Britain's fight for its battlefields





Sir Winston Churchill called battlefields "the punctuation marks of history", but the Battle of Hastings is more like a full-blown chapter. On the grassy slopes of Senlac Hill, with the leafy Sussex countryside unfolding below, the future path of English government was decided on October 14, 1066.In a conflict lasting from early morning to late afternoon, the crop-headed army of Duke William of Normandy put paid to Harold and his "womanish" Saxons, with their flowing moustaches and pomaded hair.

Stand quietly on the terrace at Senlac today and you can almost hear the anguished cries of infantry, the clatter of axes and the whoosh of arrows. Though the terrain is now more parkland than scrub, you can still see the marshy area that William's cavalry had to pass before mounting their uphill assault. It is a place that, as Julian Humphrys, development officer of the Battlefields Trust says, sends shivers down the spine.

Hastings is not the oldest known English battlefield, but it is remarkable for the full picture we have of how its events unfolded. "We know it happened here because William had vowed to build an abbey on the site if victorious," Humphrys says. The high altar of the church was said to have been on the spot where Harold was slain. "It was a most inconvenient location, right on the edge of the hill, but when the monks tried to build it elsewhere, William made them go back. Even then this place had resonance."

Senlac Hill was bought for the nation in 1976. Along with the abbey ruins, it is in the care of English Heritage, which stages meticulous re-enactments each year. It is one of the best-cared-for battlefields in Britain, with a state-of-the-art visitor centre and café. Humphrys says it is a model for what could be done elsewhere to preserve and celebrate these national historical assets.

Sadly, other battlefields are less fortunate. English Heritage, working closely with the Trust, maintains a Battlefields Register of 43 sites, but Humphrys says it lacks authority, conferring no legal protection and leaving them vulnerable to development, intensive farming and treasure hunting....


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