An Investigation into Battlefield Burial Practices in England between the Fifteenth and Seventeenth Centuries.
While the history of wars and battles has always been popular, historians have tended to focus on the tactics used in a battle or on a battle’s political importance (Curry, 2006). An aspect of battles that has been almost entirely ignored by historians is what happened to the bodies of the dead after a battle. Were the dead piled together and buried in large pits on the battlefield or were they transported to local churches for burial? Were the dead burned or simply left unburied on the battlefield? Historians have tended to just assume that the dead were buried on the centre of the battlefield, by the victorious army (except for the high-status dead, who were often taken away for honourable burial elsewhere) (e.g. Burne, 1951; Morgan, 2014).
There are some major problems with this assumption that the dead were buried on the battlefield. For example, most battles ended when one army’s formations dissolved and their soldiers were then chased from the battlefield. Historical sources tell us that these pursuits could extend for miles, for example at the Battle of Poitiers (1356), some soldiers were pursued six miles before being killed outside the city gates of Poitiers (Froissart, 1978). It seems unlikely that the bodies of these soldiers would have been carried all the way back to the battlefield for burial. This suggests that we are likely to find battle burials scattered across the landscape, not just on the battlefield. This idea is supported by a mass grave excavated in 1996, which is thought to relate to the Battle of Towton (1461), as it was found 1.6km from the actual battlefield (Fiorato et al, 2007). There are other problems of the assumption that the dead were buried on the battlefield, such as the fact that in the medieval period most people will have been buried in consecrated ground in a churchyard. The use of consecrated ground was very important, as it had links to the fate of the soul, and without it the souls of the dead may have been condemned to Hell. If the dead were indeed buried on the battlefield, then, were their graves consecrated?
An overarching problem of this battlefield burial assumption is that it is so general – it gives no consideration for the individual circumstances of a battle, which will have varied drastically. If a battle, for example, took place in a town, like the First Battle of St Albans (1455), then were the dead still buried on the centre of the ‘battlefield’, in people’s houses and along the streets? Who organised the disposal of the dead for battles like Stamford Bridge (1066), where the victorious army had to quickly leave the battlefield or Edgehill (1642), the first battle of the Civil War, where there was no clear winner? Did the changes in religious belief from the Reformation, when Henry VIII split from the Catholic Church, have any impact on how the dead were buried and treated after a battle?
The purpose of my research is to look at various battles and see how their individual circumstances may have impacted on how the dead were treated. The research will focus on what happened to the bodies of the ordinary soldiers, rather than the high-status dead, as normal people are so often forgotten by history and historians, but actually are the ones that most people will be able to relate to today. The research is also vital for our battlefield heritage, as it could help archaeologists to locate and conserve battle graves and battlefields, through a better understanding of the spatial patterning of battlefields.
I graduated from Cardiff University in 2014 with a BA in Medieval History and Archaeology, where I was awarded the Richard Atkinson prize for Best Undergraduate Archaeology Dissertation and I completed my MA in Medieval History at Durham University in September 2015. I stumbled across the topic of battlefield archaeology in the second year of my undergraduate degree, when a supervisor suggested that I look into the battlefield archaeology of the Wars of the Roses. Since then I’ve been hooked and both my masters and undergraduate dissertations looked into battlefield archaeology and battlefield burial practices.
Supervision: Dr Glenn Foard, University of Huddersfield (university profile: https://www.hud.ac.uk/ourstaff/profile/index.php?staffid=850) ; Dr Jo Buckberry, University of Bradford (https://bradford.academia.edu/JoBuckberry, http://www.bradford.ac.uk/research/our-researchers/jo-buckberry.php).
Academia profile: https://hud.academia.edu/SarahTaylor
See http://www.battlefieldstrust.com/ for more information on battlefields and their conservation.