ISSN 1357-4442Editor: Simon Denison

Issue no 43, April 1999


Victory at Tewkesbury's battlefield

Richard Morris explains why the decision to preserve the field matters

For suspense, energy, and significance of outcome, few episodes in British history are more breathtaking than the events which led to the Battle of Tewkesbury in May 1471.

Twenty-two months previously the Yorkist king Edward IV had been imprisoned by his cousin and former backer, Richard Neville, Earl of Warwick the kingmaker. Edward regained his freedom within weeks. Warwick fled to France, sided with the Lancastrians and invaded England in September 1470. Caught unawares, Edward left the country. The following spring he came back, reclaimed London and killed Warwick at the Battle of Barnet.

That same day, 14 April, Margaret of Anjou, the wife of the restored Lancastrian king Henry VI, arrived in Dorset from France. With her was her son, the Prince of Wales. Their hope was to rally sympathisers in Wales. A race ensued, with Margaret and the Lancastrian force striving to link with their allies, and Edward force-marching to overtake them. The river Severn was a problem. The Lancastrians needed time and opportunity to cross it. On 3 May Edward caught them up, at Tewkesbury.

Combat opened next morning just outside the town. Withstanding an attack provoked by their own bombardment, and anticipating some of their opponents' tactics, the smaller Yorkist force caused a Lancastrian collapse, driving the disintegrating army back on to the abbey and town. Most of the Lancastrian nobility were killed or taken and executed afterwards. Among them was the young Prince of Wales. Henry VI was murdered 17 days later. Margaret was imprisoned.

Edward IV was secure for the twelve years that remained to him. Those years saw political modernisation, advances in administration, financial control, architectural and artistic patronage a foundation for the dynasty that followed.

Much that happened on that day the placing of forces, intervening distances, the reach of arrows and shot can be re-witnessed if you walk the land. Of course, things have changed. Houses, fences, and telephone wires intrude. But not that much. The landscape, the battle's theatre, remains legible, a place of silent shouts.

Other things connect. Nearby is the abbey with its Yorkist-badged vaults, where the tomb of the Duke of Clarence, one of the prince's pursuers, is answered by his victim's grave. The Severn flows through the story both as Edward's silent ally and as a reminder of Wales's part in what happened 14 years later, when the `ceremony of possession' (see later) ended in Henry Tudor's victory at Bosworth, and his marriage to Elizabeth Edward IV's eldest daughter. Overlooking all, the Malverns and the Cotswold scarp.

In 1995 Tewkesbury Battlefield was one of 43 sites included in English Heritage's Battlefields Register. This accolade did not dissuade Tewkesbury Borough Council from preferring houses to history by granting consent to Bryant Homes Mercia for a development on part of the site (see BA, June 1997). The Environment Secretary and Deputy Prime Minister, John Prescott, called in this decision for his own determination following a public inquiry. The inquiry was held in March 1998, when both English Heritage and the CBA contested the development. (For the CBA, it was the second campaign in less than a decade against a housing development on Tewkesbury battlefield.)

English Heritage's staff performed spectacularly well at the inquiry, but the result seemed no foregone conclusion. Battlefield designation is non-statutory and does not automatically rule out development. Rather, it is meant to be a `material factor' to inform planning decisions. Other development proposals on battlefields are pending. Tewkesbury was a test case.

Four yardsticks assist consideration of a registered battlefield: authenticity, visual amenity, integrity, and accessibility. The inquiry inspector's report, published last month, failed the planning application for its adverse impact on all four. Mr Prescott agreed with the inspector. It is a good decision. Other battlefields should be the safer for it, and will be safer still if the CBA's request at the inquiry for further clarification about the nature and strength of battlefield designation is heeded. These rare and uncanny places are, after all, enduring cultural assets rather than obstacles to progress. It is their cherishing which is progressive.

The phrase `ceremony of possession' comes from Geoffrey Hill's poem cycle Funeral Music, `a florid, grim music broken by grunts and shrieks', and which dwells on episodes in the Wars of the Roses. Its ending might recall the lethal round-up of Lancastrian leaders:

Then tell me, love,
How that should comfort us or anyone
Dragged half-unnerved out of this worldly place,
Crying to the end `I have not finished'.

Tewkesbury Field's silent witness is more eloquent still.

Richard Morris is the Director of the CBA

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© Council for British Archaeology, 1999