The history of the Battle of Barnet
PUBLISHED: 22:28 01 May 2017 | UPDATED: 11:52 02 May 2017
This month marks the anniversary of a bloody clash on a Herts plain that changed the fate of England. More than half a millennia on, a major project is underway to unearth its secrets. Ben Sneath explores the Battle of Barnet
The sun is up, and two armies look out at one another across a high plain north of the small Hertfordshire town of Barnet, seeing each other indistinctly through the mist. The battle which commences will decide the king of England. The engagement is short, but bloody, and there are three kings on the field – Edward IV and his 19-year-old brother, the future Richard III, against Edward’s cousin and former friend ‘the Kingmaker’ Earl of Warwick – backer of Henry VI, who is held captive by Edward.
The Battle of Barnet took place on April 14, 1471. It was one of the most important engagements in the Wars of the Roses, a 30-year conflict over the rightful king of England between rival branches of the royal Plantagenets – the House of York (white rose) and House of Lancaster (red rose). It saw the death of Warwick and Edward’s victory, securing 14 years of Yorkist rule over England.
While the battle was a major event in English history, its exact location remains a mystery. Now, more than half a millennia later, there is the chance to find out what really happened and what lies hidden under once blood-soaked fields. The Battle of Barnet Project was set up last year to conduct archaeological work in the area thought to be the battle site and to raise awareness of the event, not just in Barnet but around the world. The project won a Heritage Lottery Fund grant of £98,600 and this money has allowed a broadening of ambitions regarding the archaeology and other activities. These include putting banners around Barnet High Street to celebrate the battle’s anniversary this month, opening a heritage trail across the archaeological sites, giving educational resources about the battle to local schools and creating a dedicated web resource on the Barnet Museum website.
Volunteers at Barnet Museum, Barnet Society and the Battlefields Trust as well as from the local community have been helping with the archaeological fieldwork, cleaning finds and assisting project events.
Mike Noronha, project team member and a trustee of Barnet Museum, said the project has captured people’s imaginations. ‘We have seen a huge coming together of volunteers from across the community − and we still need more, so feel free to register now at the museum or on the website.’
One of the biggest events planned is a Medieval Festival. This family friendly event will be held in June in the museum’s garden, complete with fun history-based activities, food and battle re-enactments.
Another key element of the Battle of Barnet Project is an exhibition planned for Barnet Museum that will feature all the battle-related finds from the survey which will be identified and dated by experts.
The search begins
The archaeological survey of the battle site started last year with a metal detecting phase, which saw many volunteers come together. Sam Wilson, the lead archaeologist on the project, said, ‘Except for myself, all the people helping with the fieldwork have been volunteers − from the metal detecting team to the test pit diggers. All the finds processing is coordinated by volunteers from Barnet Museum who supervise the finds cleaning and photography sessions with people from the local community, of all age groups and walks of life.’
The focus area of the survey is around the Great North Road and Hadley Highstone, which takes its name from an obelisk, erected in 1740 by Sir Jeremy Sambrook to commemorate the battle, and is based on a detailed assessment of the landscape and documentary evidence.
The survey is being managed by Dr Glen Foard of the Battlefields Trust and Huddersfield University, whose work on the Battle of Bosworth in Leicestershire, shifted its site two miles from where it was previously thought to have taken place. The new site, pinpointed after research into place names, shed light on medieval artillery, with lead shots from gun and cannon found. The Battle of Bosworth was the last major battle of the Wars of the Roses at which Richard III, the last Yorkist king, was killed. His death (most memorably captured by Shakespeare) ushered in the Tudor dynasty. Dr Foard’s Bosworth survey broke new ground in medieval battlefield archaeology and the Barnet survey has drawn on that experience.
The main aim of the first phase of work at Barnet is to expand the metal detector survey to try and recover artefacts fired, lost or dropped in the battle. A second phase will involve geophysics and excavation to try and identify key elements related to the battle, such as the site of a lost chapel dedicated to the fallen.
According to Sam Wilson, the survey has already recovered artefacts that date to broadly the right period for the battle. They are currently with specialists for detailed identification and dating.
On finding the exact location of the main battle, he said they are definitely getting closer. ‘All the landscape and documentary evidence seems to be pointing us towards the location where we are concentrating our fieldwork. Medieval battlefield archaeology is an extremely time-consuming and painstaking process and we simply need more time over the coming years to extend our survey into unexamined areas.’
He hopes the momentum will continue after funding ends at the end of 2018.
‘Above all, I would like to be able to say that beyond any doubt we have located the battlefield, but as any archaeologist will tell you, the archaeology gods are fickle and you don’t always find what you want, or if you do, it’s often not in the place you expect.
‘Regardless of the outcome of the fieldwork, I hope that the project will help put Barnet firmly on the map. The project has brought many people from the community together and I hope that the reinvigorated awareness of Barnet’s heritage is something that continues in the future.’
There are many volunteering opportunities in a variety of aspects of the project this year and next, as well as events to attend. Go to the website barnetmuseum.weebly.com for more details.