Visit the battlefield of Evesham and you will find most of it private property with minimal public access. What happened here? As Steve Roberts explains this issue (see War Zone), it was where Simon de Montfort perished with many of his followers trying to defend Magna Carta against a reactionary monarch on 4 August 1265.
Go to pretty well any British battlefield and it is rarely much better. There are some isolated exceptions like Hastings and Culloden, where there is free access to the ground and on-site information to explain what happened and why it mattered. But the vast majority of our battlefields are virtually invisible in the landscape. Determined enthusiasts who know what they are looking for may find them, but they will need a good map and an equally clear mental picture of the action if they are to make the historic landscape come alive – assuming, that is, they can get access at all.
The Battlefields Trust is to be warmly encouraged in its sterling work to try and put matters right. Set up in 1991 after a conference on battlefields at Leicester University, its profile is steadily rising. Its aims are laudable: to save battlefields from destruction by motorways, housing developments, and the like; to provide a range of battlefield-related activities and information, including the quarterly journal Battlefield, battlefield walks, and conferences; to liaise with local and national organisations to preserve battlefields for posterity; and to improve the interpretation and presentation of battlefields. (To join, go to www.battlefieldstrust.com)
But the Trust wages an uphill struggle against widespread indifference – despite the growth of heritage-related tourism and the possible economic benefits from more effective preservation and presentation of battlefields. You only have to compare our efforts with the way in which battlefields are treated in the United States or South Africa to realise that another way is possible. A visit to Gettysburg is an entire family day-out with sign-boarded walks/rides across the countryside, cannon and memorials at every turn, a major on-site museum/visitor centre, living-history displays, and much else. Compare this with Naseby, the British equivalent of Gettysburg – the decisive battle of a revolutionary war that created the modern nation-state.
The argument that the potential is limited because these places are, after all, just grassy fields does not wash. Gettysburg, Rorke’s Drift, and Culloden are the same: just open countryside. But they have a power of place, because history was made at each of them, and if this is marked out and explained across the landscape, that power of place is activated. The imagination is fired. The site echoes with a distant clash of arms.
Something deep-rooted in mainstream British historiography is at work here. It is the denial that our history is contested and violent. It is the Whig idea that modern Britain is the product of a consensual progression, an evolution of tradition, a steady accumulation of reforms – but never of revolution and civil war.
Most woeful is popular ignorance of the centrality of the English Revolution – the event which ensured the dominance of the British bourgeoisie and broke down all the barriers to the development of British mercantile capitalism and a colonial empire. The bizarre title ‘Interregnum’ says it all, as if the whole sequence of events between 1640 and 1660 was some terrible aberration best skipped over as quickly as possible.
In fact, the entire period from 1455 to 1746 was one of massive upheaval. The Wars of the Roses prefigured the Civil War division between a more advanced South and East and a more feudal North and West. And the Jacobite Rebellions of 1689, 1715, 1719, and 1745 represented the lingering death-spasms of that same old feudal order – and a reiteration of the triumph of parliamentary government over royal absolutism. Three centuries of violent internal struggle to create modern Britain. And we are in denial.
The Americans have no such delusions. They know their country was forged in revolution and war. They know that Saratoga and Gettysburg created a nation. Is it not time that we, too, celebrated our true history – and stopped mis-educating ourselves and our children by hiding historic battlefields behind ‘private property’ notices?