Turning battles into bunker hills

June 30, 1995

Anthony Gross calls on scholars to remember their duty and defend historic battlefields such as Tewkesbury from incursions by housing estates and golf courses.

Most of the issues dealt with by the King affected the interests of the counsellors who advised him, or their cousins, their servants, tenants or someone else one of them owed a favour to." The author of this analysis, Sir John Fortescue, the kindly great uncle of English law, was present at Tewkesbury in Gloucestershire in 1471, the battle site recently and controversially approved for conversion to a building site.

Whatever Fortescue said, the fighting was not about government probity. It was not Nolan with broadswords. True, each side accused the other of having been on the take, but the main thing for the taking was the crown and its powers. Nevertheless, the battle represents more than two crossed swords on the map. It turned the Wars of the Roses by cutting the Lancastrian dynasty off at the roots. Everything which came afterwards sprang from divisions within the White Rose party. Tewkesbury also marked the end of the career of Margaret of Anjou, that most trenchant of English queens.

And yet it is not difficult to identify the considerations which might have swayed the Secretary of State for the Environment, John Gummer when he approved Bovis Construction's plan for a housing estate on, or close by, the Yorkist flank of the battlefield. Conspiracy theorists who believe he was influenced by the fact that Bovis is a subsidiary of P&O, a major donor to the Conservative Party, or by the promise of a subsidy for the much-needed Tewkesbury bypass should remember that the donations are published and the rival developer, Robert Hitchens, promoting an alternative site further away from Tewkesbury, also offered the road.

Less obvious but very pertinent, is the present government's attitude to history and the academic world's response to it. In so far as Thatcherism inculcated any respect at all for the non-immediate past, it has been for a chronicle approach which crystallises national pride.

So much the better, you might think, for Wars of the Roses battlefields. Not so. The Tory pageant is too truncated for that. From Hastings to Trafalgar via Magna Carta and the game of bowls on Plymouth Hoe, English history is dominated by familiar staging posts of manifest significance and small enough in number for any child to memorise. Add in a few personalities like Humpback Richard and Fat Henry and there you are. It is not so much that there is little scope for the crannies and byways of history, rather that most events are simply edited out in the search for historical star quality. The battle of Tewkesbury does not make the grade. Deprived of a place in the tiny ledger of national sacred cows of our past, it must vie with a host of other attractions in the mind of local planners. If it has to be trimmed to pay its way, it must, like the rest, conform to market laws.

For medieval historians the Tewkesbury battlefield therefore marks an important test. Can the battlefield survive in the modern world while preserving the level of authenticity that historians regard as credible?

Disturbingly, the local borough council, which, unlike the town council, has given qualified support to Bovis Homes's building proposals, feels it has had little independent academic advice. Most of the argument for battlefield conservation appeared jaundiced because it came from experts engaged by the developers rivalling Bovis.

The silence of the medieval historians is marked. Politicisation is seen as the road to disunity and ruin. What can be preserved will best be preserved by remaining above and outside the fray. The profession's primary aim has been the preservation of jobs and intellectual freedom within university departments. HUDG, the History in the Universities Defence Group, is appropriately named. Alongside this insularity, the growing recognition that history will not thrive in universities if it withers in society has produced a flow of exhibitions and books designed to appeal to general audiences but has still not bridged the moat which isolates academic history.

Among scholars there is a residual ambivalence towards visual history. There is also a vigorous antipathy to any form of imaginative reconstruction, especially in military history. Fancy dress replays and model war games which may produce battle outcomes at odds with the historical reality are regarded by academics with emotions ranging from frank disdain to patronising benvolence. Note Norman Stone's likening of the Sealed Knot Society to pigeon fanciers (BBC Radio 4, Today, June 16).

No wonder that historians who have much to say about the culture of warfare say less about battles. No wonder too, that university medievalists were slow to mobilise in the face of the threat to Tewkesbury. Until June 7 when the courts finally ruled on the proposed development, many of the country's leading experts had not even heard what was afoot. Despite the Battlefields Register newly compiled by English Heritage, the considerable efforts of the Battlefields Trust and a letter of protest from the Richard III Society, Mr Gummer had every reason to suppose that the country's most eminent medievalists did not care.

Of course, that is not so. Rather, scholars find themselves hamstrung by their own accuracy and subtlety. Professor Michael Hicks of King Alfred's College, Winchester, for example, is sorry about any development which changes the character of Tewkesbury as a town, but is not sure how the battlefield issue should be approached. Changes in the rural landscape mean that the original character of a battlefield is impossible to retrieve. Ploughing destroys artefacts; woodland dies away and relocates. On the hillside above Tewkesbury, the copse from which a spare Yorkist contingent issued to doom the Lancastrians may have disappeared. In addition, contemporary accounts on which we depend are rarely by eye-witnesses. They show little interest in topography, seeing battlefields rather as the locations of ethical and legal struggle. We will be truer to their understanding if we view battlefields in the same way. Worst of all, because contemporary accounts are so vague on matters of topography, it is usually impossible to be certain of exactly where a medieval battlefield was. For Hicks the positive identification and preservation of a battle site draws in as many vested interests as a plan to build houses and therefore risks distortion. Once land had been set aside at Bosworth and money spent on tourist facilities, plausible theories suggesting alternative battle sites became embarrassments.

While this is largely true, contemporary sources are not always vague. Within living memory of Tewkesbury, written record had plainly identified a field called the Gastons as a key site in the battle. And yet this site is the subject of a further planning application (by JJHLtd) - also for housing development - which would inflict serious damage. In contrast to the open speculation desired by Hicks, such development, combined with the needs of tourism, will alter and distort the popularly recognised location of much of the fighting.

The major part of the battlefield on the broad hillside of Tewkesbury Park is already more bunker hill than Wars of the Roses since it has become, fortuitously, the preserve of golfers. If JJH Ltd's planning application is granted, this will be displaced in the public mind as the principal fighting zone by the picturesque flat fields under the Abbey walls, an area which in fact saw only the tail end of a flight for sanctuary. Already, every July, the annual sword-fight to commemorate Tewkesbury takes place on these fields.

The Battlefields Trust has a right to expect scholarly backing in its efforts to protect the Gastons. There could also be no better location than Tewkesbury for the trust's proposed Wars of the Roses Battlefield Centre. If historians want this enterprise to reflect the subject as they understand it, they must become involved. We need to sell the intricacies of our complicated subject better than we have.

Anthony Gross is an associate teacher at Royal Holloway, University of London. His book, The Dissolution of the Lancastrian Kingship, will appear later this year. The views expressed here are his alone.

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