Battlefields are the final resting place for thousands of unknown soldiers, both nobles and commoners, whose lives were sacrificed in the making of the history of their country. These historic assets are an intrinsic part of a nation’s identity and consciousness. They inspire strong emotions and live on in stories, poetry and music. However, the history relating to them is often hard to unravel, as there is often little to see above ground and the historical record is usually written by the victors. The UK has many historic battlefield sites, some of which have legal protection through heritage protection legislation (as scheduled monuments, listed buildings, gardens and designed landscapes, or as conservation areas) whilst others are protected through landscape legislation (such as National Parks, National Scenic Areas and areas designated for local landscape value). More recently, some archaeologists prefer the term "site of conflict" to "battlefield", because of the difficulty in defining the geographical extent of a site.
In England, the Register of Historic Battlefields lists the sites of 43 of the most important military battles on English soil. It is maintained by English Heritage. Historic Scotland is responsible for the Inventory of Historic Battlefields. There are currently 17 battlefields on the Inventory. In Wales, the Welsh Ministers proposed in March 2011 that Cadw also compiles a non-statutory register of historic battlefields. The consultation period ends on 10 June 2011. There is currently no battlefield register or statutory protection for such sites in Northern Ireland.
The legislation to protect historic battlefields is relatively recent, and arose following several key incidents involving important sites e.g. the discovery in 1997 of an unprotected mass grave of soldiers who fought at the 1461 Battle of Towton and a large metal detector rally held on the battlefield of Marston Moor in 2003.
Battlefield sites in England are material considerations in the planning process and are designated by Historic England and put onto the Register of Historic Battlefields under powers conferred under the Historic Buildings and Ancient Monuments Act, 1983 (as amended). This legislation did not confer a specific responsibility to create a register of battlefields, (only a register for historic parks and gardens), but a joint project between English Heritage, the National Army Museum and the Battlefields Trust in 1995 created a register. In 2011 this registered was incorporated into the National Heritage List for England, administered by Historic England.
In Scotland, the Inventory of historic battlefields was introduced in 2009 and is compiled by Historic Scotland on behalf of the Scottish Ministers. This is done under the Historic Environment (Amendment) (Scotland) Act 2011, following on from the Scottish Historic Environment Policy (July 2009) with further guidance issued in March 2011.
In England, submissions are considered by English Heritage’s Battlefields Panel which is a non-executive specialist panel which advises the organisation on policy and practice. Members include archaeologist Dr Glenn Foard and Major General Julian Thompson CB OBE. Even though there is no legal requirement for English Heritage to be consulted over planning applications which affect registered battlefields although they must be considered by the local planning authority. Registration of battlefields means that any proposed development on the sites and their settings a material consideration under planning legislation.
Planning Policy Statement 5 Planning for the Historic Environment states that there should be a presumption in favour of the conservation of designated historic assets, and that local authorities should assess whether an application for development outweighs the "disbenefits". It also recognises that there are many historic assets that are not currently designated, and that despite that, they should still be a presumption in favour of conservation such that substantial harm to, or loss of, the battlefield should be "wholly exceptional".
Some sites also receive protection under separate legislation, for example the parts of the Battle of Maldon is part of the Coastal Protection Belt, a Special Landscape Area and a Site of Special Scientific Interest. The Battle of Evesham site is subject to local plan policies which constrain development beyond its current extent.
However, because there is often little to see above ground, sites are regularly threatened by new road and residential development. The 2010 Heritage at Risk survey identifies several sites that are "at risk" including the site of the Battle of Newburn Ford which has been subject to piecemeal, peripheral development and much of the site of the Battle of Stamford Bridge lies under modern development
War cemeteries are designated separately.
Although there are many historic battlefields in England only a few are considered to be important enough to be included in the register. The current criteria for designation are:
In Scotland, the criteria are similar but with the additional requirement that the it must be possible to define the site on a modern map with a reasonable degree of accuracy. English Heritage is currently (May 2011) reviewing the criteria in the light of recent battlefield studies and developments in battlefield archaeology.
The UK Battlefields Trust claims that there are more than 500 historic battlefields and other fields of conflict in England up to the Jacobite risings of the 18th century. It is gradually compiling a UK "Fields of Conflict" database in collaboration with Historic Scotland, Leeds University and English Heritage. An independent Scottish Battlefields Trust was established in 2015 to protect, promote and interpret the battlefield heritage of Scotland.
The English Heritage Register of Historic Battlefields identifies 43 English battlefields, whilst Historic Scotland has 17 sites on its Inventory. The purpose of both the register and inventory is to offer them protection and to promote a better understanding of their significance. The location, brief historic details and designation for each register battlefield in England can searched using The National Heritage List for England. There are also details of sources, history and archaeological excavations for each site where available on the English Heritage web site. Scottish historic battlefields can be search online using PASTMAP .