David Smurthwaite of the National Army Museum and a panel of experts chaired by General Sir Martin Farndale, have now compiled a proposed register of English battlefields after making detailed examinations of the supposed sites and of historical records.
The panel has ended up with a register of 41 battlefields, which are reasonably well defined, and an appendix listing 15 battle sites where the general location of the battle is known but there is insufficient information to draw the boundaries. For example, the battle of Shrewsbury in 1403 - when Hotspur's army was defeated by the forces of Henry IV - is well known through Shakespeare's plays, but the panel found that its site is not well enough defined geographically for it to be included in the register as a battlefield.
The exact location of some battles could not be found and these have been excluded from the register. The panel also found that some battles were less significant than was previously thought and have reclassified these as skirmishes, which do not qualify for inclusion in the register. For example, the last 'battle' to take place on English soil, when Bonnie Prince Charlie's rearguard fought off government forces at Clifton Moor, Westmorland, has been demoted to a skirmish.
The register begins with the battle of Maldon, which took place in Essex in 991AD when Vikings defeated the Saxons, and ends with the battle of Sedgemoor in 1685, when the Duke of Monmouth was defeated by his uncle, James II. The panel investigated 68 candidates for inclusion in the register and approved 56.
Mr Smurthwaite said: 'We could come up with no simple definition of a battle. We considered that a battle must involve at least 1,000 men on each side, that it should last at least an hour and that there should be at least 100 casualties. However, a battle might involve 40,000 men and only last 15 minutes because the other side ran away and thousands were slaughtered in the pursuit.'
The panel finally adopted mixed criteria, which included the political and military significance of the engagement. They also accepted a biographical criterion: if a famous leader was killed or captured in an engagement or it was the crowning glory of a military career, then it might be accepted as a battle even if other considerations were weak. Civil actions such as the 'battle of North Walsham' in 1381, when a peasant revolt was put down by the forces of Richard II, have not been accepted by the panel as battles because civil unrest does not have neat boundaries.
The existence of the proposed register has already influenced a planning decision, although it has no legal force. An application to quarry for gravel near the battlefield of Blore Heath, Market Drayton, Staffordshire, was turned down by a Department of Environment planning inspector because the interpretation and quiet enjoyment of the battlefield would be seriously affected by the close presence of an active mineral site. The northern edge of the proposed mineral extraction site was occupied by Lancastrian forces in 1459 immediately prior to the battle in which they were routed by a smaller Yorkist force.
Two other battlefields, Neville's Cross, in 1346, when David II of Scotland was captured by the English in Co Durham, and Nantwich (Civil War, 1644) in Cheshire, have been reprieved by the recent government review of roads policy. But the two battlefields at Newbury (Civil War, 1643 and 1644) are still threatened by a bypass.
English Heritage will launch the register in September and it will then be up to government and local authorities to decide if building development should be banned on battlefields.
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