diamond geezer

 Sunday, April 14, 2024

The Battle of Barnet, one of the key turning points of the Wars of the Roses, took place on 14th April 1471. A 553rd anniversary's not particularly major but unfortunately I missed the 550th, as did most of the population of Barnet due to lockdown issues. Also the battle took place on a foggy Sunday morning, so at least I've got the day of the week right, although it was also Easter Day so I've missed out there.

Much of the late 15th century was a bloody tussle between two warring dynasties, the Houses of Lancaster and York, and the Battle of Barnet was the key moment when the white rose finally triumphed over the red. Beforehand Henry VI was enjoying his second spell as king but afterwards Edward IV was back on the throne for his second go, this very much a peak ping pong moment in the history of the English monarchy. And it all took place at the top of the Northern line, a short walk past The Spires shopping centre, although precisely where it happened is a hotly debated topic and the question at the heart of today's post.

The best place to go for answers is probably Barnet Museum, a volunteer-run repository of wonders on Wood Street. There's no aspect of local history its members haven't diligently researched, displayed and brought to publication, with the 1471 battle meriting pride of place in the ground floor gallery. Here are helmets, shields and battlefield models, plus a large watercolour painting of all the main players, plus did you know that three kings of England were in Barnet that day (the future Richard III had rocked up to his first major military engagement). The curators are terribly chuffed to have the seal of the Earl of Warwick, aka the Kingmaker, on temporary display on loan from the British Museum. He'd long been the strategic mastermind behind the Wars of the Roses but had recently made the mistake of switching sides and at Barnet the victorious Yorkists slew him dead.

You can tell it's anniversary month in Barnet because Barnet Museum volunteers have hung almost 100 heraldic banners from the lampposts up Barnet Hill and the High Street, even inside The Spires. They created the set on waterproof cotton in readiness for the 550th, each representing a noble family that turned up to fight, and with typical attention to detail the Lancastrians hang on one side of the road and the Yorkists on the other. Heraldry proved unexpectedly crucial that day in 1471 as Lancastrian fighters mistook the Earl of Oxford's "star with rays" badge for Edward's IV's "sun in splendour" and started firing down arrows on their own side. If there's a lesson to be learned from the Battle of Barnet it's never to launch an offensive in thick fog.

The final banner has been hung at the top of the high street by Pizza Express, which is also where Hadley Green starts. This is Probable Battlesite Number 1, indeed it's where English Heritage decided the battle was fought was when they published a full report in 1995 [report] [map]. Contemporary chronicles refer to "a broad green right beside the St Alban's high road" and Hadley Green still fits that description, a substantial triangle of sometimes-squishy grass criss-crossed by minor drainage channels. A lot of large houses have since nibbled away at the perimeter but there's still plenty of room to imagine two armies facing off against each other, perhaps even Edward IV standing beside the bus stop or the duckpond.

Chroniclers specifically mentioned a 'hedge-syde' to the west of the main road behind which the Earl of Oxford's men massed before combat. An ancient hedgerow still exists in the appropriate location, now surrounded by the 18 holes of Old Fold Golf Club, and a lot of academic supposition has drawn the conclusion that this therefore nails down the site. A public footpath crosses the golf course supposedly providing access to the elusive hedge, although the blue posts are quite hard to follow and yesterday the fairways were weekend-busy with flying balls so I gave it a miss. The moated manor house that existed here in 1471 is long gone but the moat survives and provides a unique water hazard surrounding the 18th green.

The most prominent memorial to the Battle of Barnet is an obelisk called the Hadley Highstone. It was erected by Sir Jeremy Sambrook in 1740, this 299 years after the battle proving that commemorating peculiar anniversaries is nothing new. It sits on a freshly-mown triangle of grass at the northern end of the village in the fork where the roads from St Albans and Potters Bar converge. This is Probable Battlesite Number 2, at least according to the Battlefields Trust who place the Lancastrian frontline parallel to the A1000 passing directly through the obelisk [map]. This was later in the battle, because in the foggy conditions the two opposing flanks had rotated somewhat, adding to the general confusion regarding who was precisely where.

If the Lancastrians were up by the road then the Yorkists would have down in the valley, or at least on the slopes of a depression containing the Monken Mead Brook. Today the fledgling stream is alas confined to private farmland so off limits, but the dip can be seen by following a short broad track down the side of Greenacre Close. Stand by the metal gate, just past the Girl Guide hut, and you can look out over an open field towards a low line of trees and a bank of pasture on the far side. At present it's a dazzling shade of yellow, i.e. proper peak attractive, although somewhat tarnished by the presence of a bright pink portaloo under the nearest tree. Back in the day all of this would have been heathland on the edge of the Enfield Chase royal hunting ground, perhaps flecked by the bodies of the Duke of Exeter's men. They still call the foot of the valley Dead Man's Bottom.

Probable Battlesite Number 3 lies fully to the north of the Highstone in the vicinity of Kitt's End Road. This quiet lane was the main route between London and St Albans at the time of the battle, indeed right up to the 1820s when a new more direct road branched off from Barnet instead. I walked to the farm on the second bend, part of the longstanding medieval hamlet of Kitt's End, and stared out across a much broader arable landscape towards the mega roundabout at South Mimms. By leaving Hadley I was now firmly in Hertfordshire, indeed there's a distinct possibility that the only registered battlefield in London isn't actually in London at all, not quite.

Much of the land here is covered by Wrotham Park, the private estate of a huge 18th century country house built and still owned by the Byng family. This gets used a lot for corporate hospitality events, wedding receptions and as a filming location, while to the south is a landscaped business park you won't be getting access to either. Edward IV had a chapel built somewhere here to commemorate his victory, although archaeologists have yet to unearth convincing evidence of precisely where it was, or indeed of precisely anything [report]. All that's known is that red faced white in the fog somewhere north of Barnet, the two sides off balance and increasingly confused, and that the tide of English history turned here as one king vanquished another.

» City guide Paul Baker runs regular walks in Barnet, including an anniversary battlefield tour this morning at 11am.
» The Barnet Medieval Festival is due to return on the weekend of 8th-9th June 2024 at Byng Road playing fields.
» Barnet Museum is open five afternoons a week (not Monday or Friday) and also on Saturday mornings from 10.30am. Admission is free and the welcome is warm. Before you leave make sure you pick up a Barnet 1471 leaflet (How the Battle of Barnet fits into the modern landscape) and then you too can try and discover where it might have been fought.

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