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Battle of Barnet: 550th Anniversary

Volume 691: debated on Tuesday 23 March 2021

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the 550th anniversary of the Battle of Barnet 1471.

Before turning to the subject of the debate, I want to acknowledge that this is a very difficult and sad day for our country. My support and sympathy go to everyone who has lost loved ones, suffered illness or had their livelihood damaged by this yearlong health emergency. Let us hope that the vaccination programme means that better days lie ahead.

At around 5 am on 14 April 1471, battle was joined between the forces of York and Lancaster just north of the village of Barnet, in one of the most decisive battles of the 30-year conflict that later became known as the wars of the roses. At the head of the Yorkist army was King Edward IV. Over six feet tall, handsome, athletic and astute, Edward had assumed the leadership of the Yorkist cause at just 18 years old when his father was killed in a skirmish outside Wakefield. The teenage warrior emerged victorious at Towton in one of the bloodiest battles ever fought on English soil, and he successfully established a new dynasty. Leading for Lancaster was Edward’s former friend and mentor, Richard Neville, Earl of Warwick—a man so powerful in the dynastic struggles of the time that he earned the name kingmaker. Warwick had displaced Edward from his throne the previous year.

Three kings were on the field that day, the last of a 300-year line of Plantagenet monarchs: first, Edward IV; secondly, his prisoner, the deposed Henry VI; and thirdly, Edward’s brother, Richard, Duke of Gloucester, who would one day seize power and provoke 500 years of debate on his character and alleged crimes. The stakes could not have been higher for the men peering through the mist at one another that Easter Sunday morning 550 years ago. George R. R. Martin’s character, Cersei Lannister, once said, “If you play the game of thrones and lose, you die.” Well, as the banner created by Barnet Museum aptly put it, the battle of Barnet was part of “the real game of thrones”.

Defeat almost certainly meant death for those leading the armies facing off against one another that day back in 1471. The two sides were relatively evenly matched in numbers. Initially, neither seemed to have the upper hand. Because of the thick fog, however, the two sides were not directly aligned in front of one another at the start of the battle, as would normally be the case. Lancastrian forces under the Earl of Oxford stretched further to the east than the Yorkist troops at Edward’s left, led by Lord Hastings. That enabled Oxford’s forces to attack from the side, partly encircling the Yorkist left flank and forcing them back down the road to Barnet.

When Oxford and his troops returned to the battle, the two sides had shifted around from a north-south to an east-west axis. Unknowingly, he therefore arrived behind the rest of the Lancastrian army rather than alongside them. Mistaking their allies for the enemy, possibly because the fog made it hard to distinguish Oxford’s star banner from Edward’s sun in splendour, or perhaps because they assumed Oxford had switched sides, as so many did in that conflict, the Lancastrian archers fired on Oxford’s men. Believing they had been betrayed, they fled the field. By 8 am, Warwick was dead and the victory belonged to York.

There are many reasons why it is worth remembering these events as we approach the 550th anniversary of the battle on 14 April; not only because as many as 4,000 might have lost their lives that day, but because this was a significant turning point. It was probably the first battle in Britain to see extensive use of handguns. More importantly, it is worth considering what might have happened if the result had gone the other way. Defeat in Barnet and the consequent early demise of the house of York could have seen progress stopped or reversed on Edward IV’s efforts to build a modern state and curb the power of magnates. Although the reforms are generally credited to the Tudors, the transition began under Edward of York. If the difference between the middle ages and the modern era is reining in the power of the nobility and banning their private armies, there could be few more important turning points for achieving that than defeating Warwick—the most overmighty subject of them all—on the battlefield.

However, I am pleased to say that the most important reason to mark the anniversary is to promote my constituency of Chipping Barnet and encourage people to visit our local town centre. This is the only registered battlefield that people can get to by tube; the only one within the Greater London area. Between 2015 and 2017, Glenn Foard and Sam Wilson ran a project for the University of Huddersfield to try to identify the exact location of the battle. Dr Foard found the real site of Bosworth and the burial place of the King under the car park. His theory is that the battle may have taken place slightly further north, towards the Wrotham Park estate, rather than in the Hadley Green, Old Fold and Hadley Highstone area, which is the registered site.

The Huddersfield University work was made possible by the Hadley Trust, a local charity, for which I am very grateful. It included metal detecting, test pitting, geophysical surveys and landscape archaeology. Many local volunteers got involved and gave a hand. The results of the project were inconclusive, but I have to acknowledge that there is some anxiety that the eventual outcome might be that London loses its only registered battlefield. However, even if the main centre of the fighting turns out to have been not in my constituency but in that of the Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, my right hon. Friend the Member for Hertsmere (Oliver Dowden), further up the road to Potters Bar, contemporary accounts confirm that fighting extended back towards Barnet, so my constituency is likely to remain the site of at least part of the battlefield, even if these latest theories on location ultimately prove to be correct.

Once life returns to normal, I warmly encourage people to walk around what is traditionally recognised as the battle site. I am less sure of the extent of public access to the Wrotham Park alternative. Hopefully, in doing so, visitors will take the time to stop off at some of Barnet’s excellent hospitality businesses, as indeed some of the victorious Yorkist troops apparently did after the battle. I very much hope that Barnet’s pubs, restaurants and cafés will soon be allowed to open once again, as planned in the road map. Even before covid, our local town centres across the country had had a tough time, as competition from online retail giants intensified. But high streets, as all of us in the House know, are a crucial part of our communities and we must find ways to ensure that they survive. That is one reason why I have campaigned for many years for a reduction in and reform of business rates. I welcome the continuation of the business rates holiday confirmed in the Budget.

Heritage-related tourism can also play an important part in helping our high streets thrive. I am delighted that the Heritage Lottery Fund gave a grant of £98,600 to the Battle of Barnet project in 2015. This was run by the Barnet Museum, the Barnet Society and the Battlefields Trust. The Chipping Barnet Town Team was also very supportive and got involved. I thank all those groups for their excellent work. The project included a range of activities that have generated local interest in history and heritage.

There was extensive engagement with local schools. For example, Barnet Museum created a loan box full of medieval replicas, maps, pictures and a teacher’s pack telling the story of the battle and suggesting activities and events to inspire an interest in our town’s medieval past. Museum volunteers also painted copies of the family banners of the people who fought at Barnet. Following the lead set by Tewkesbury, the site of the battle to which Edward IV hastened after winning at Barnet, these banners were hung on lamp posts in Barnet High Street and are due to be back up soon to mark the anniversary. Such efforts can make a real difference to bringing people to their local town centre and I thank all the volunteers at the Barnet Museum and local history society for creating them. Thanks must also go to Bouygues, which owns the street lights and put up the banners.

However, the biggest and best event hosted by the Battle of Barnet project was the 2018 Barnet medieval festival. Around 6,500 attended the festival during the two days it ran, and over 100 took part in re-enactments of the second battle of St Albans and, of course, the battle of Barnet. There were tents and stalls that enabled people to understand more about how ordinary people lived in medieval England. The festival’s activities for children were especially popular, although I have to say that BBC London’s TV coverage did feature some rather alarmingly bloodthirsty comments from some of the younger participants in the mock battles that day. I was excited to be allowed to fire off a replica cannon as part of the opening ceremony—it was very, very loud. It was one of the best days out I have ever had in my constituency, and it was a brilliant way to bring people together.

Sadly, last year’s festival was cancelled because of covid, but I hope that this year’s will go ahead on 11 and 12 September. I strongly urge anyone who wants to make it happen to donate to the festival’s Spacehive appeal, at www.spacehive.com/battle-barnet-550. If the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport has any spare resources, it is a great cause to support. I make the same appeal to the National Lottery Heritage Fund. Its grant for the 2018 event was a massive success, and I am sure that it would be replicated if further funding were forthcoming for this year’s festival.

I will also take this opportunity to reiterate my call for Government support for pandemic insurance for festivals and events, which I gather was discussed here this morning. Many of those trying to put on events and festivals are finding it difficult or impossible to get insured. We risk a further summer of cancellations if the problem is not solved, so I urge the Minister—as I have done many times already—to offer the same kind of support to festivals and events as her Department has already given to the TV sector. For the sake of economic recovery, to signal that the UK is open for business again this summer, and to enable families to have some fun and memorable days out after the toughest 12 months any of us can remember, will the Government please say yes to a pandemic insurance scheme?

In conclusion, I will return to the battle itself. As well as its historic importance, the 550th anniversary of the battle is an opportunity to reflect on its cultural significance. I have already referred to the influence of the wars of the roses on “Game of Thrones”, in which the struggle between Stark and Lannister bears a number of striking similarities to the 15th century contest between York and Lancaster. Philippa Gregory has also brought the story of the brief tenure of the charismatic Yorkist dynasty vividly to life in her remarkable historical novels, which have enjoyed such massive success. One of my personal favourites is “The White Queen”, which tells the story of Elizabeth Woodville, who waited anxiously back in London just a few miles away for news of whether her husband had triumphed or perished in Barnet.

It is Shakespeare, of course, who gives the battle of Barnet its most enduring place in our literature and culture, so I will close my remarks today with words that our nation’s greatest poet placed in the mouth of a man dying in a field near Barnet 550 years ago; one who is memorialised in Hadley Highstone in my constituency and is forever known to history as the kingmaker:

“These eyes, that now are dimmed with death’s black veil,

Have been as piercing as the midday sun,

To search the secret treasons of the world:

The wrinkles in my brows, now fill’d with blood,

Were likened oft to kingly sepulchres;

For who liv’d king, but I could dig his grave?

And who durst smile when Warwick bent his brow?

Lo! Now my glory smear’d in dust and blood;

My parks, my walks, my manors that I had,

Even now forsake me; and, of all my lands

Is nothing left me but my body’s length.

Why, what is pomp, rule, reign, but earth and dust?

And, live we how we can, yet die we must.”

It is a great pleasure to serve under your stewardship, Ms Rees. I thank my right hon. Friend the Member for Chipping Barnet (Theresa Villiers) for securing this fascinating debate. We have been all over the place, from “Game of Thrones” to Shakespeare, and she has entertained and educated us.

As my right hon. Friend says, we should recognise that this is a very sad anniversary. It is one year since the lockdown started. So many lives have been lost, and so many of us over the period have lost the things we hold dear—the chance to see our friends and loved ones, and to attend the events that we love. This year has also driven us to appreciate more than ever the things that we appreciate in life and the things that bring us together as a community—our sense of togetherness, and our shared history and heritage. Those are the things that unite us.

As the Minister responsible for heritage, I am heartened to see the passion and vigour that our nation’s history evokes. There is absolutely no disputing that the battle of Barnet was one of the most significant and important battles of the wars of the roses. It was a very important moment in English history, when King Edward IV was restored to the throne. I am very grateful to my right hon. Friend for bringing it to life for us today with so much vigour and passion.

My right hon. Friend is absolutely right that such events have shaped our national story. The 550th anniversary of the battle of Barnet serves as a perfect opportunity to reflect on our past and engage our communities in a way that fosters a sense of pride, shared history and belonging. As she said, it is a way to reinvigorate our towns and village centres, which have suffered so much over the past year. It is an opportunity to inspire our youngsters in our schools and colleges, and it will potentially inspire some historians of the future.

Barnet’s medieval festival is a perfect example of that, and I am sure it will deliver on those aims. It will mark the prestigious anniversary with a special programme of battle re-enactments, gunnery and archery displays, living history encampments, music, dance, a medieval market and children’s activities. I cannot think of a better way to spend an afternoon—I quite fancy having a go at firing a cannon myself, I have to say. Having been delayed by the coronavirus, the festival is now due to take place in September, and I think it will be an absolutely resounding success. It is the sort of event that we have all be desperate for over these past months.

The Battle of Barnet project, as my right hon. Friend says, serves as a shining example of how, more than half a millennium later, our nation’s history can really be used to enrich the lives of the local community. Running from 2015 to 2019, managed by the Barnet Museum, the Barnet Society and the Battlefields Trust, it sought to improve knowledge and understanding through archaeological surveys of the battlefield, in conjunction with the University of Huddersfield. It is such fascinating work.

The National Lottery Heritage Fund grant of more than £98,000, awarded in 2016, also helped to engage audiences of all ages across the local community, as my right hon. Friend pointed out. It developed a wide range of initiatives. Barnet High Street was enriched with information boards about the battle. My right hon. Friend talked about the heraldic banners, which must have been quite a sight. It is so important to have a greater understanding of the past, and that was fostered through the school activity packs, the medieval replicas, the maps, the pictures, the teachers’ pack, and the publication of a free leaflet, highlighting locations around Barnet relating to the battlefield. That brings it all to life in a spectacular way. The medieval festival attracted several thousand attendees and proved to be a huge success. The festival has been repeated in subsequent years independently of Lottery funding, such was its success.

This anniversary is an opportunity to reflect on the importance of our historical environment. Battlefields such as that in Barnet provide such an important anchor to the evolution of our country and they provide an important reminder of our past as well. Their conservation is therefore integral, for research purposes, to improving our understanding and appreciation of our heritage. The significance of these sites is highlighted by the inclusion of some of the most significant examples in Historic England’s register of historic battlefields. There are currently 47 registered battlefields, including the site of the battle of Barnet, and these sites are conserved through the planning system. I am pleased to see that the overwhelming majority of our registered battlefields, Barnet included, are still in excellent condition.

Like my right hon. Friend, I eagerly await the return of public events such as Barnet’s medieval festival, which contribute so much to our lives through celebrating our culture and heritage. We know that our first priority at the moment must be public safety. However, in February the Government published a road map that aims to provide some clarity to event organisers as restrictions are eased, and that seeks to balance that key social and economic priority while preserving the health and safety of our country.

Crucially, the road map focuses on data, not dates. Alongside this, and to back it up and help move it forward, the Prime Minister has announced some scientific events research programmes, which are an integral part of the road map and will explore how these kinds of events, across the culture and entertainment sectors, can reopen safely. Over the spring, to support this, we will be including a series of pilots using the enhanced testing approach as another measure to run events with large crowd sizes and reduced social distancing, to really prove the fact that they can return. My sincere hope is that, come September, the Barnet medieval festival and similar events right across the country will be able to go ahead as planned. With infection rates falling and now well over 27 million people vaccinated, there is cause for great optimism in our country.

My right hon. Friend spoke about indemnity. The Government acknowledge that the circumstances of the pandemic have left many unable to have the confidence and certainty they need to plan for events. We have been engaging with stakeholders in my office right throughout the period to understand the issues. The potential challenges around indemnity are a very big part of that.

We know that progress on the vaccine and beating the virus are crucial and this, combined with reopening only when we know it is safe to do so, will reduce the chances of cancellations and interruption. That will create a much more predictable and secure operating context for these sorts of events. Any decision about indemnity alongside that will be taken by the Treasury, which I know is keeping the situation under review, and we are working with it to determine the most effective response to the sector within the public health context.

On that note, I again congratulate my right hon. Friend on securing the debate and for entertaining and educating us this afternoon. I have every faith that the 550th anniversary of the battle of Barnet will serve as a fantastic opportunity for the local community to come together again, to engage with our fantastic national heritage and to really begin to foster and rebuild that sense of community pride, shared history and belonging.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting suspended.