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The Siege of Loyalty House by Jessie Childs review – the English civil war in all its fog and mess | History books

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In the centuries following the burning down of Basing House by Oliver Cromwell in 1645, all sorts of odd things kept turning up in the ruins. There was fine glass from Venice, an ivory cup from west Africa, apothecary jars from Delft and fragments of a Chinese bowl. Random though these remnants were, they were nothing compared with the assorted jumble of house guests who had left them behind. For three years at the height of England’s civil war, 500 or so mostly strangers had been obliged to cram hugger-mugger into the Tudor castle, which lay two miles east of Basingstoke. Sheltered within the massive earthwork fortifications were Roman Catholics and Anglicans, soldiers and architects, actors and apothecaries, people who burned with righteous anger at what was happening to their beloved country, and those who couldn’t wait for the whole thing to be over. The one thing they all had in common was that they were nominally king’s men, on the side of Charles I in his bloody and seemingly endless struggle against his own parliament.

In The Siege of Loyalty House the historian Jessie Childs, whose great strength is her ability to deliver first-rate scholarship in really luscious prose, uses Basing as a microcosm through which to view the civil war in all its fog and mess. While each side liked to trade in stereotypes – Cavaliers cut off old ladies’ heads and played tennis with them, Puritans wanted to cancel Christmas – if you asked people why they were for or against the king they replied vaguely in terms of “religion”, “liberty”, “loyalty” and “law”. The ageing architect Inigo Jones appears to have been holed up in Basing House for no other reason than his role as the Stuarts’ in-house purveyor of grand buildings and court masques. Then there was Thomas Fuller, a clergyman who took advantage of the downtime offered by the siege to write a vast study of Britain patchworked from its “native commodities and rarities”. Hampshire, for Fuller, was a place of “malignant” moles, “troutful waters” and the best bacon in the land. All this hectic record-making was his way of keeping the olden days safe even as they were going up in smoke.

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Basing House belonged to the fabulously wealthy and unshakably Catholic marquess of Winchester. This, according to the enemy troops, made it a bastion of “popery”, “a nest of the vilest vermin in all the kingdom”. The marquess was no soldier, though, so command of the garrison went to Marmaduke Rawdon, a merchant and Church of Englander who had made a fortune in the city and liked to boast about it. With these “new man” credentials you might expect Rawdon to be on Cromwell’s side, but he had a cousin who was a bishop, which was quite enough to put him in the parliamentarians’ bad books. There was a special place in their Puritan hell reserved for “jengling and jangling” senior churchmen who wore bells down to their codpieces and resembled morris dancers.

There were three main assaults on Basing House between 1643 and 1645, each more horrible than the last. Childs doesn’t spare us the brutalities. A wounded parliamentarian soldier lies screaming on the ground while maggots wriggle over him (they probably saved his life, gobbling up bacteria). Others are incinerated as a hay barn goes up in flames. Nor was it just the men who were called to be brave. Honora, Winchester’s second wife, tore lead from the roof to make shot; while others threw bricks at the enemy, taunting: “Come up, Roundheads, if ye dare.” Childs is outstanding at describing the particular horror of dying slowly among people you don’t much care for. In its grim intensity, her descriptions recall JG Farrell’s masterly The Siege of Krishnapur.

It was Cromwell, fresh from his recent triumph at Naseby, who led the final “fling”. By this time Rawdon and his troops had sensibly scarpered, leaving a raggle-taggle group of teenage conscripts. The place was cindered, although Winchester survived, as indeed did Inigo Jones and Thomas Fuller. All the same, they must have wondered whether the suffering of the past three years had been worth it as they stepped out into a smoking, derelict world that no longer had any place for them.

The Siege of Loyalty House by Jessie Childs is published by Bodley Head (£25). To support the Guardian and Observer, order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.

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