It’s refreshing after having been to two excellent battlefield centres in Scotland to visit another in Leicestershire which offers medieval architecture as well as armour. The Battle of Bosworth (22nd August 1485) was the last significant battle of the Wars of the Roses, the civil war between the English medieval Houses of Lancaster and York. Famously King Richard III (York) was killed at Bosworth by the Tudor forces (Lancaster) and after his victory their leader became King Henry VII, founder of an English royal dynasty. In 2010 the Battle of Bosworth Visitor Centre underwent a £400K makeover by Studio MB (http://studiomb.co.uk/Bosworth ) to better communicate the background to this battle which changed British history and the sequence of events which took place on the ground. The visitor centre itself sits atop a pleasant hill in the Bosworth landscape looking over the battleground and is a collection of pre-existing farm and mill buildings which have been adapted to their new use with additional new buildings added to them. As such they hang together well as an integrated and interestingly detailed group of brick buildings loosely arranged around an open courtyard. One enters the grouping though a covered gateway in the “Tithe Barn”, a structure with a real medieval timber frame but a 20th century building envelope which now houses the café. The ticket office is secreted away at the far side of the courtyard and acts as the entrance to a series of interlinked exhibition rooms arranged in chronological sequence of events beginning with an interesting if abbreviated rehearsal of late medieval society and every-day life. Here we have scale models of two types of dwelling, a farmer’s cottage and a knight’s house and a collection of reproduction domestic artefacts that attempt to give an idea of the life of ordinary people – the people who would make up the majority of those in the battle.
There is characterisation to provide a narrative sequence using four individuals, Alice a local child, Colette the wife of a mercenary in the employ for Henry Tudor, John a farmer and long-bowman in Richard III’s army and finally Lord Stanley, the rather ambiguous Chamberlain of Richard III but also step father of Henry Tudor. As one walks through each room push button video screens allow these characters to give short descriptions of their experience and their role in the events being presented. You start to identify with the characters, as you are supposed to do such that in the “battle room” you know because he’s not there before they tell you that John the long-bowman didn’t survive, but was killed as he fled with the defeated Yorkist troops. These are not CGI animations, they are real actors and are convincing and engaging, there is tangible real humanity to them and empathy with them.
The main protagonists are throughout posed in opposition to one another, in the historical preambles and in the sepulchrally darkened “battle room” at the centre of which is a very simple backlit round table animating very basic diagrammatic animations of the troop movements of the battle but accompanied by an informative well produced audio narration which is coordinated with the audio-visual displays in the room. This is a self-directed exploration of the content, you do not need a guide, with the darkened “battle room”, you can see where to go, an entrance and exit. However one’s left questioning the central method of the darkened “theatre” for the main narrative performance, it’s justification is the visual impact of the son-et-lumiere but I felt slightly frustrated that I couldn’t see the armour of the two figures at either end properly (localised spot-lights kept going off at the wrong time) and only stumbled across the really interesting try-your-strength long-bow by accident.
What was surprisingly successful was the stick-your-head-in-a-helmet (fixed to the wall) and see how little you can see through a slit visor when you’re fighting – I ended up getting skewered with a halberd – just seen – not felt! After this the aftermath of the battle is displayed, with replica tomb effigies, descriptions of the treatment of the dead, including King Richard III, some of the knights and ordinary folk. The treatment of the wounded living is quite informative, for instance I had no idea that honey and turpentine was used as an anti-bacterial agent on wounds.
Following the “post battle exposé” we enter the present and there’s a room with opportunities to learn about how modern methods of metal detecting, archaeology and forensics were used to find the correct location for the battlefield and analyse what occurred on it. The ballistics of early artillery are given an airing, and there is a simple game-play element for those so inclined. And that pretty much does it for the battle itself but there is considerably more about the Tudor dynasty and society which follows on.
The final rooms of the exhibition focus on the Tudor kings and queens who succeeded Henry VII and the significant events, politics and society of the period. Its here that we find genuinely interesting content on Tudor architecture, with real parts of buildings like encaustic tiles, parts of a rood screen, explanatory material on prodigy houses and domestic equipment. There is also some information on the Reformation – the Henrician and Edwardine excesses of religious destruction in the 16th century.
This is a battle visitor centre so one cannot expect extensive special interest material on related subjects but one cannot help thinking that in the English midlands where arguably some of the finest and most innovate examples Tudor architecture exist, there should be a museum and or interpretive facility which focusses on the built legacy of this period of British History. Exiting through the centre’s shop you emerge back into the pleasant courtyard and the opportunity to view the battlefield itself. It has to be said that this is one of the most attractive battlefield landscapes, the hilltop location gives marvellous views over the rolling Leicestershire countryside. On a sunny day the short walk to the interpretation viewpoint is pleasant and easy to spot because of the two large flag-poles flying the pennants of Richard and Henry.
Having enjoyed the landscape and seen where it all happened – though it’s a bit unclear from the presentation method what did actually happen where – mthe café beckons. This is in the “Tythe Barn” close to the entrance and is large enough not to feel crowded even when there is a bus party. The timber frame of the building is original but the rest is recent and non-the-worse for it. This a working set of buildings which have been well considered and overall appear to function reasonably well as a visitor centre. Run by Leicestershire County Council (http://www.leicestershire.gov.uk/ ) the rural setting makes this visitor attraction well worth it simply for an afternoon out in the countryside.