Sunday, January 04, 2009

The Final Siege of Basing House

Picture this: It's October 1645. You're a member of the Royalists, holed up in the old part of Basing House. The Roundheads have already attacked the house twice before and have been held off. Colonel John Dalbier and 800 men have had your company surrounded since August, but so far you've held strong.

Then a rumour goes around the men: Oliver Cromwell, second-in-command and later feared leader of the Roundheads, has arrived. Bringing heavy artillery, including a cannon which shoots 63-pound shots, pulled by 70 horses. And a few thousand angry men.


Under the "rules" of battle which governed at the time, once a decent hole in the walls had been made by the attackers, the defenders had no right of surrender. So Cromwell asked the Royalists to surrender. They said no.

So that night Cromwell blasted a hole in the defences. Rather than attacking immediately, he gave the Royalists the night to think about a surrender. (They really should have.) In the morning, the Royalists flew "the black flag of defiance" (aka "screw you!") instead, so the attacking army moved in. They even used the first poison gas attack, burning wet straw mixed with sulphur and arsenic. The house was overrun, and about 150 people were killed.

During the siege, the house was accidentally set on fire and burned down. The soldiers were (unusually) given leave to pillage the house, taking goods worth about 10 million pounds today. (For the full story by Alan Turton, click here. It's quite fascinating.)

So why am I telling you all this? On New Year's Day Brendan and I went to a free tour of the ruins of Basing House, given by one of the archaeologists in charge of the area, Alan Turton. It was a freezing, overcast day and everyone was cold. But Alan Turton was very interesting, which helped keep our minds off it. Basing House is located in the village of Old Basing, where I go running. It's about a mile from our house in a straight line, or 1.5 miles to walk. (England is a contrast. One moment you're in the city, the next, in the country in a little village! The poor people live in the city, on "estates", while the rich people live in the country.)


Here's the crest on the entrance. This was actually the 'farm' gate. It's been a bit weathered away by time. The family crest here said "Love Loyalty" in Latin, and the family certainly lived up to the motto!


The Basingstoke canal went through here in the 18th century, destroying a lot of archaeological history in the process. Before railways were invented, canals were the means of transporting goods throughout the country. The Basingstoke canal always had a bit of a problem getting enough water, though, and never was fully profitable. This bridge goes both uphill and turns a corner, and is very unusual. (Not sure about the baskets underneath.)


The "old house" of Basing House was built on a Norman castle fortification, with earthen walls. The castle was separate from the rest of the village, protected by a high earthen wall around the outside. The village was also protected by high walls topped with a wooden pallisade, and a dry moat.

Here we can see the walls, which were perfect to avoid cannon attacks (which fired straight) but were useless to avoid artillery fire, which went upwards and then came down and exploded, showering shrapnel everywhere. Nasty.

By the time of the 16th century, it had a large ornate gatehouse on the top. The original owner who built it up essentially worked his way up to becoming the Lord Chancellor (head of the bank) of England, was made the Marquis of Winchester, and was extremely wealthy. When he retired from the position, at the age of 101, 40,000 pounds was discovered to be "missing", or about 12 million in today's money! But instead of confronting the guy, they wrote it off "due to his advanced age". Hmmm.

The "new house" was built below the old house, on the left. It was huge. The two houses combined had 3800 rooms! It rivaled Hampton Court Palace for opulence and size. Henry the 8th stayed a few times. Once he stayed for 3 days, and the Marquis (mentioned above) grumbled in the margins that it was costing him 2,000 pounds to entertain the king with parties - equivalent to 600,000 pounds in today's money! For just three days!

What made it particularly expensive was that the visiting monarch didn't just bring themselves and a few people - they brought the entire court! The royal locksmith would go around before the visit, and change all the locks to the monarch's chambers so that only the monarch had a key.

Queen Elizabeth I also visited the house twice, once for 13 days, and she brought 1400 people with her as well as 400 French men! There wasn't enough room for the French to stay in the house as well, so they had to stay down the road at someone else's house at what was considered substandard accommodation. A separate banqueting hall had to be built for them in the garden! She was particularly fond of the gatehouse in the old house (in the picture below), and requested it.

Eventually the sons and grandsons of the original Marquis, who weren't quite as wealthy as he had been, had enough. They decided to discourage royal visits by demolishing some of the new house!

Here are the toilets of the gatehouse. The 'gong farmer' would clean them out at night through the small gate at the side which is filled up with stones. Alan Turton said that they must have been very clean, because the archaeologists were hoping to find interesting artifacts that had been accidentally dropped in the waste, but found nothing.


The kitchens were built into the hillside. It would have been so hot because of the huge ovens used, that only men were allowed inside. Since everyone was nearly naked, it was considered improper for women.

The area in the centre above was the dining room. The archaeologists surmise that they were actually built on the original Norman castle ruins, which were built on Roman ruins, but they don't want to have to destroy the existing ruins to find out.

It was lucky that we attended this talk, actually - the ruins are next open to the public at the end of 2010!

3 comments:

Brendan said...

Just a clarification. The rule was that once a "practical breach" (i.e. big hole in the wall) had been made, the attackers would offer the defenders one last chance to surrender.

If they did not surrender at this point, they had lost the right to surrender because the attacker would usually incur heavy losses coming through the hole. If they failed to surrender this meant the attacker could and should put all the defenders to death, although in the case of Basing house they spared a fairly large number of them.

Nicola Turton said...

The baskets under the bridge are called gabions and are simply stored under there for now to keep them out of the weather. They are portable defences, which can be filled with earth or stones. And we are actually open this year as normal, 2-6pm Wed-Sun and Bank Holidays, Apr-Sep inclusive, but not open next year till the middle of summer, to allow for the lottery grant work to be carried out.

Glad you enjoyed your visit!

Tina said...

Awesome! Thanks, Nicola.