. It was ‘that invincible garrison, that nest of unclean birds,’ full of treasure, fair maidens and Irish rebels.” One writer “was stirred by the image of the ‘many malignant ladies and other women within castle’ throwing stones from the parapet and taunting the soldiers. ‘Come up Roundheads if ye dare!’ Undoubtedly, the writer prophesied, the Roundheads would come up, to take away all the gold and silver ‘that doth lie buried in the ground [and] in the sheets’.”
This is not feminist history, but Childs has included women in her story everywhere possible: the wives, the daughters, the camp women. Women contributed materially to the fight at Basing House, but no girlbosses took part in the final melée. Spiralling hatred in wartime is illustrated in the fate of women: the slaughter of camp women in the Parliamentary army that disintegrated after Lostwithiel led to the responsive slaughter of Royalist camp follower women, presumed Irish, at Marston Moor, which presaged the deaths of women at Basing House.
The sufferings of the marchioness throughout the siege, and the death of the marqess’s daughter in the final fall, are narrative waypoints in the descent of England into horrific misogyny. It was also a time of witch trials, Childs reminds us. Women carried much of the intelligence into, and out of, Basing House, and London, and Oxford. Women were active participants in their own history, heretofore hidden. Adding these figures to the story has illuminated the English Civil War anew.
Slighted and reduced after its fall, Basing House is now archaeology, a distinct piece of terrain instead of the stately, sumptuous country mansion that it once was. Jessie Childs has told its history, and the story of the war that brought its end, and the stories of the people whose lives touched on it, or ended there, with remarkable clarity and art and dovotion. She has been as loyal to her topic as the last defenders of Loyalty House. Her prose is exquisite, both easy and a pleasure to read.
Loyalty House is a perfect summertime distraction for anyone who already loves reading about the English Civil War, but also for the reader who knows nothing about it, and would like to read just one great book to know a lot. The hardback edition is worth the premium; this one stays on my shelf.
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