21 MICHAEL WOOD’S VIEW

BBC History Magazine - - Contents - Michael Wood on… the Bos­worth bat­tle­field

You may have read about the re­cent furore over plans to build a huge driverless car test­ing ground on part of the bat­tle­field of Bos­worth. The story made the TV news, amid claims that a price­less part of our her­itage was be­ing ru­ined while His­toric Eng­land, the body as­signed to pre­serve it, looked on blithely. The is­sue is more com­plex than that, but it is an im­por­tant test case for how bat­tle­fields should be pre­served as vis­i­tor at­trac­tions – and also a model for how they should be re­searched.

The bat­tle – which saw Henry Tu­dor crowned king (as Henry VII) af­ter de­feat­ing an army led by Richard III – was fought on 22 Au­gust 1485 some­where near Mar­ket Bos­worth. Ex­actly where has never been clear: our sources are sur­pris­ingly thin for such an im­por­tant event. But the tra­di­tional iden­ti­fi­ca­tion was at Am­bion Hill near Sut­ton Cheney.

Re­cently, though, the Bat­tle­fields Trust, an ed­u­ca­tional char­ity com­mit­ted to pre­serv­ing our bat­tle­fields (I should de­clare an in­ter­est as its pres­i­dent) pro­posed an al­ter­na­tive bat­tle site. Through close in­ter­ro­ga­tion of the sources and the to­pog­ra­phy, with bril­liant use of metal de­tect­ing, the ex­act spot has been pin­pointed by many finds of lead round shot, and even a sil­ver gilt badge show­ing a boar – Richard III’s em­blem.

The place is two miles away from the tra­di­tional site, south of Fenn Lane, the Ro­man road from Watling Street to Leices­ter, along which the ar­mies ap­proached one an­other. His­toric Eng­land ac­cepted the new finds and re­de­fined the pro­tected area of the field. But it is this area that the new de­vel­op­ment will en­croach upon.

Ev­ery site has its his­tory and ar­chae­ol­ogy. And this area has been de­vel­oped over many cen­turies: a dis­used rail­way track cuts across it; an air­field does too, though only a grass land­ing strip. To the south of the Ro­man road is the site of RAF Lind­ley, opened in 1943. When that closed af­ter the war, the Mo­tor In­dus­try Re­search As­so­ci­a­tion (MIRA) chose it as a prov­ing ground. It was bought by the Ja­panese firm Horiba in 2015, and the gov­ern­ment an­nounced the ex­pan­sion of the site as an en­ter­prise zone. This is the key to the con­tro­versy.

The new de­vel­op­ment in­cludes two fields on the south-west edge of the reg­is­tered bat­tle­field where bat­tle de­bris has been found. We know now Henry would have first seen Richard’s army from here and de­ployed his own army be­fore march­ing for­ward to fight the bat­tle half a mile fur­ther east. So while the de­vel­op­ment is not on the main bat­tle­field, it is on Henry’s im­me­di­ate line of ap­proach – no small mat­ter in vis­i­tor ap­pre­ci­a­tion of this his­toric land­scape.

Ap­proval for the plan was given on 25 Septem­ber 2018. In sup­port­ing the de­ci­sion, His­toric Eng­land ac­cepted there would be dam­age to the site, but not “se­ri­ous” dam­age. As for Horiba, it was not asked to pre­pare an al­ter­na­tive lay­out for the new track. This is not good enough. There should surely be fur­ther dis­cus­sion about what hap­pens in these two fields where Henry must have stood that Au­gust morn­ing.

A big point is at stake here: the fate of our his­toric land­scapes. Will this set a re­gret­table prece­dent? Or is it a rea­son­able re­sponse to lo­cal con­di­tions? The key les­son for the fu­ture is that there should be open con­sul­ta­tion from the start. The his­tory should be prop­erly un­der­stood, and the whole land­scape taken into ac­count.

Bos­worth has a spe­cial place in our na­tional story. It’s now up to MIRA/ Horiba, the lo­cal author­ity and the gov­ern­ment – with ad­vice from ex­pert bod­ies, like the Bat­tle­fields Trust – to en­sure it en­joys the pro­tec­tion it de­serves. But His­toric Eng­land, too, should live up to its re­spon­si­bil­i­ties, as “the pub­lic body that cham­pi­ons and pro­tects Eng­land’s his­toric places”, as its web­site de­clares, “help­ing peo­ple care for, en­joy and cel­e­brate Eng­land’s spec­tac­u­lar his­toric en­vi­ron­ment”.

Michael Wood is pro­fes­sor of pub­lic his­tory at the Uni­ver­sity of Manch­ester

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