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Understanding the Significance and Character of Battlefields NHPP Activity 4E1

Research carried out 2011-2015 into understanding and protecting English battlefields and other fields of conflict both on land and at sea so that we can protect them better. This work formed part of the National Heritage Protection Plan

Colour photograph of mounted re-enactors depicting charging Norman Cavalry at the Battle of Hastings
Re-enactment of the Battle of Hastings. Winston Churchill described battles as 'the punctuation points of history'; the moment where thousands risked their lives for the chance to steer their future. © English Heritage, Derek Kendall, image reference DP050418

Scope of the activity

Battlefields are fascinating and dramatic parts of England’s Story, but they present a particular set of challenges for those managing and protecting heritage. Physically, they can hold important archaeological remains. However, the close relationship between the course of a battle and an area’s topography means that an appreciation of the wider landscape can also be just as critical to understanding the course of events.    

As a discipline, battlefield archaeology has developed rapidly over the last 20 years establishing multidisciplinary approaches.  This work has shown that our knowledge of the location and extent of land battlefields could be more accurate.

Providing the best information on where battles took place, both on land and sea, is an essential first step in making sure that decision-makers give them proper consideration, when reaching decisions about management or development.  

We also need to understand more about the extent and character of surviving evidence. Unlike other types of site, much archaeological material on a battlefield may lie in the plough-soil, which brings with it challenges of interpretation and identification.  

It is only now that a clearer picture is emerging of the differences in archaeological character between differing types and dates of site.  With greater knowledge about this, heritage managers can put in place measures that better protect the archaeology and landscapes associated with battles.

View across a cornfield to a memorial cross at the battlefield of Towton.
Towton, (North Yorkshire) fought in 1461, is considered to be the bloodiest battle in English history and a key site in understanding the emergence of the use of gunpowder. © John Critchley

Expected protection results

The main protection results that the Activity set out to achieve were to improve the management of battlefields in England and her territorial waters:

  • Through greater understanding of these sites
  •  By making information on them more readily available to decision-makers such as planners.  

Modern colour photograph of the landscape around the Battlefield of Lansdown Hill
Lansdown Hill, North-East Somerset. The pattern of lanes, walls and hedgerows on the steep hill had a direct impact on the course of the Royalist victory here in 1643. © English Heritage

Projects in this activity

Naval battle records

We audited our naval data on naval battles and assessed the resources available to support our understanding of naval battlefields, within English Heritage’s remit of territorial waters and coastal or intertidal areas.

Conflict in the pre-industrial landscape

This project saw the completion in 2012 of a large-scale review of English battle sites from conflicts up to the end of the 17th century. It includes recommendations for investigating such sites and for refining their designation and management.

Medieval and Early Modern military experts Glenn Foard and Richard Morris published their findings in The Archaeology of English Battlefields: Conflict in the Pre-Industrial Landscape, as a CBA Research Report, with our support.

Audit of records for pre-16th century land battles.

Our Heritage Data Management Team carried out an audit of our data holdings for pre-16th century terrestrial battlefields. It took the form of a rapid enhancement of the non-statutory national record (the National Record of the Historic Environment). This was to ensure that the national record reflects more recent research, to complement the Register of Battlefields and that it serves as a platform for further research. The results are available on the PastScape website.

Siege sites

We helped to fund applied research at the University of Huddersfield into the practicalities of protecting and managing siege sites. Although sieges were important and frequent types of conflict, especially in the Medieval Period and the English Civil War, they cannot be Registered Battlefields but may be associated with sites protected as listed buildings or scheduled monuments.  

Links with other NHPP activities

  • It linked to research into the decay of metal artefacts in the topsoil, part of the Activity on the effects of agriculture and forestry on heritage (2D1).
  • The battlefield Activity complemented work on the remains of later conflicts by the Activity on 20th Century military heritage (4E2).
  • There was also a link to the Activity on Ploughzone archaeology (4G2) as most of the artefacts from battlefields are found within that soil zone.
  • The Activity on updating designations (5A2) aimed to review the designation of about 15 registered battlefields. We selected these by considering where our understanding of the site has developed since they were first designated in the mid-1990s and may need additional research.

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Related publications

  • Battlefields

    Published 18 December 2017

    Registration Selection Guide

External links