Of all the heritage designations which give protection to the historic environment, Registered Battlefields are surely the most esoteric and probably the least understood. Listed Buildings and Conservation Areas are familiar to most; scheduled monuments cover archaeology and antiquities; Registered Parks and Gardens cover swathes of artfully arranged landscape, and Designated Wrecks add a dash of underwater allure. But what does a Registered Battlefield actually protect?
Contrary to some assumptions, it doesn’t really aim to protect archaeology. According to research funded by English Heritage (now Historic England), no battlefield in England from before 1400 has turned up any confirmed archaeological material and yet almost a quarter of the English registered battlefields date from this period. So, if a battlefield does not have to have archaeological remains what makes it special and a candidate for designation? Why are 47 sites across England given the same protection in the Revised National Planning Policy Framework (paragraph 194) as Grade I listed buildings and World Heritage Sites?
Historic England’s guidance for choosing battlefields for protection contains just two essential criteria: was the battle important enough and do we know where it was fought? The guidance goes on to suggest other factors (association with historical figures, archaeological survival, topographical integrity et al.) which might be nice to have but, essentially, battlefield registration is about linking an historical event to a location. Unlike other designations, battlefield registration does not seek to protect something specifically created (e.g. a building, a garden, a ship) but rather focuses on an historical event and its association with a specific place. There is though no uniform way in which this link is manifested.
At the Battle of Lansdown near Bath, the landscape is almost unchanged; the fields, hedgerows and field walls which the Royalists and Roundheads fought across and sheltered behind on 5th July 1643 survive and make it very easy to trace the events unfolding around you. However, the Battle of Lansdown is exceptional in this regard. A more typical example of a medieval battlefield might be Shrewsbury where the old open fields of 1403 have been enclosed and a remarkable commemorative church now stands near the heart of the fighting. There is no obvious trace of the great clash which Shakespeare embellishes in Henry IV Part 1 and nothing other than the general landform which relates to the landscape of the time.
And yet… both have been considered to preserve the link between place and event; both allow the romantic imagination to people these places with massed armies risking (and losing) their lives for a cause. In both instances through careful examination of the battlefield and historical sources, it is possible to understand how the battle played out across the landscape; to make a connection (both intellectual and imaginative) between the site and the events of a particular day.
With this in mind, it is not immediately obvious what this might mean for managing battlefields, or making decisions regarding development on or in the vicinity of the battlefield. How do you measure the impact of a proposal on the imaginative response to an event which has left little trace? What are you trying to protect when making decisions about these sites? Given that the sites have often changed considerably over the centuries, they can surely cope with a range of further changes without losing their ability to relate back to the events of the battle, the qualities for which they were Registered.
Recently, Lichfields achieved planning permission for a new water-treatment facility within the Registered area of the Battle of Otterburn, Northumberland. The battle was fought on the evening of 19th August 1388 between an English army led by Harry “Hotspur” Percy and a Scottish army led by James, 2nd Earl of Douglas. They had clashed outside Newcastle a few days earlier and Douglas had managed to seize Hotspur’s pennant, a great indignity according to the chivalric code of Medieval knights. At Otterburn, Hotspur attacked in order to restore his honour with intense fighting which resulted in the death of Douglas but the defeat of the English army and Hotspur’s capture.
The new water-treatment facility involves replacing an existing building with a larger but lower facility. As a pre-1400 battle, archaeology on the site was not considered to be a significant issue but understanding how the current landscape related to what we know of the fourteenth-century landscape and the events of that August evening was essential to be able to gauge any impact. The site in question sits on the north side of the road which both the Scottish and English armies had been following from Newcastle and is believed to be close to the location in which the English army drew up. The core of the fighting took place further west while an English flanking manoeuvre followed an arc far to the North, taking the Scots by surprise to the North-West.
The site of the water treatment facility, while close to the English lines, is in a location which, due to the local topography, is not prominent in key views across the battlefield landscape. In our assessment the existing buildings were not considered to interfere with the open landscape which makes an important contribution to the appreciation of the course of the battle.
Working with Northumbrian Water, we evaluated the degree of visual impact arising from the replacement buildings and incorporated a planting scheme which worked with the existing landscape character to soften any remaining visual impact. We concluded that the development, while larger but lower than the existing buildings, would not interfere with the intellectual or imaginative appreciation of events that happened 630 years ago; therefore the scheme would not harm the significance of the battlefield. The end result was a set of proposals which were considered to be an acceptable development even though it is well within the boundary of the battlefield.
It is only fair to say that Historic England and Northumberland County Council’s archaeology service both felt that that the new building represented ‘less than substantial harm’ to the battlefield which could be justified by other public benefits. This appears to have been based on the building being larger than the existing building, but they did not specify their reasoning in terms of an understanding of the specifics of the battlefield.
To conclude, a final thought on archaeology. While Historic England’s research has indicated that finding any archaeological material related to a fourteenth-century battle is highly unlikely, the planning permission for Otterburn includes a condition for an archaeological metal-detector survey of the site. On a precautionary basis this is perhaps not unreasonable, but it may respond more to a desire to find a tangible connection to this remarkable event than a realistic assessment of archaeological potential. Of course, if anything from the battle is found, this will be the earliest securely identified battlefield artefact in England!
Nick Bridgland is a Heritage Director at Lichfields with 25 years’ experience in the sector. For 10 years he led Historic England’s listing team for the North of England and held national responsibility for Battlefields, including writing the Battlefields Selection Guide and coordinating Historic England’s Battlefields Advisory Panel of external experts.
 Foard, G & Morris, R “Archaeology of English Battlefields: Conflict in the Pre-Industrial Landscape”, CBA Research Report 168, 2014. Battlefields Selection Guide