Sunday, 6 December 2009

Local Colour

A bit of a change again, here, with a sort of real-live battle report.

First of all, a confession. I’ve lived within comfortable travelling distance of Northampton for many years and I have never walked the eponymous battlefield. Disgraceful, I hear you all say. In my defence I actually live closer to Naseby, and that's a battle I've always been interested in.

There are two other reasons why I’ve never bothered to tread the ground. Firstly, I’ve never had much interest in the Wars of the Roses until recently. I mistakenly believed it was too much sterile bashing each other at short range with poleaxes. I see now that there is a lot of that going on but there are also some interesting wargame problems to solve, especially around the role of leadership. Hence you find me as a member of the Lance & Longbow Society and the proud possessor of two nearly finished Peter Pig 15mm armies for the period.

The other reason is that I knew, as did anyone else who first looked at the period in the 1970’s, that the battlefield was under the railway line, Victorian jerry-building and the Carlsberg brewery. In terms of a battlefield in England it was about as badly damaged as you could possibly imagine. Just the sort of thing that provoked the Battlefields Trust into being set up. In fact I’ve driven over the bridge across the River Nene and the railway line many times, sighing at the sad destruction wrought on the site.

And so I thought until last year. I’d been steadily wading through the collection of books on the period I’ve been acquiring from second hand internet sites (God Bless You, abebooks.com), including Haigh’s “Military Campaigns of the Wars of the Roses” and the Poleaxed Sourcebooks, and eventually I’d been left with my latest general history book, - Richard Brooks’ “Cassell’s Battlefields of Britain and Ireland”, which claims on its cover to be uniquely comprehensive.

I read the Wars of the Roses section, and was impressed with the no-nonsense approach to describing the battles. And then I read the description of Northampton, and discovered that he thought the traditional view of the battle has it in the wrong place. It isn’t under the brewery. It’s up on the hill, near the golf course. Why does he think it’s there? Because the only solid reference to the location says it is between Delapre Abbey and Hardingstone. The traditional site has it between the river and the Abbey, - too far to the north.

As I happen to know Richard and we were due to meet up for other reasons I suggested we go and have a look at the battle site.

The site isn’t hard to visit. Most of the grounds of Delapre Abbey are open to public access, and you can park in the street next to it. If you park near the side road up to the Abbey, you can walk up and look back at the traditional battlefield site. It’s then that you realise how wrong the more usual interpretations are.

Even at this point there is quite a dip down to the river & railway, which are at the bottom of the hill – an area known now as Far Cotton. The photo shows the traditional battlefield site, looking towards the North, from the direction of the Yorkist approach. As you can see it slopes down quite a bit, - you can't see the bottom of the trees and some of the horse boxes from the local pony club are obscured.

The position makes no sense. The Lancastrians have their back trapped against the river, and they are downhill of their opponents. And what’s more this area was (and has been in recent memory) a flood plain. If, as has been suggested, the “quenching” of the Lancastrian guns was due to the river flooding, then the whole position would be under water. There would be no tent for Henry VI to have waited in, -it would have floated way. When the area flooded in 1998 the whole of this site was completely under water. Even if the Lancastrians started at this point they would have moved as soon as the river started to get swollen. The area below Delapre Abbey down to the river Nene (pronounced “Nen”, by the way, not “Neen”) is pretty much completely flat. The ground only starts to rise the other side of the access road to the abbey. I would hazard a guess that historically the area below there was water meadow before it was built over. It is certainly flood plain.

In fact, the reference to the guns being “quenched” comes from Davies’s Chronicle and reads “for that day was so great rain, that the guns lay in deep water and so were quenched and might be not be shot.” It seems to me if the river had flooded there would be a more direct reference to this. To speculate further this could just as easily be a reference to the gun pits in the fortifications being filled with water.

So having concluded that Richard was correct in his analysis, and armed with his book open at page 238 we turned our backs to the railway line and walked up the slope to the alternative site of the battle.

Unfortunately the site isn’t easy to assess even away from the built up area. The edge of the road, - where the Yorkist left flank would have been – is now wooded. The trees look to me to be quite a bit less than 600 years old so would not have been there then. They obscure completely the Eleanor Cross, the best known landmark in the area, from the entire battlefield. What’s more the Yorkist forming up area is also now quite heavily wooded.

However, all these criticisms not withstanding as you walk up the slope the likelihood of the revised site being correct becomes more apparent. Although the position isn’t on the brow of the actual hill between Hardingstone and Delapre itself it is on a plateau sort of half way up the slope. There is a flat area that is probably large enough to deploy Henry VI’s army. The approach to it from the Yorkist position is on a slight downward incline, but is also quite uneven. In fact it looks like the only area large enough and flat enough to deploy the army. This picture shows the view looking towards the south.

At this point further analysis becomes difficult. The local council has stuck Delapre golf course across half the site (to use Mark Twain for the second time in my blog, - "golf - a good battlefield ruined"). A modern drainage ditch cuts through where the Lancastrian left flank would most probably have been. In addition the land has been levelled off to provide a tee point and greens. It is a tragedy for me that having discovered that I can actually visit the site now that there are plans to extend the golf course further across, which will destroy completely any of the original ground that is left. The picture shows one of the drainage ditches. The golf course is in the right.

So we walked to the edge of where the Lancastrians would have been deployed, and then cut back across the field towards the road, through the area where Lord Grey betrayed his monarch, and let Edward of March across the barricade and ditch. Which leaves me almost with my final thought. What the remains of the site needs is a full geo-physical survey to see if the line of the ditch can be detected. If it was there then it looks like it would have cut across the strip farming of the time, and so be visible. What chance is there of that?

After this walk I went back to get some pictures with young Master Trebian, who is a bit handy with a camera. We went up after we'd had a summer of rain, and I can tell you the water table is quite high up there. In fact, this last picture shows a pond that actually forms in wet summers on the brow of the hill, about where I reckon the battleline would be. Surely enough to quench those guns?

7 comments:

  1. Nice article. I've created a link to it from the new Lance & Longbow web forum at http://forum.lanceandlongbow.com - have you signed up yet?

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  2. A truly interesting blog entry.

    The Wars of the Roses have never interested me, but your description of the battlefield made so much sense, and the images aided and added to it.

    I have not walked a lot of battlefields, but when you do the history comes alive. In addition, things that never quite make sense when your read them do so when you see the ground over which they happened.

    Many thanks again for this excellent blog entry.

    Bob

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  3. Vexilia: I haven't signed up for the L&L forum yet, but I will do.

    Bob: Walking battlefields with a guide who knows what he's talking about helps a lot. I can only guess that you haven't walked many battlefileds in your favourite period as most of them are in the middle of the desert! Northampton

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  4. B****r!!

    I spent most of the last thirty years living in Bedford or Stony Stratford, I now live in North Wales.

    Like yourself, I walked Naseby and Bosworth driving through Northampton to get there. I never felt any temptation to stop the car at the railway yards even though I parked up for the rugby ground and to buy factory outlet shoes regularly.

    B*****ks!

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  5. Honestly John, you haven't missed much compared with Naseby.

    I'd be more cross I went to Bosworth when it was in the wrong place!

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  6. Trebian,
    Nice blog, which I only found from your TMP post! Living locally too, I joined a guided Battlefields Trust walk a couple of months ago - which was based on a revised interpretation and was very interesting.
    Next year is 550th anniversary and am thinking that a demo game should be organised somewhere in the town?
    Cheers

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  7. A demo game in town? What, like in the Grovesnor Centre? I suppose if the Battlefields Trust wanted to sponsor it that might work.

    If I did it then I'd do it as a participation game, like the games I do at MK Campaign for the Society of Ancients. I'm not a big fan of the masses of toy soldiers doing nothing except stand around showing off their paintwork.

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