Nearly everyone in Britain lives within half an hour’s drive of a battlefield. Some, like Hastings, Bannockburn and Bosworth, are familiar to many of us, whereas others are relatively unknown. Yet the battles fought on them all played their part in shaping the way that we live today, and that makes them worth studying – and preserving.
To get a feel for a battle you really need to walk the ground on which it was fought, and this has influenced the choices I’ve made here. While the battles needed to have been important ones, I was also looking for battlefields across Britain that can be visited, studied and experienced, and I think that these eight are excellent examples of that.
Hastings (East Sussex), 14 October 1066
William of Normandy considered himself the heir to the English crown, so when he heard of Harold Godwinson’s accession to the English throne in early 1066 he resolved to take it by force. On 28 September he landed with his army at Pevensey, forcing Harold, who had just defeated a Norwegian invasion at Stamford Bridge in Yorkshire, to march south to face him. On 14 October Harold’s army took up a strong defensive position on Senlac Ridge (in present-day Battle), with its flanks protected by steep slopes and marshy ground.
While the English fought on foot in closely packed ranks, William’s army was made up of both mounted knights and foot soldiers. The first Norman attacks were repelled with heavy losses and at one stage it was rumoured that William had been killed, but in the end the English were worn down by a combination of shock action and archery. The English line broke and Harold was hacked to death.
The centre of the action is marked by the remains of Battle Abbey, founded at William’s express command to atone for the slaughter of the conquest. There is today an interpretation centre in the grounds and you’ll soon be able to climb the gatehouse for a bird’s-eye-view of the area. Alternative sites for the battle have occasionally been suggested, but so far none of the evidence behind such claims has stood up to closer scrutiny. In 2013 Time Team famously suggested that the battle was fought where a mini-roundabout now stands, but omitted to point out that this was less than 200 metres from the Abbey high altar!
To find out more, visit english-heritage.org.uk
Towton (North Yorkshire), 29 March 1461
Fought just outside Tadcaster, Towton saw the crushing defeat of the Lancastrian forces of Henry VI and the establishment of the Yorkist Edward IV as king of England. The battle began with an exchange of archery in a blinding blizzard. With the wind behind them, the Yorkists came off better, prompting the Lancastrians to move forward and attack. The Lancastrians had the advantage of numbers, but with Edward fighting in the thick of the action the Yorkist line held until the arrival of reinforcements tipped the balance in their favour.
Thousands of Lancastrians were cut down in the merciless pursuit that followed, while others drowned as they struggled to escape across the Cock Beck, which is said to have run red with blood. Contemporary claims that 28,000 died that day were undoubtedly an exaggeration, but Towton was almost certainly one of the bloodiest battles on English soil.
There’s today a clearly marked trail around much of the battlefield, with boards displaying information about the battle and those involved in it. If you’re in the village of Towton it’s worth walking down the track that was once the London Road. Many of the Lancastrians fled this way and it was said that where it met the Cock Beck so many dead were piled up that they formed a bridge of bodies across the water.
To find out more, visit www.towton.org.uk
Flodden (Northumberland), 9 September 1513
When Henry VIII invaded France in 1513, Louis XII asked his [Louis’] Scottish ally James IV to create a diversion by invading England. James obliged, crossing the Tweed and capturing a string of English castles. The Earl of Surrey raised an English force to confront him and after a brief period of negotiation and manoeuvring the two armies met outside Branxton village with the Scots deployed on a steep hill.
James hoped to force the English to attack him but, goaded by Surrey’s artillery, his men moved forward. Those on the left managed to push back their English opponents but most of James’s men became disorganised as they struggled down the slope with their long, unwieldy pikes. As they floundered in the boggy ground at the foot of the hill they were cut to pieces by Surrey’s men with their deadly bills. A surprise attack upon the highlanders on the right completed the English victory. More than 5,000 Scots fell, including James IV – the last British monarch to die in battle.
There is today good footpath access across the battlefield and some excellent information panels. As you make your way down the steep slopes of Branxton Hill to the wet ground at the bottom it’s easy to see why things turned out as they did. Don’t miss the exhibition on the battle in nearby Etal castle.
To find out more, visit flodden1513.com
Pinkie (East Lothian), 10 September 1547
Pinkie deserves to be better known. It was the last major battle fought between Scotland and England before the Union of the Crowns in 1603, and with 40,000 troops involved it was also the largest ever fought in Scotland.
The battle was part of the ‘Rough Wooing’ – the unsuccessful English attempt to force the Scots to agree to a marriage between the infant Mary, Queen of Scots and Henry VIII’s son Edward. In September 1547 the Duke of Somerset invaded Scotland with 18,000 men supported by a fleet in the Firth of Forth. He found the road to Edinburgh blocked at the river Esk by a large Scottish army under the Earl of Arran. As the English moved forward Arran suddenly switched to the attack and led his pikemen across the Esk. This advance was halted, at some cost, by a desperate English cavalry charge. The Scots then came under heavy fire from not only artillery, archers and mounted handgunners, but also the ships in the Firth of Forth. Eventually they broke and ran and more than 6,000 were cut down by the English cavalry in the ensuing pursuit.
Despite some urban development to the north and the intrusion of both a railway and the A1 dual carriageway, most of the battlefield today survives intact. A two-kilometre walking trail has recently been established along with four information panels about the battle.
To find out more, visit musselburghheritage.org.uk
Montgomery (Powys), 18 September 1644
Montgomery was the biggest battle fought in Wales during the civil wars and a major victory for parliament. Yet it’s virtually unknown today.
In September 1644 the parliamentarians gained control of Montgomery Castle when Lord Herbert, a rather lukewarm royalist who seems to have been mainly concerned with protecting his library, surrendered it to them. Determined to recapture the castle, the royalists surrounded it with about 4,500 men under Lord Byron but on 17 September a parliamentarian relief force under Sir John Meldrum arrived to the north.
Leaving some of his troops to guard the siege works they’d thrown up around the castle, Byron moved to face them. When on the next day some of the parliamentarian cavalry rode off to forage, Byron spotted his opportunity and ordered an attack. The remaining parliamentarian cavalry were driven back and Byron’s foot gained ground as well. But eventually the royalists ran out of steam. Checked by a determined stand by some of the roundhead foot, threatened in the rear by the castle garrison that had overwhelmed the royalists in their trenches and possibly counter-attacked by the returning parliamentarian foragers, Byron’s men broke. Around 500 were killed and 1,500 captured, and parliament gained the initiative in North Wales.
Montgomery is today an enjoyable battlefield to visit. A footpath from the nearby Offa’s Dyke leads to what is thought to be the centre of the action and it’s also well worth making the climb up to Montgomery Castle. It’s now a ruin, having been slighted (rendered indefensible) after the civil war, but the views from its ramparts are superb.
To find out more, visit cadw.gov.wales
Naseby (Northamptonshire), 14 June 1645
Naseby was the decisive battle of the Civil War in England. After it, parliament’s victory was only a matter of time. Although both sides deployed in the same way with their infantry in the centre and their cavalry on both flanks, Sir Thomas Fairfax’s parliamentarian New Model Army enjoyed an advantage in numbers of about three to two.
Despite this, Prince Rupert’s royalists began well. Their infantry pushed back their parliamentarian opponents and their cavalry on their right defeated most of the roundheads opposing them. But the parliamentarian cavalry on the right under Oliver Cromwell drove back their enemies and were then able to fall on the exposed royalist infantry in the centre. Despite a long fighting retreat the royalist army was all but destroyed.
There are today relatively few footpaths to give the visitor access to the ground itself, and much of the viewing has to be done by looking over hedges and by walking on roads, but the Naseby Battlefield Project has created an excellent battlefield trail. This covers the key parts of the approach, the battle itself and the royalist retreat, and is supported by a number of information panels and also some viewing platforms.
To find out more, visit naseby.com
Sedgemoor (Somerset), 5–6 July 1685
In June 1685, James Scott, Duke of Monmouth, landed in Dorset in a bid to wrest the crown from the catholic James II. On 5 July his army was in Bridgwater while Lord Feversham’s royal army was camped three miles away outside Westonzoyland, protected by a ditch called the Bussex Rhyne.
Knowing his men would stand no chance against Feversham’s regulars in a pitched battle, Monmouth decided to risk all in a night attack from an unexpected direction. Although royalist patrols were operating in the area and Sedgemoor was criss-crossed with ditches and dykes, Monmouth’s men got to within a mile of Feversham’s position before the alarm was raised. Monmouth ordered his cavalry forward but they missed the crossing across the Bussex Rhyne and scattered.
The rebel infantry halted at the Rhyne and a firefight developed which continued through the night. At dawn Feversham’s army crossed the Rhyne and routed the rebels. Many were killed in the pursuit that followed, while others were sentenced to death or transportation, and Monmouth himself was later captured and executed.
Although the layout of the drains and ditches has been altered since 1685 and the Bussex Rhyne has vanished, the character of this extremely atmospheric battlefield remains unchanged and it’s easy to lose your way, as Monmouth’s cavalry did, while crossing the moor.
To find out more, visit battlefieldstrust.com
Culloden (Highland), 16 April 1746
The brief but bloody battle fought on this bleak moorland in April 1746 marked the end of Jacobite ambitions of reclaiming the British crown for the Stuarts. The previous July, Charles Edward Stuart (or Bonnie Prince Charlie) had landed in the Outer Hebrides in a French-backed bid to claim the British throne for his father. He cobbled together an army and got as far as Derby before falling back to the Highlands. A government force under the Duke of Cumberland was sent after him and finally the two armies faced each other just outside Inverness.
The battle began with an exchange of artillery fire. Cumberland’s gunners proved more effective and Jacobite casualties began to mount as their leaders dithered over whether to attack. Eventually the Jacobites set off across the moor. Many never reached their goal. Those who did discovered that unlike previous occasions when government troops had fled before the dreaded highland charge, these redcoats were prepared to fight it out. Eventually the outnumbered Jacobites wavered, then fled, leaving Cumberland to conduct a brutal pursuit.
Culloden today has a superb visitor centre but the battlefield itself is the real star of the show. Much of it is cared for by the National Trust for Scotland and a lot has been done to restore this evocative site to the way it was at the time. Flags mark the positions of the two armies, and you get a good sense of how the uneven and in places boggy ground affected the fighting. Headstones bearing the names of the clans who fought in the battle mark where the Jacobite dead are buried.
To find out more, visit nts.org.uk
Julian Humphrys is development manager at the Battlefields Trust, the UK charity dedicated to the protection and promotion of Britain’s historic battlefields. To find out more, visit www.battlefieldstrust.com
You can also follow Julian on Twitter @GeneralJules
This article was first published on History Extra in July 2016