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The scorching summer of 2018 was a great gift for archaeologists. For the first time in almost two decades an unbroken dry spell brought features below the surface of the landscape clearly into view. These ‘parch marks’, visible only for as long as the weather holds, provide the very fullest evidence of the foundations of earthworks, buildings, roadways not only of a medieval date but reaching back across the whole timespan from the Industrial Revolution into pre-history.
It seemed counter-intuitive then to take a call from a TV researcher developing a new series devoted to underwater archaeology. In fact, there was good reason why The History Channel had chosen this moment to schedule the filming of their new series aiming to show that a stretch of inland waterway is as rich in hidden archaeology and history as any expanse of ocean. If not carrying quite the same decompression risk of diving the naval wrecks off the coastlines of Africa or Australia, you’d be best advised not to wade very far into the Avon, Severn or Ouse except when the rainwater table was at an all-time low. The series, River Hunters, takes its inspiration from the USA where searches of the waterways close to Civil War battlefields have uncovered some remarkable artefacts. Arguably the trend-setter is Beau Ouimette, whose self-produced shows on You Tube are on the brink of becoming a global phenomenon. Producers persuaded Beau to bring his unique brand of wading to Britain, to sift the course of some of our most historical significant watercourses.
Beau’s passion is battlefield history and it was hardly surprising that his schedule should take in Tewkesbury, where tributaries of the Avon and the Severn frame the site of the Wars of the Roses battle where the Lancastrian cause was decisively defeated in 1471.
Tewkesbury was not as large a battle as Towton (1461), seeing combined forces of no more than 10,000; nor did it bring a virtual blitzkrieg to the town as occurred at both the first (1455) and second (1461) battles of St Albans.
But it did represent no lesser watershed moment: the Lancastrian interest was all but destroyed. Leading Lancastrian nobility lay dead, among them, John Courtenay, earl of Devon, who had only just returned to the royalist fold. Henry VI was captured and then killed; his son and heir, Edward of Westminster, died in the melée; Henry’s queen, Margaret of Anjou, who had led his the cause for the best part of twenty years, was forced to return to France.
The river tributaries played a central and decisive role in the battle. They were the reason that battle was drawn at Tewkesbury: the Lancastrian army had hoped to cross the Severn at Gloucester but the Yorkist force stood in their way, so they had tried to pass ahead of them by pressing further north. When the Lancastrian battle-formation was broken and the Yorkists set about a rout, the remnant of King Henry’s force fled for the Severn bank knowing that if they crossed it they might fight another day. Most were cut down by the waterside, or were drowned. The battlefield also lay in the shadow of the Benedictine abbey of Tewkesbury its own precincts bordered by the same river tributaries. In the rout some struck out for the abbey, although for the Lancastrians the only sanctuary they found was a burial place on sacred ground.
So Beau and team came in search of both the Wars of the Roses and the monastic tradition. It was the last truly hot weekend of the summer and they waded into the Swilgate south of the abbey grounds with the excitement of a day at the seaside. Perhaps those Civil War sites are very willing with their secrets but here it was slow going. By the half-day mark, the low-lying murky water had offered up only some very eclectic signs of twentieth-century life: a roadworker’s lantern and a cache of printers’ letterpress type. Early afternoon took us no further back in time but gave us the basis for a narrative: a World War 2 era firewarden’s tin helmet, a testament to the six-year vigil that watched over the abbey tower.
Predictably perhaps, it was only as the light finally began to fade, and even the ebullient Beau looked less than comfortable seven hours into his wet-suit, that the river offered a tantalising hint of medieval Tewkesbury. Pressed deep into a wedge of silt, the detector led to hand-worked pins and studs surrounding the remains of leather strips – straps? – of early date. Naturally, given it was now past 7pm, there was an immediate and unspoken agreement to interpret them as battlefield artefacts. An archer’s arm-guard: sure thing! For this monastic historian, it was the less romantic but (much) more plausible provenance of a block of dressed stone we also recovered that almost made the wait worthwhile.
Here there was evidence of the monastery’s development of water meadow south of their precinct, and perhaps of the fishery that fed the community, and kept them, more-or-less, within the letter of chapter 39 of their Rule, On the measure of food.
River Hunters is now showing on The History Channel, Mondays, @ 9pm.