21 MICHAEL WOOD’S VIEW
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