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Battlefield Registration – what is it trying to protect?

Battle Abbey, where the Battle of Hastings was fought

The sites of significant battles deserve sensitive assessment of the characteristics that contribute to their identity as battlefields, before any development decisions are made, says Nick Bridgland

Great battles are milestones in our journey through the past and they capture the imagination in a way that other events do not. Since 1995 English battlefields have been protected by Historic England’s Register of Historic Battlefields, but unlike with Listed Buildings or Protected Wrecks, it is not always clear what a Registered Battlefield is trying to protect.

Why are 47 areas of what is often unassuming farmland across England given the same protection in the National Planning Policy Framework (paragraph 194) as grade I listed buildings and World Heritage Sites?  

Historic England has two essential criteria for choosing battlefields for protection1: was the battle important enough? Do we know where it was fought? Other factors (association with historical figures, archaeological survival, topographical integrity) add to its interest but, essentially, battlefield registration is about linking a key historical event to a place, enabling the romantic imagination to people these places with massed armies risking – and losing – their lives for a cause.  

Thorough examination of a battlefield and historical sources allows us to understand how the battle played out across the landscape; to make an intellectual and imaginative connection between the site and the incidents of a particular day, allowing us to appreciate how this location contributed to the course of English history.

“The NPPF’s focus on preserving the significance of heritage assets serves battlefields well”

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 that has left little trace? What are you trying to protect when making decisions about these sites?  

The NPPF’s focus on preserving the significance of heritage assets serves battlefields well. These are landscapes that were not designed to be battlefields; they became so by an accident of history and in the intervening centuries they have carried on evolving.  

Their identity as battlefields is only one aspect of the landscape and because their significance can be less immediately physical, their sensitivity to change is different from other heritage assets.  

Careful assessment is needed to identify the features and characteristics that contribute to a landscape’s identity as a battlefield. With this comes an appreciation that they can frequently absorb change such as small developments without losing their ability to relate back to the events of the battle, the qualities for which they were registered.

1 Battlefields Selection Guide: bit.ly/planner0219-battle

This is an abridged article that first appeared here on Lichfields' website.

Nick Bridgland is a heritage director at Lichfields with 25 years’ experience in the sector

Photo | Shutterstock


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