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Battlefields at Risk

The Register of Historic Battlefields includes 46 sites where the most important military battles on English soil took place. These were often dramatic turning points in English history, places where fortunes and dynasties changed.

They are places where people risked, gave or were told to give their lives for a cause. But they are also events that live on in memory and thoughts of subsequent generations.

Battlefields are vulnerable to different modern-day pressures, many of which are outside the planning process, and are therefore difficult to manage. The battlefields range in date from Maldon (AD 991) to Sedgemoor (1685), representing many different phases in the history of the nation.

Location of Newburn Ford battlefield with power plant in the background
The battlefield at Newburn Ford, where in 1640 a Scottish Army of 20,000 captured the ford by defeating the English forces defending it, has been on the Heritage at Risk Register since 2009. © Historic England

The current situation

There are four battlefields on the Heritage at Risk Register in 2017. This means that 8.7% of the 46 registered battlefields in England are at risk.

The good news is that two battlefields were removed from the 2016 Register and none were added. The English Civil War site of the First Battle of Newbury (1643)  is no longer immediately threatened by development pressures. Similarly, the Battle of Stamford Bridge, where King Harold defeated a Norwegian army before the Battle of Hastings (1066) is no longer threatened by damaging development. It is now protected by the East Riding of Yorkshire's Local Plan.

The battlefields that remain on the Register are most commonly at risk due to development pressure. Working with Local Planning Authorities to influence Local Plans so that the significance of battlefields is not affected by new development is one way that Historic England can make a difference. Farming activities such as ploughing can also threaten battlefields by disturbing historic remains.

Since 2014, Historic England has been involved in many national and local events organised to commemorate the centenary of the First World War. Central to this is the War Memorials Listing Project - a five year project to add 2,500 war memorials to the National Heritage List for England. In 2016 we were involved in the commemoration of the Battle of Jutland and the Battle of the Somme. In 2017 commemorations included the centenaries of the start of unrestricted submarine warfare and of the Battle of Paschendale. Of particular interest in the summer of 2017 was the scheduling of a large chalk-cut figure of a kiwi near Bulford on Salisbury Plain; it was built over two months in 1919 by New Zealand troops waiting to be transported home after the First World War. Work on the War Memorials Listing Project will continue up to and beyond the Armistice commemorations of 2018.

This continuing level of activity supports and generates community participation. It is important that this continues, and that the management of battlefields matches this growing public interest and expectation.

The battlefields might be conserved, but are they being interpreted and understood? And are there opportunities for the public to be able to become involved in their interpretation and management?

The challenge ahead

At national level Historic England is continuing its work reviewing the extent of the boundaries of a number of Registered Battlefields. This process always involves extensive public consultation. In 2016 this included Towton in Yorkshire; in 2017 it includes Adwalton, also in Yorkshire.

The responses to these consultations could be seen as a barometer of public interest. They could be used to set out plans for expanding public participation through Friends groups or local heritage, history and archaeology societies.

Adding new sites to the National Heritage List for England means that we all have to work hard to ensure that those sites are not also added to the Heritage at Risk Register.

The successes of Heritage at Risk illustrate that effective management of our cultural heritage relies on community involvement and wide participation. It is only through a greater and wider sense of understanding and ownership that 'risk' can be tackled and reduced. We need to be sure that this message is adopted by all so that the battlefields survive and can be appreciated by future generations.

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