At the weekend I felt like a big brave boy because I got some scratches on my leg while I was out on the old bicycle.
Brambles and bitey things had left a few livid pin streaks of torn skin that had a hot sting to them. It wasn’t agony but it was the kind of pain that makes you think about the fuss you would have made if you were eight and the fuss that would have made of you in return.
I’ve been trying to put that on the same scale as feeling a longbow arrow puncturing my flesh, or the sharpened blades of axes and swords cleaving chunks, or the small but lethal mass of a lead cannonball travelling at 500mph finding me in its unstoppable path. It’s just not possible to relate the two. Why would I?
On Monday evening I joined a tour of the site of the 1460 Battle of Northampton led by Mike Ingram of the Northamptonshire Battlefield Society. He’s written a gripping account of the conflict for The NeneQuirer. It was a battle full of twists and turns, betrayal and gore – precisely the kind of inspiration that brought about the fantasy epic Game of Thrones – and it happened in one of Northampton’s most peaceful and beautiful areas, Delapre Park.
In your imagination if you more or less replace the trees at Delapre with medieval warriors you get an idea of how the armies were deployed. The king of the day Lancastrian Henry VI was in an earthwork fortification behind the streams that run through the site, while across the modern day golf course up the hill towards Queen Eleanor’s Cross was the Yorkist army led by the soon to be Edward IV (apology for the spoiler).
The Yorkists swept down the hill and the battle took place in the section of park between the cross and Delapre Abbey.
Around two dozen people had arrived for the tour which was also a memorial walk ending with the laying of a wreath at Queen Eleanor’s Cross. As many as 12,000 men may have died during the battle and their bones lie in unknown locations in the area.
Mike said the wreath of red and white roses was “to commemorate the anniversary of the battle but also the fallen whose bodies still lie out there somewhere.”
In recent years he and the other battlefields society members have kept a watchful and protective eye over the battlefield. He stepped in when contractors accidentally began smoothing out the ridges and furrows on part of the site – they are remnants of the medieval agricultural system in operation still visible today. Most recently he instigated a clean up of Queen Eleanor’s Cross by drawing attention to its dilapidated state, although it’s not a new problem – some accounts suggest the cross was already broken at the time of the battle.
My fellow tour members were an eclectic mix of ages, male and female. We skirted what would have been the Lancastrian fortification and saw the battlefield from their point of view.
“Apart from the trees and the golf course it would have looked very much like this. It hasn’t really been landscaped,” Mike told us.
Members of the battlefield society had timed themselves crossing the deceptively uneven ground. The Yorkist soldiers advancing would have spent around three minutes under a hail of arrows before arriving at the Lancastrian positions. They would have had to drop into the stream and then fight their way past sharpened stakes and obstacles while being attacked by the defenders behind the earthworks.
It took an act of betrayal to swing the battle their way, even though they outnumbered the King’s men by more than two to one. A path winds by the side of the Full Brook and it is an eerie feeling looking into the small watercourse knowing that very spot must have witnessed brutal carnage.
We moved along the treeline, across the golf course and made our way up to a spectacular vantage point that not only overlooks Delapre but most of the town. It is where Edward and the Earl of Warwick would have watched the progress of the battle. Their soldiers had already got into Northampton and set it alight, they would have been able to see the smoke. They probably could have seen into the King’s camp although there would have been a colourful mass of heraldic banners obscuring the view.
The spot is currently a bit of rough at the edge of the golf course and it seems a criminal waste of a view.
The wreath laying was a simple unfussy moment but the walk was a fascinating insight into Northampton’s less well known history, going back beyond its industrial heritage to days when thrones hung in the balance on the outcome of a battle fought on the town’s soil. It is a kind of buried treasure in a literal and figurative sense. So much of it is yet to be brought to light and who knows how it could enrich the town if it was.