Barnet battlefield

Walking Battlefields, Walking Memory

A guest post on finding the memory held in the land, by Kirsten Bayes

“Everything that happens, happens somewhere”, it is said. Yet in the civil wars of 15th century England, precisely where things happened is not always easy to determine. The clashes between the Yorkist and Lancastrian factions of the Plantagenet royal family – called much later “The Wars of the Roses” – were said to involve the “greatest field (battle) in Christendom.” Yet you can go to St Albans, Barnett or Edgcote, where thousands died, and struggle to find any sign that the battles happened at all. In many cases, little or no archaeological evidence has been found, and there are several options for the exact location of the fighting.
Barnet battlefield

the likely site of the Barnet battlefield, looking toward the Earl of Warwick‘s positions

So the primary challenge is one of navigation. Map and GPS take you so far, but the land itself changes: rivers switch course, ditches are filled in, forests cut down. You are, in many ways, navigating the land as it was, as it is remembered. So what is really needed is a story, an account of what happened. Stories of the land and events are an old tradition, one that goes back to preliterate times when people first sought to understand their place in the world. Standing in the landscape, as you begin to mentally position the massed infantry or the archers, the land changes. In imagination the quiet farm- or park- land fades, and the roar of the conflict comes into your ears.
St Albans marketplace

St Albans marketplace

You are also navigating a constructed, social world. Those who fought moved along roads, stayed in local inns, prayed in churches, many of which are still there. In St Albans, the house where the Duke of Somerset was reportedly killed is now a building society. The ordinary soldiers might have slept in hedgerows or woods, many still there today. Where you were in the wars depended on who you were. After the battles, grave pits were typically dug near local parish churches, or if many were killed, they would be interred where they fell and a chapel built close by. So, as you walk over the land, you tread where the combatants rested, prayed and where their bodies may yet remain.

Yet it is fear and loss that provide the most difficult navigation. Battles in the Middle Ages would typically end in a rout, where the losing side fled the field, discarding their armour and weapons as they ran, pursued by their enemies. This was when the bulk of fatalities typically took place. On the approach to every battlefield, I have experienced a wrenching feeling, reliable enough to say “ah, we’re here”. Sometimes, the names of local places, “bloody meadow” or “hanging wood” suggest that nothing good happened there. It is telling that even before Planning Committees or Heritage Societies existed, nobody wanted to live in such places and so they often remain open fields. Even if people forget, the land remembers.

One can ask, what relevance do these events have to us today? They were, at first glance, not conflicts about our current arguments, say the role of government or of free trade. Yet the people of the time were navigating a new era: one which would become the time we live in. The expansion of the printing press and literacy, of naval exploration and the creation of overseas empires, the spread of “guns, germs and steel“.  Technology aside, while the struggles of 15th century nobles and royalty may seem remote, their descendants still reign over us, holding land and power. The questions the wars raised, around legitimacy and the limits of power, still matter today. The answer the people of the time came to, that it is in fact by the popular will as much as by family history that leaders are chosen, and that governments must obey laws made in Parliament to keep their legitimacy (even if they write laws to suit themselves), are answers that still shape who we are. The darker answer, that even when legitimacy is absent, power can be secured by armed force and propaganda, at least for a time, is as regrettable now as it was then.

Deeper still, these were men and women who lived on the same land, breathed the same air, walked the same streets, even lived in and visited the same buildings we do. They didn’t see themselves living in the Medieval era: for them, it was modern times. We share their names, look at their art, even sing their songs at Christmas. We still tell stories of lost ages of chivalry and heroism, as they did: tales of King Arthur and Robin Hood are as popular now as then. A noble from that time would have no difficulty recognising the characters in Game of Thrones or House of Cards. Their stories, in a real sense, are ours.

So as we navigate their land and lives, we are navigating our own. And if the roars of the battles they fought seem quieter now, it is perhaps only because we have grown accustomed to the din.