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1643 - The Siege of Basing House

The car's packed, we've got a full tank of petrol and a hefty supply of waterproofs - it must be an Easter Bank Holiday at Basing house! The annual Sealed Knot event at Basing, Hampshire usually re-enacts the three major sieges that occurred there over the course of the English Civil War. This year is, of course, a little bit different - it's the 350th anniversary year of the first siege of Basing House in 1643.

So what was the significance of Basing House? Well it was mainly due to the solid foundations of the manor house that enabled the Royalists to utilise it as a stronghold. The house was owned by John Paulet, Marquis of Winchester. During the 1500s, Paulet's family had converted the medieval mansion into a virtual fortress. There were two houses; one, the New House, a modern mansion and two, the Old House, essentially a medieval castle. The two buildings were connected by a bridge and gatehouse, surrounded completely by a mile wide boundary wall. Just the kind of place the Royalists were looking for when 1643 came around.

1643 was a funny old year for both sides. The indecision of Edgehill was prompting both Royalist and Parliamentarians into action, but neither the King nor Essex were in any hurry to put themselves in the position of making the first wrong move. This essentially led to both factions carving up the kingdom, an elaborate game of chess that led to the flashpoints of this campaign season.

Such was the case at Basing House. Local parliament forces, under the command of Richard Norton, attacked the house in July 1642. Paulet and some household retainers held the attackers off until a detachment of some 100 musketeers arrived from the King's garrison at Oxford. This was soon followed by the rest of a regiment, under the command of Colonel Marmaduke Rawdon (certainly in the running for the best named CO of the Civil War). Rawdon set up artillery and appointed himself the military governor of Basing, strengthening the house's already considerable defences.

Basing House sits on the main western road into London. Obviously, the Parliamentarians could not allow the Royalists to keep this potential stranglehold on their capital. In November of 1643, Waller brought a force that included the inexperienced London Trained Bands to face Basing House's 400 strong garrison. Paulet refused Waller's terms of surrender. Under the cover of a bombardment, Waller sent forward musketeers to occupy the outbuildings on the house's perimeter. A firefight ensued that continued well into the afternoon.

The Royalists countered by using grenades to set fire to the outbuildings that the Parliament musketeers were sheltering in. As the musketeers retreated, the London Trained Bands lost their nerve and threatened a mutiny. Waller wisely called it a day and headed into Basingstoke for forage.

Parliament came back again for a second assault a few days later. This time the London brigades were sent around as a diversion whilst Waller led his main force straight at the house. Waller's force attached a 'petard' (a small bomb made out of a black powder stuffed box) to the garrison gate, intending to blow his way into the house. Records state that 'an ingenious German' knocked loopholes into a flanking wall, and allowed the Royalists to fire at the Parliament bombadiers as they set up their device. After a hefty amount of enfilade fire, the Parliamentarians once again retreated.

Accounts differ at this point, but there was definitely confusion in the Parliament ranks. Some recounts indicate that the more inexperienced units of the London Trained Bands caused a deal of friendly fire - when the second rank of the Westminster Trained Band fired, they didn't wait for the front rank to kneel and so shot them in the back! Needless to say, Waller went back to Basingstoke.

It is likely that this pattern of attack and retreat would have continued until Waller, a commander of some repute, took the house, but for the news that Lord Hopton was organising his Royalist forces nearby. Waller took his force back to his stronghold in Farnham and wrote a request for further supplies. The Marquis of Winchester described Waller as having 'dishonoured and bruised his army...without the death of more than two of the garrison'.

Waller had gathered a huge force - 500 men, 500 horse, 200 dragoons and an array of field guns. This is before considering the 2000 or so men of the London Trained Bands who, although ultimately wavering in the initial assault, were about the most steady force of troops available at that point in time. That Rawdon organised such a sterling defence of the house, with his garrison of 400 was no small feat. He was knighted for his effort, and went on to command several other defences of the same-said house.

What to make of this then? Basing House was a considerable thorn in the side of Parliament. Not only did it provide a potential threat to supply lines into London, but it held up William Waller during his maneuvers around the area. With this in mind, and considering that some of the original buildings are still standing at Basing today, it is no wonder that re-enactors flock there yearly.

Here's to another wet and windy Basing weekend!

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