Battlefields at Risk

The Register of Historic Battlefields includes 47 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 and gave their lives for crucial causes and principles, or simply found themselves in life and death struggles that they could not avoid. Battles are events that live on in history, communal memory, folklore and the imagination of subsequent generations.

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

The most recent addition to the Register of Historic Battlefields is the Battle of Winwick, also known as the Battle of Red Bank, which was designated in January 2018. It was here, near Warrington, in 1648, that the Parliamentarians ended Royalist hopes in the Second Civil War.

The current situation

There are four battlefields on the Heritage at Risk Register in 2018. This means that 8.5% of the 47 registered battlefields in England are at risk.

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 good news is that no battlefields were added to the Register this year. However, several battlefields are vulnerable to becoming at risk and entering the HAR Register in the future if positive action is not taken.

Pressure of development is the most common risk faced by battlefields that remain on the HAR Register and those that are currently vulnerable. Working with Local Planning Authorities to influence Local Plans and specific development proposals (so that the significance of battlefields is not harmed by new development) are ways that Historic England can make a difference. Farming activities such as ploughing can also threaten battlefields by disturbing buried archaeological remains. Uncontrolled, non-systematic and unrecorded metal detecting removes artefacts that can provide vital evidence for the character and progress of a battle.

War memorials, which most often commemorate lives lost in conflicts beyond England, share many historical and social characteristics with battlefields. War memorials and their settings can also be at risk, particularly within changing urban environments. Threats to war memorials include degradation of stonework and inscriptions, unsympathetic changes to their setting, and occasionally, sadly, theft. Since 2014, Historic England, with partners Civic Voice and War Memorials Trust has been involved in many national and local events organised to commemorate the centenary of the First World War by helping war memorials to be better protected, understood and cared for. Central to this is the First World War Memorial Programme, which includes community projects to survey the condition of local memorials, provides advice and grants to conserve memorials and also oversees 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 and in 2017 commemorations included the centenaries of the start of unrestricted submarine warfare and of the Battle of Paschendale. In 2018 we marked the centenary of the Royal Air Force through listing or upgrading 14 war memorials dedicated to First World War and Second World War airmen. Work on the War Memorials Listing Project drew to a close in September 2018, but the work of the wider First World War Memorial Programme 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 challenge ahead

Adding new sites to the National Heritage List for England provides recognition of their value to our heritage. However, this must be followed by inspirational interpretation and beneficial management to ensure that those sites are not also added to the Heritage at Risk Register.

Significant anniversaries, new discoveries, and indeed new threats, often provide a focus for greater appreciation of battlefields. It is important to use the opportunities provided by greater public awareness of battlefields, and the deep knowledge and passion that resides in local and national expert groups and individuals, to enhance the management and presentation of registered battlefields.

Most battlefields are in private ownership. It is therefore vital that the particular heritage significances and management needs of battlefields are fully recognised and accommodated in the environmental and agricultural stewardship schemes open to landowners, and that landowners are encouraged to permit public access where feasible.

In these ways battlefields 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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