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03Jun

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

The story of the clergymen, soldiers, architects, actors and apothecaries forced to rub shoulders during desperate times

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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