On Easter Sunday I found myself sipping a glass of wine in a pub garden. Nothing unusual there, apart from the fact that as I sat there, waiting for our Sunday lunch to arrive, the chatter around me was of muskets, battle strategies, gunpowder, and the King.
We were having lunch at the same pub as a group of mainly cavaliers, ready to defend Basing House in a re-enactment of a battle during the Civil War.
Basing House was built in Hampshire by the Paulet family, and it was a popular place for royalty to visit. Queen Mary spent her honeymoon there in 1554, and Queen Elizabeth stayed there on four occasions. You might think this is an honour for those loyal to the crown, and in many ways it was, but it was also incredibly expensive. Just imagine your guests could bring up to 2000 people in their entourage, and you’re responsible for feeding them all! It’s even rumoured that part of the house was pulled down to make it less attractive to royal visitors.
In terms of the Civil War, Basing House was under siege between 1642 and 1645. Eventually it fell to Oliver Cromwell and his roundheads, but the people of Basing House didn’t give up easily. By 1644 they had already survived one attack by Parliament’s forces, in which even the women got involved – lobbing rocks and slate tiles down on the men below. After several attempts, Cromwell’s forces gave up, partly due to the snow, and partly due to the news that 5000 troops were coming to assist those in Basing House.
That wasn’t the end of the story though and in March of 1644, the Royalist army took refuge with their allies at Basing House, following a battle that they had just lost nearby. That meant more mouths to feed, and more strain on the supplies, some of which had been intentionally destroyed in the last siege to prevent them from falling into enemy hands. Better to have less supplies than to watch your enemies feasting upon them, as was the case in 1643.
In July 1644, following a fight in nearby Odiham, which resulted in many of the Basing House foot soldiers being captured, Parliament forces surrounded Basing House, bombarding it from all sides and preventing fresh supplies getting in. Things were beginning to become desperate. However strong your walls are and however well you can protect them, if your enemy prevents new supplies from getting in, you’re going to starve. Food was running very low and they had only enough left for just over a week.
The Marquess of Winchester, who owned Basing House, sent requests for assistance, but it was felt that the 40-mile round trip from Oxford would be too dangerous and that two many troops would be lost in skirmishes along the way. It was in fact the Marquess’s wife with her powerful connections that eventually got people to listen and send some aid for those under siege.
It wasn’t just a case of winning by brute force either – tactics had to be employed such as wearing the enemy’s colours, skulking through the darkness, and those from inside the walls scaring off the attackers temporarily so that allies, and later supplies (including food and 12 barrels of gunpowder), could enter.
Finally the house did fall to Cromwell’s forces, but not before it had successfully defended itself several times.
What happened on Sunday
After our lunch, we went to buy our tickets and wait in a cordoned off area for the actors to arrive. The re-enactment was performed by the Sealed Knot, which travels around the country bringing history back to life.
Soon the King’s troops arrived and stood in formation, waiting for the Parliamentarians to come down from where they had been camped the night before – or perhaps from another pub! It was a hot day after all!
After a skirmish with pikemen and musketeers on both sides, we followed them all to a field where the front of the fortress had been set up, along with cannons and reinforcements.
There was also someone with a microphone who was trying to explain what was going on. As someone who couldn’t see the action, this was particularly useful – both to understand what they were doing, but also because he was telling us facts from history, and explaining the reasons behind the decisions that each army made. Really his microphone could have done with being louder, but I caught most of it, despite the battle cries, musket fire, and roaring of cannons!
The drums were also ever-present. I believe this was standard practice anyway, but back in the real second siege, it had been foggy, so once the reinforcements had stopped being stealthy, the drums were probably also useful when visibility was poor.
S filled in the gaps by describing what was going on, and tried to warn me when the cannon was about to go off! With so much going on, it must have been so hard to make sure that everyone knew what they were supposed to be doing, especially when each line of musketeers was supposed to be firing together. They were close enough to hurl insults at one another, but fortunately there weren’t any women hurling roof tiles this time!!
The cannon kept going all the way through. What must it have been like to know that the walls protecting you were under constant bombardment from something like that.
The Royalist army were certainly happy when the reinforcements turned up to help them out and mean that they could hold on to Basing House for one more year.
It was loud, and it was obvious that they were fighting, but you didn’t see bodies all over the floor. I got the impression it was a balance between conveying history, whilst still being an event that families could attend, without the grim reality of war. There were people of all ages there, and even a few dogs!
I went more for the history than the battle reenactment, and it somehow feels more real when you’re standing near the place where these things actually happened. I remember studying this period of history in primary school. In those days, I couldn’t understand how a country could become so divided. Now I don’t find it so hard to believe.
Have you been to anything like this? Let me know in the comments.
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