View of Newbury battlefield in morning mist.
The site of the first battle of Newbury (20 September 1643) - which appears on the Register of Historic Battlefields - is now edged by a modern housing development.
The site of the first battle of Newbury (20 September 1643) - which appears on the Register of Historic Battlefields - is now edged by a modern housing development.

Battlefields at Risk

The Register of Historic Battlefields includes 47 sites where the most important military confrontations on English soil took place. Battles were often dramatic turning points in English history, ending dynasties and ushering in new regimes.

The battlefields on the Register of Historic Battlefields range in date from Maldon (AD 991) to Sedgemoor (1685). They are associated with some of the most formative periods in our national history and involved some of the most influential historical figures.

Battlefields are places where thousands of people risked and gave their lives for crucial causes and principles, or simply found themselves entangled in life and death struggles that they could not avoid. Battles live on in history, communal memory, folklore and the imagination of subsequent generations.

The current situation

Battlefields are treasured places, provoking emotional responses and promoting understanding of our history in ways that documentary evidence alone cannot achieve. Their physical presence in the landscape and the artefacts they retain are important and evocative illustrative and evidential sources. But battlefields are vulnerable to various modern-day pressures, many of which are difficult to manage.

The Naseby Battlefield Project has installed trails and observation points, so it is now possible to appreciate exactly where history was made on 14 June 1645. Naseby, like many battlefields, has suffered threats from treasure hunters and intrusive development.

There are three battlefields on the Heritage at Risk Register, none having been added or removed in 2020. However, several more battlefields are vulnerable to becoming at risk and being added to the Register if positive action is not taken.

New development is the most common risk faced by battlefields that remain on the Register and those that are vulnerable. Historic England can work with Local Authorities and developers to ensure that battlefields are not needlessly harmed.

This does not mean that all new development is unacceptable, but it does require that the particular significance of battlefield landscapes is understood and potentially harmful development, either within the Registered area itself or within its setting, is assessed and mitigated, or avoided as necessary.

Comprehensive conservation management plans and specific Local Plan policies have been vital in providing a good framework for decision-making and improving the condition of several battlefields.

Cultivation presents another threat to many battlefields. This, along with uncontrolled, non-systematic and unrecorded metal detecting, displaces and removes features and artefacts that can provide vital new evidence for the character and progress of a battle.

War memorials share many historical and social characteristics with battlefields. War memorials and their settings can also suffer threats. These include degradation of masonry and inscriptions, unsympathetic changes to their setting, and, sadly, theft and vandalism.

As part of the centenary commemorations for the Great War Historic England participated in initiatives to research and conserve war memorials. The associated listing project formally drew to a close in September 2018 having amended or added 2,645 war memorials to the National Heritage List for England War Memorials Listing Project.

The 80th anniversary of the Battle of Britain in 2020 reminds us that the effects of warfare can sweep across the whole of society. The key moments of the Battle of Britain may be characterised by ‘The Few’, locked in desperate combat in the skies above us. But this battle was also fought in bomber strikes over enemy territory, in underground operations centres, on airfields and maintenance facilities, radar installations, observer posts and coastal defence positions, at sea, in factories, and right across the nation by millions of civilians, from the youngest to the oldest, gritting their teeth and bearing it; keeping calm and carrying on.

It is fitting that this year some of the physical reminders of the Battle of Britain have been recognised by new listings and listing amendments. These range from an air raid shelter in Surrey decorated with scenes from children’s favourite books, a Chain Home radar tower in Essex, and a pillbox cunningly disguised as a Northumbrian cottage.

The challenge ahead

Significant anniversaries, new discoveries, and indeed new threats, provide a focus for greater appreciation of battlefields and memorials. Adding new sites to the National Heritage List for England provides recognition of their value. However, this must be followed by beneficial management to help ensure that these sites are not also added to the Heritage at Risk Register.

It is important to use the opportunities provided by greater public awareness and the deep knowledge and passion that resides in local and national expert groups and individuals to achieve effective management and inspirational presentation.

In these ways battlefields and memorials will be able to make their most evocative and valuable contributions to our historic environment, public amenity, collective memory and sense of identity.

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