The battle for Bosworth field: Historians react to decision to build on battlefield where Richard III died

From historic battlefield sites to romantic castle ruins, the UK is full of sites that are rich in history and archaeological potential. But should we be allowed to build on sites of historic interest? And how do we decide which sites should be protected from development? Following the decision of Hinckley and Bosworth Council to turn a portion of the battle of Bosworth battlefield into a car test track, we asked five experts to share their thoughts on the decision to develop part of the site where Richard III died...

A vintage colour lithograph depicting King Richard III at the battle of Bosworth. The battle of Bosworth (or Bosworth Field) was the last significant battle of the Wars of the Roses, the civil war between the Houses of Lancaster and York. (Photo by Getty Images)

Should we be allowed to build on sites of historic interest? Hinckley and Bosworth Borough councillors recently voted to approve plans to build an 83-acre car testing track on a site that infringes the historic Bosworth battlefield.

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The new development – spearheaded by automotive company Horiba Mira – will take up a section of the field where Richard III was killed during the battle of Bosworth in 1485. According to a statement posted by Hinckley and Bosworth Borough Council on Twitter, the decision to approve the test track was reached after the local planning authority “weighed the harm to the designated battlefield against the significant economic benefits that the scheme would deliver”.

Bosworth battlefield in Leicestershire. Hinckley and Bosworth Council recently voted to allow a car test track to be built on a site that infringes a section of the historic battlefield. (Photo by Getty Images)
Bosworth battlefield in Leicestershire. Hinckley and Bosworth Council recently voted to allow a car test track to be built on a site that infringes a section of the historic battlefield. (Photo by Neil Holmes/Getty Images)

With debate surrounding the conservation of heritage sites now ignited, we asked five experts what they made of the decision to build on a section of the Bosworth battlefield… 

“Destruction is knowledge”Mike Pitts

“Should we be allowed to build on sites of historic interest?” It sounds like a no-brainer. And who would deny Bosworth field a place high in the UK’s site list? But hold your horses. We need some context.

Were we to stop development on all historic sites, the country would grind to a halt. Humans have been here for a million years: there’s not a square inch of land – and not much sea – without history.

But we’re a civilised nation. When planners look at a proposal, they consider historic issues and listen to their own archaeologists. Faced with a conflict between significant history and new homes or job opportunities, they have three options:

  1. Block development
  2. Allow it, but ask the developer to avoid damaging historic remains
  3. Allow it and ask the developer to record any threatened remains before works begin

Typically a good proposal finds a mix of options two and three attached as conditions to consent. And here we get to a key point: destruction is knowledge.

Almost everything we know about the ancient past, and much about the more recent (think Staffordshire Hoard, Richard III), comes from excavation. A dig destroys remains, but recording and analysis create new understandings. It is a Faustian deal archaeologists have been perfecting for over a century. Without developers, who today pay for much the greater part of excavation, our knowledge of British history would be hugely diminished.

At Bosworth (where the proposed track touches a small part of the known battlefield) Mira has already paid for historic surveys, and will probably now pay for more. We are learning more about the battle. That alone doesn’t make the development acceptable, but we can’t answer the question about building on sites of historic interest without understanding that building on history often makes it more interesting.

Mike Pitts is author of Digging for Richard III: How Archaeology Found the King (2014). 

Portrait of Richard III of England (1452-1485) King of England until his death in the Battle of Bosworth Field. Dated 15th Century (Photo by: Universal History Archive/UIG via Getty Images)

“History is no less tangible at battlefield sites because it lies in the landscape…” – Matthew Lewis

Historic England currently has 46 registered battlefield sites around England. Permission has been granted to build on two of these in the past few weeks: a supermarket carpark will be laid over part of the site of the 1471 battle of Tewkesbury, and now a car test track over 10 acres of the 1485 battle of Bosworth site. We have to ask ourselves: how much more can, and should, be willfully destroyed by us?

Tourism is worth around £106 billion to the UK economy, and our history is a significant draw. Those pursuing these developments often claim that anyone interested in preserving the sites is a Luddite who fears progress. That isn’t true. Neither is the economic benefit of progress the only way to generate revenue at a location of international historical importance. The two should be able to exist alongside, rather than on top of, each other.

Given that many places of historic significance have already been lost, I firmly believe that sites are worthy of protection if there is an interest in keeping and visiting them. When it is something as nationally and internationally significant as the site of the battle of Bosworth, it seems a no-brainer. Places that appear to be ‘just fields’ hold no less claim to importance than splendid houses or romantic ruins. Would we tear down the Tower of London because it is in the way? Should Rievaulx Abbey or Fountains Abbey be knocked down because they are ‘just’ piles of rubble? The history is no less tangible at battlefield sites because it lies in the landscape. They are war memorials and valuable sources of archaeology that aid our understanding of the past.

Matthew Lewis is the author of The Survival of the Princes in the Tower (2017) and Richard III: Loyalty Binds Me (2018).

The Tower of London. More than 30 inmates successfully broke out of the royal fortress between the 12th and 18th centuries. (Photo by Tetra Images/Getty Images)

“The secrets of battlefields have more to offer…” – George Goodwin

The past few years have seen a renewed interest in the Wars of the Roses as one of the most dramatic stages in English history. The period is now better understood as a time of great historical importance, with two of its battles proving particularly pivotal in changing the path of our historical development. The Armageddon of the battle of Towton in 1461, and the consequential removal of Henry VI by a minority of the aristocracy, marked the effective end of medieval monarchy; while the decisive Tudor victory at Bosworth in 1485 brought a new royal house of Renaissance rulers and a new way of governing.

Of course, a further reason for interest in Bosworth is the discovery of Richard III’s body and its identification by modern scientific techniques. The application of modern science to battlefields themselves has revealed a vast amount of new information of how and where the battles were fought. The findings of battlefield archaeologists at Towton, for example, have given veracity to the medieval chroniclers who wrote of an encounter of exceptional ferocity and ruthlessness. Work undertaken by professional and disciplined metal detectorists has uncovered the lines of arrow points that give a clear indication of where the armies engaged and has unearthed the oldest ‘composite’ lead shot found on a European battlefield.

A commemorative plaque marking the death of Richard III, who died at the battle of Bosworth in 1485. (Photo by Getty Images)
A commemorative plaque marking the death of Richard III, who died at the battle of Bosworth in 1485. It reads: “Richard, the last Plantagenet King of England, was slain here 22nd August 1485”. (Photo by VisitBritain via Getty Images)

In terms of the site at Bosworth, archaeologists have not only found the largest number of cannonballs on a medieval battlefield, but extended the area of conflict itself. These are major triumphs for battlefield archaeology, particularly as it is a science still in its infancy.  So much more can be achieved in deciphering the secrets of battlefields in the coming years, but only if the battlefields remain intact in their entirety and are therefore available to be fully explored. Removing even 1% of the current expanse of Bosworth Field – and one of its key areas – would have a hugely deleterious effect on this ambition and compromise our complete understanding of this hugely important historical site.

George Goodwin is the author of Fatal Colours: Towton 1461 – England’s Bloodiest Battle (2011). He will be speaking at BBC History Magazine’s History Weekend at Winchester (5–7 October). Find out more here

Memorial cross at Flodden Field, site of Battle of Flodden 1513, Northumberland, 1994. (Photo by English Heritage/Heritage Images/Getty Images)

“Knocking down Hadrian’s Wall would create jobs. It doesn’t mean we should do it…” – Diane Purkiss

We’d been walking in the Gloucestershire countryside when my friend led me into the modest-looking graveyard. “Oh yes, there’s a Roman mosaic there, under the grass,” he said casually. My jaw dropped. I came from a country where an old house was 200 years old. Here was something of almost two thousand years old just lying around without even a museum around it. More than any other country, England feels as if history is always under your feet. If we lose that, we lose who we are.

I’ve seen Bosworth on re-enactment days, crowded with children loving the excitement of the cannons and the arrows and knights and horses. And the place is real; it’s not a plastic theme park. I’ve seen Wars of the Roses archaeologists excited at finding new evidence on Bosworth field. We don’t yet know all that might be at Bosworth, so we don’t know what knowledge we might be losing.

Cavalry at a battle of Bosworth re-enactment. (Photo by VisitBritain/Grant Pritchard via Getty Images)
Cavalry at a battle of Bosworth re-enactment. (Photo by VisitBritain/Grant Pritchard via Getty Images)

We do know the new development means we’re losing the vital sense of place that has delighted visitors to the site ever since the battle itself.

Anyone can make a case for any development on the grounds that it will create jobs. Knocking down Hadrian’s Wall would create jobs. It doesn’t mean we should do it. In the long run, we are selling our history for short-term gains. And once it’s gone, it will never come back. We have no right to make that choice for future generations.

How should we decide which sites to preserve? Let’s have a national committee of historians and archaeologists, rather than leaving the decision-making to local councils. The default position should be that no important historical site should be subject to destructive development. Let’s keep our past for the future.

Diane Purkiss is author of The English Civil War: A People’s History (2007).

Hadrian's wall is a major attraction for tourists today, and was perhaps a sacred draw in Roman times. (Loop Images/UIG via Getty Images)

“We cannot preserve everything, but our most important battlefields must be protected…” – Michael Jones

The decision by Hinckley and Bosworth Council to approve plans to build on the Bosworth battlefield is a sad day for our heritage. Bosworth is one of our most important managed sites and marks a decisive moment in our national history. Some 15,000 people, from all over the world, signed an online petition and a host of experts joined the fight to protect Bosworth. Now the development has been voted through.

The segment of the battlefield that will be destroyed forms a key part of the Bosworth story. This vital part of our history, that attracts more than 50,000 visitors a year from all over the world, should never have been left in the hands of a local planning committee.

A consultancy role must now be given to the Battlefields Trust [a UK charity dedicated to the protection and promotion of battlefield heritage]. We cannot preserve everything, but our most important battlefields must be designated and given proper protection under the law. A panel of experts should be set up to list the most significant sites and the areas within them crucial to their interpretation. In doing this, we should be mindful of our history and archaeology – and remember that these are resting places for the dead. We must fight for our heritage, for ourselves and those who come after us.

Dr Michael Jones is a Fellow of the Royal Historical Society and author of Bosworth 1485 – Psychology of a Battle (2014). Find out more at michaeljoneshistorian.com

Richard III's Yorkist troops fight Lancastrians in the battle of Bosworth, during the Wars of the Roses, 22 August 1485. King Richard was killed by Henry of Richmond, who became Henry VII. Engraving after Philip James de Loutherbourg. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Should we be allowed to build on sites of historic interest? Here’s what you’ve been saying on Twitter…

Suzanne Nelson (@Lunarayven): I think it depends entirely on what building is planned. A car park? No. But if it’s a building which will work with the site to help explain the historical significance then I think that’s acceptable.

Thomas Kendall‏ (@TomK_1234): We should preserve our heritage lest we lose it. For many, a physical reminder is how we truly appreciate the past.

Bryony (@BryEvans92): I always think you can’t truly understand a moment in history until you go to the place itself and appreciate the setting and what it would have been like to be in that moment… if we pave over history’s lessons as if they have no significance, how do we expect to learn from them?

Mr History (@HistoryLiv): We have been doing so for centuries. We now have the means to preserve visual, virtual records of such sites. If an exceptional case occurs anything could be sacrificed. Try not to, but a hard no is unreasonable.

Louise Whittaker (@whittake7): In terms of battlefields, their significance has to be established to make Historic England’s National Register. Once this has happened they should have statutory protection against any development, as heritage assets of national importance.

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Rachel Dinning is Website Assistant at History Extra.