View of Newbury battlefield in morning mist.

Newbury battlefield and modern housing development, South East.
Newbury battlefield and modern housing development, South East.

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.

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.

Battlefields are treasured places, evoking emotional responses and understanding of our history in ways that can only be conveyed by their physical presence in the landscape. But battlefields are vulnerable to various modern-day pressures, many of which are outside the planning process and difficult to manage.

The current situation

There are three battlefields on the Heritage at Risk Register in 2019. This means that 6.4% 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 Archive DP156477

No battlefields were added to the Register this year. However, several battlefields remain vulnerable to becoming at risk and being added to the Register if positive action is not taken.

Pressure of development is the most common risk faced by battlefields that remain on the Register and those that are currently vulnerable. Historic England can work with Local Authorities and developers to ensure that the significance of battlefields is properly understood and that they are not harmed by new development, either within the Registered area itself or its setting.

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 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, Imperial War Museums and War Memorials Trust has been involved in many national and local events organised to commemorate the centenary of the First World War. Central to this is the First World War Memorial Programme, which included community projects to survey the condition of local memorials, and provided advice and grants to conserve memorials.

Historic England also oversaw the War Memorials Listing Project. This project formally drew to a close in September 2018 having amended or added 2,645 war memorials to the National Heritage List for England.

It is important that the legacy of this work results in continuing improvements in public appreciation and care of war memorials and battlefields.

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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