Tuesday, October 6, 2015

The Fate of a Grand House in the English Civil War

by Deborah Swift

Towards the end of the English Civil War, many English manor houses and stately homes lay in ruins, their treasures plundered, their art-works melted down, destroyed or divided. One good example of this is Basing House, near Basingstoke.

As the King's cause became more and more hopeless, and he lost the crucial towns of Leicester, Bridgewater, Bath, and Bristol to Cromwell's New Model Army, Cromwell moved on towards London. He wanted to keep the road to the city open, and one of the places that stood in the way was Basing House. The house itself had been under siege on two previous occasions, but this was to be its last stand.

Old postcard of the Garrison Gate at Basing House (circa 1900)

An elegant walled and turreted red-brick stronghold with its own chapel, Basing House was home to the Marquess of Winchester. When it was first built it was the largest private house in the country with around 360 rooms. In Tudor times it was frequently visited by Kings and Queens, including Henry VIII, Elizabeth I, and not forgetting Philip II of Spain and Queen Mary I who spent their honeymoon there in 1554. This fabulous piece of Tudor history was soon to be left a pile of smoking rubble.

Ernest Crofts - Cromwell at the siege of Basing House
The Catholic defenders of the house were not only accused of being 'a nest of Romanists' - but also bad landlords, greedy and self-serving, who cared little for their tenants or neighbours. However, they were to stand no chance against the assembled siege-train of five enormous demi-cannons and a sixty-three pounder cannon, which blasted their way through the walls.

Once the stronghold was breached, the Roundhead storming parties swarmed over the doomed mansion, and the defenders, though they fought bravely, were far too few to stand a chance against the might of the incoming army. Women witnessed their husbands, fathers, and brothers slaughtered before them, and rushed in to try to prevent the attackers, but they were bludgeoned down.

CW Cope - The Defence of Basing House
The house was a treasure trove of beautiful artifacts, silver and gold plate, tapestries, and elegant furniture, so unsurprisingly, the soldiers thoughts soon turned to booty. The treasures in the house were said to have been worth £200,000, and Hugh Peter, Cromwell's chaplain, in his eyewitness account, the Full and Last Elation of all things concerning Basing House, speaks of 'a bed in one room furnished that cost £1300' - nearly $2000, an enormous sum in the seventeenth century.

Landseer - The Plundering of Basing House
The scene by Landseer above shows the Marquess sitting distraught, comforted by his daughter and his dog. Dead on the floor lies Major Cuffle, whilst Hugh Peter, the chaplain, is swigging stolen wine in the background.

In the wardrobes of the house were more than a hundred richly embroidered petticoats and gowns in silks and satins. These were prey to the plunderers, but not content with these, the ladies were stripped of their outer-garments, the dresses taken literally off their backs until they were left clad only in their shifts. Men were also de-robed, and poor old Inigo Jones, famous architect of Whitehall Banqueting House, had to be carried out of the house naked, but wrapped in a blanket.The Marquess of Winchester himself is said to have been captured whilst hiding in a bread-oven.
after that they sold the household stuff, whereof there was a good store; and the country loaded away many carts, and continued a great while...till they had fetched out all the stools, chairs and other lumber, all of which they sold to the country people piecemeal. In these great houses there was not one iron bar left in all the windows before night... and the last work of all was the lead, and by Thursday morning they had hardly left one gutter about the house.
~Hugh Peter
Fire was the great house's final indignity. The flames spread rapidly, burning for twenty hours, leaving little remaining but charred and blackened walls. With the house still hot from the flames, country people flocked in crowds to buy the cheese, the bacon, and the wheat which had been hastily dragged out. A cart took all the popish books, idols, rosaries and relics to London, to be burned on a public bonfire.

Even after his house was burned and looted, the Marquess was heard to say; "If the King had no more ground in England but Basing House, I would adventure as I did, and so maintain it to the uttermost. Basing House is called Loyalty."

When Parliament was queried about the bloodshed, the reply was; "You must remember what they were: they were most of them Papists; therefore our muskets and our swords did show but little compassion, and this house being at length subdued, did satisfy for her treason and rebellion by the blood of the offenders."

The experiences of the Royalists of Basing House were not uncommon. In my most recent novel, Spirit of the Highway for teens and adults, the setting is a house that has been attacked and plundered in just such a way. Some Royalists, left homeless, with their houses requisitioned by Parliament, turned to highway robbery to survive.

Although the remains of Basing House were demolished by order of Parliament, and much of the masonry carried off to be re-used in other buildings, the ruin can still be visited today.

Pictures :
Further Reading:

By The Sword Divided - John Adair
The English Civil War at First Hand - Tristram Hunt
Going to the Wars - Charles Carlton
British Civil Wars Project
Basing House
Historic Old Basing


  1. It is important to remember this was a civil war, not an invasion by a foreign army. These stories bring a high degree of pathos because this was neighbor against neighbor, with religion as an excuse to murder, bully and plunder. An important post!

    1. Yes, it is so sad. The repercussions within families went on for years.

  2. A sad affair! I seem to recall Time Team partially excavating the site to determine its layout. It would have been a magnificent estate.

    1. You're right, they did. The actual site goes back earlier to Norman times.

  3. Excellent post. To dress up such slaughter and theft in moral, religious terms is beyond contempt. And speaking of civil war, indeed there is no protection when a fellow countryman throat is in the way of loot . That throat will be cut without hesitation.

    1. The reasons for taking sides were so complex, and it went on for so long, that I think sometimes even those who were involved forgot exactly why they were fighting, but it just became like gang warfare.

  4. It's often hard to remember that this was really the only time this happened in English history, when neighbour fought against neighbour. Awful and sad times. When I was studying this period for 'A' level, my teacher told me of two villages near where we lived, in Norfolk, whose inhabitants still didn't 'get on' because the villages declared for different sides in the war.

    1. You're right, and as Shawn points out in the comment below, it was not all one-sided. At times homes were destroyed simply because they blocked the line of fire to a bigger target. As in all Civil Wars there can be no clear conquest. But what it did do was make Britain totally rethink the constitution, the Divine Right of Kings - what Royalty was really about, how the common man might control his own destiny - what Parliament was for, and how to integrate the dissenting groups of reformers such as the Levellers. Such a fascinating period!

    2. Is Annie Whitehead correct in saying this is the only time in English history that this happened ... seems to me the Wars of the Roses were divisive also. Not my period, so I'd appreciate your more informed thoughts on this point.

  5. The Royalists did the same to Parliamentarian homes and lands, as told by the sack of Leicester and other episodes. It was not one-sided.

    1. Indeed ... how could it be one sided? We are talking about humans beings and loot . As for this being only time neighbor vs neighbor in English history...yes I suppose formally and on this scale....but once was enough it seems and perhaps the memory of those times kept England from revolution later . Before the reforms, it's hard to see how it avoided it otherwise...yet it did

    2. Yes, I hope I didn't give the appearance of being partisan! See my comment above to Annie. The Basing House example is quite a lot more complex than I had space for in this post. People have written whole books on it! But the looting was motivated by extreme anger about the state of the nation, not just by greed.

      However it serves as a good example of what was lost to all of us on these British islands through the 'great shaking' of the English Civil Wars. (Actually, the correct term these days is the British Civil Wars as there was also fighting in Scotland, Ireland and Wales.

      Thank you everyone for commenting and this interesting discussion.

  6. I realize it was war and all that baloney, but I still think it is disgusting how people can justify burning and looting and causing such pain and heartache. very sad.


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.