Nation in Conflict - The Battle of Wakefield

Posted on Friday 21st December 2012


The Battle of Wakefield took place at Sandal Magna near Wakefield, in West Yorkshire, Northern England, on 30 December 1460. It was a major battle of the Wars of the Roses. The opposing forces were a Lancastrian army, loyal to the captive King Henry VI, his Queen, Margaret of Anjou, and their seven year-old son Edward, Prince of Wales on one side, and the army of Richard, Duke of York, the rival claimant to the throne, on the other.
When the Duke of York reached Sandal Castle, 24 December 1460, he found it badly prepared to sustain the army of 5,000 to 6,000 which he had brought with him from London. The reason for this is not recorded, but one can assume that with a large Lancastrian force only a short distance away at Pontefract, the Yorkist constable of Sandal Castle was unable, (or perhaps unwilling) to travel the manor, collecting food and supplies ready for the arrival of his master. Or that, because the Duke of York had changed his plans so late in the campaign, the keeper of the castle was not given sufficient warning – or not notified at all – as to the Duke’s intention to come to Sandal. Whatever the reason, that fact remained that the Duke found the castle ill-prepared upon his arrival.
The strength of the castle keep and stout walls amounted to a formidable presence within the surrounding countryside, nonetheless, it was a small stronghold when compared to the likes of Dunstanburgh, Ludlow and Pontefract. Consequently, the whole contingent of troops under the Duke’s command would not have taken up residence within the security of the castle walls. It could only have housed somewhere in the region of 500 to 600, men. Keeping in mind the size of the castle, the Duke’s men would have bivouacked in the immediate surrounds of the fortress and, considering that it was the depths of winter, the town of Wakefield would have drawn men to its shelter.

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Locations of the battles fought in Yorkshire between Christmas week 1460 (Wakefield) and March 29, Palm Sunday 1461 (Towton) by the Houses of Lancaster and York. The antagonists being the reigning monarch, King Henry VI and Queen Margaret for the House of Lancaster, and Richard Duke of York (who was killed at Wakefield) and King Edward VI (acclaimed king in March, 1461) for the House of York.
The Lancastrians, ensconced at the much larger Pontefract Castle, were well aware that the Duke of York had arrived in the area, especially as they had encountered portions of the Duke’s vanguard at Worksop weeks earlier. Nor would it have taken much deduction to work out that Sandal was the Duke’s likely destination as it was his principal stronghold in Yorkshire, his closest other castle being at Conisborough. It must have been a time of great concern for the Duke of York, isolated in his castle and short of both supplies and reinforcements and believing that his enemy faced him in overwhelming numbers. Therefore, the Yorkists and the Lancastrians, the one side being at Sandal, the other nine miles away at Pontefract, celebrated their Christmas – in the perfect knowledge of each other’s presence, and no doubt planning how best to bring about each other’s demise.
The Lancastrians spent the next three days gathering their forces. The reason for this delay was probably due to the fact that the Lancastrians were also engaged in scouring the shire looking for provisions and, therefore, it took some time for their commanders to muster their men together to move against the Yorkists at Wakefield.
Meanwhile at Sandal Castle, York also set about gathering his forces.
the march to do battle
Here then was an opportunity to put an end to the Duke of York and his supporters once and for all. The Duke was an ever-present threat to the kingship of England; to King Henry VI and a bar to the succession of his issue, and to the House of Lancaster.
It was on the morning of the 28 December that the Lancastrians set out from Pontefract marching the nine miles westward towards the Yorkists, gathered in and around Sandal Castle. Their route would have taken them along the high ground through the village of Croften, and close to Walton village. The force, believed to be in excess of 15,000, drew near to Sandal, being reasonably hidden from the view of the castle by travelling along the base of the ridge on which Walton village stands.
As the Lancastrian army drew closer to Sandal Castle, some time on the 28 December they would have been reported on by Yorkist scouts. It caused the Yorkists to retreat towards the safety afforded by Sandal Castle itself. The castle could not hold within its walls the whole of the Yorkist force and those not absent on foraging duties in the surrounding countryside would have taken up a position on the flat ground in front of the castle, north of the fortress, at the southern edge of Wakefield Green.
At this point, it appears that the ‘centre’ of the Lancastrian army took up a position north of Wakefield Green, but south of the river facing the Yorkists within and around the castle. With the troops from both sides in position, it appears that for the next twenty-four hours the Lancastrians taunted the Duke of York, trying to draw him from his stronghold as the Lancastrians, had no siege equipment with them. Doubtless, without the experienced personnel to conduct the necessary works required for imposing a siege, they were aware that the longer the Duke of York maintained his position within the castle and immediate surrounds, then the greater the likelihood that he would be reinforced, and as such they were desperate to draw him into battle.
These taunts seem to have gnawed at the Duke of York’s honour, for it appears he was keen to oblige the Lancastrians and issue forth and offer battle. It is mentioned by more than one chronicler (and more modern day historians as well) that there was a meeting held in one of the great chambers at Sandal Castle to discuss this, which, it is also said, the Duke of York, his son, the Earl of Rutland, the Earl of Salisbury, Sir David Hall, and several other Yorkist commanders were present.

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It appears that the Duke, viewing the Lancastrian numbers from the castle, perceived that the Lancastrians appeared not to be as numerous as he had first thought and, consequently, decided to do battle with them. However, before the Duke could leave the castle it appears that a separate event occurred, in that one of the many foraging parties sent out by the Yorkists chose that moment to return to the castle. It became embroiled in a running fight with combat with the Lancastrians to the north of Wakefield Green.
The duke ‘...trusting to his owne knowledge in warefare...’ sallied forth from the castle down onto Wakefield Green, towards the waiting Lancastrians. Thus the two sides were joined in battle. Unfortunately, there is no indication as to what time during the day the battle began, although it was probably early in the afternoon between midday and 2 o’clock.

battle commences and a trap is sprung
Leading up to the confrontation at Wakefield, Lord Neville had been in constant communication with the duke, consequently his arrival on the field of battle would not have been unexpected by Richard. With Neville’s 8,000 men, added to the Duke of York’s 5,000, then the odds of 13,000 Yorkists against the Lancastrian 15,000 – 18,000 would have appeared decidedly more attractive to the Duke. This would certainly have influenced his decision to leave the safety of the castle and attack the Lancastrians.
It is likely that Lord Neville approached the battlefield from the north – from the direction of Wakefield bridge. His appearance came just as the Lancastrians were attacking the Yorkist foraging party and the Duke of York, believing that he had the opportunity to catch the Lancastrians in a pincer movement, made his move from the castle.
The Yorkists no doubt paraded under the banners of the Duke of York, bearing the usual device of the Plantagenet family, which in the Duke of York’s case, was a falcon volant Argent, with a fetterlock. In this battle however, the falcon had its wing extended as if to attempt to open the lock, in reference it is said, by the historian Markham, to York’s claim to the throne, the throne being represented by the lock itself.
Many of the Duke’s men would have been mounted, and they would have issued forth from the castle and surrounding camp, before forming up en masse. With the Duke of York at the head and in response to his cry and example the Yorkists charged down hill directly at the Lancastrian line, withstanding an arrow storm let loose, as they thundered across the ground between them. It is likely that the two sides hit full on in a line running east from the location of where ‘Portbello House’ once stood, thus explaining why remnants of the battle were found at that point in later years.

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Ruins of Sandal Castle today.
Unwittingly, in this event, the Duke had been drawn into a trap. He charged deep into the ranks of the enemy, joining up with the survivors of the foraging party and pushing the front of the Lancastrians back towards the River Calder. It supports the account that the Lancastrians were standing on the ground – at the start of the battle – a little to the south of the location which is today called the ‘Fall Ings’, an area which was given that name due to the numbers of combatants who fell there during the fighting.
Initially the Yorkists, many of whom were mounted, came off the better against their foes, who were predominantly on foot. During this first contact the Lancastrians reeled under the initial shock of the impact of the ferocious charge. They gave up some ground as they were pushed back towards Wakefield, along the route they had advanced to come to blows with the Yorkists. Whether this giving up of ground was a deliberate ploy by the Lancastrians to draw the Yorkists further away from the sanctuary of the castle is not clear. These opening moves and the subsequent encircling manoeuvre is well documented by the chroniclers:
‘...but when he was in the plain ground between his castle and the town of Wakefield, he was environed on every side, like a fish in a net, or a deer in a buck-stall...’
It is said that the troops employed to carry out these Lancastrian flanking attacks were lightly armoured infantry or light cavalry, known as ‘prickers’. This was a name given to them, in reference to the fifteen-foot lances that they carried, which amongst other uses, were employed to discourage deserters from leaving the ranks of the army whilst they were travelling on their campaigns. Thus lightly armed it allowed them to quickly traverse the distance from the rear of the Lancastrian ranks and encircle the Yorkists.
The Yorkists, now surrounded on every side, attempted a fighting retreat towards the castle. The battle flowed back along the Wakefield to Sandal road – or as it was later called, ‘Cock and Bottle Lane’.
Alas, for the Duke of York, fate was to strike a final deadly blow. Already faced with the overwhelming odds presented by the entire Lancastrian army – the Duke now had to contend with treachery as well. Lord Neville who entered the field at that point with some 8,000 troops, originally commissioned to come to the Duke of York’s aid, declared for the Lancastrians and with this act sealed the fate of the Yorkist army. It was only when the Duke of York had crossed Wakefield Green, and reached the fray, did he realize that Lord Neville – who, he originally thought had arrived in ‘the nick of time’ to assist him – was actually against him. Thus fooled and outmanoeuvred, the fate of the Duke and his small army of faithful followers, was sealed.

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Cut off from Sandal Castle, Richard Duke of York makes his last stand at the willow trees.

There was to be no escape. All that was left for the adherents to the banner of York was to die bravely. Stansfield, in his colourful account of the battle, takes up the story:
‘The engagement now became wider and fiercer, and the carnage was frightful. If the Lancastrians were weak in archers, they were strong in swordsmen, who now wielded their arms with deadly effect at such close quarters. The duke’s handful of troops fought with surpassing courage against the vastly superior forces of the enemy, and for a time the fortunes of the day wavered in the balance... the battle soon began to assume an unfavourable aspect for the Yorkists. Still the brave army of Richard fought on gallantly against overpowering odds. Wherever his presence was most needed, there was Richard in the thickest of the fight, animating his men by his dauntless bearing, and urging them on by his ringing war cry. His matchless valour was conspicuous on all sides, and he inspired his followers with a spirit of indomitable bravery almost equal to his own.
‘The uproar of the battle swelled mightier and mightier: the shock of steed, the clash of steel, the hiss of arrows, the shouts of the victors, and the cries of the wounded, all told that the crisis of the battle was come. Father fought against son, brother against brother, and kith against kin; and the fight was so deadly, very little quarter was given on either side. More cavalry and infantry arrived on the scene, fresh and panting for the fray, and shouting “Exeter to the onslaught!”
‘...though his warrior yeoman were thrown into disorder, still the untiring might of Richard’s arm defied for a time the wave upon wave of troops that attacked his doomed army; but as well attempt to stem the tide of ocean as for that scattered army to resist the overwhelming torrent of foes that rushed upon them.’
The Duke of York, sensing that the end was near, thought of the safety of his son the Earl of Rutland. The young lad had become separated from his father’s force. The decision was made by the earl’s tutor Sir Robert Aspall, who accompanied him, to escape the slaughter.
The Duke of York died on the field of battle with his back to a clump of three willow trees, for protection, facing his enemies. (The actual circumstances of the death of York are not recorded, although the story of his ‘last stand’, with back to a clump of willow trees, seems to have survived the test of time).
York’s death, in sight of Sandal Castle, brought about the end of the battle and the beginning of the Yorkist rout. In all, other than the majority of the Yorkist commanders present on the field of battle, there were slain some 2,000 to 2,500 Yorkist troops.
The duration of the battle in which this slaughter took place, is mentioned by the chroniclers to have lasted under an hour. The subsequent pursuit of the Yorkists in the rout may have lasted well into the evening, certainly for several more hours. In most of the battles of the Wars of the Roses, the heaviest casualties occurred during the rout. There is no reason to believe that this was not the case at Wakefield. Sufficient numbers of them may have tried to find sanctuary by fleeing towards the town of Wakefield. During this portion of the rout (towards Wakefield) many of the Yorkists, hotly pursued by the Lancastrians, must have been killed before actually crossing the river.
It would be a fair assumption to say, that the Lancastrian capture of the castle was achieved only after the defeat of the Yorkists on the field of battle. It is likely that any Yorkists remaining in the castle as the rout began, realised that the day was lost as they watched the Yorkist defeat occur before them from the vantage point afforded by the walls of the castle. Thus, being aware of what had transpired, and equally, being aware of what treatment would probably befall them should they be captured, they probably took the opportunity to leave the fortress – and the vicinity – before the Lancastrians had time to turn their thoughts to occupying the castle.
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Type of helmet known as the Sallet, usually worn by knights.

the wars of the roses
Clearly, even today, there seems to be a misunderstanding regarding the use of the names Yorkist and Lancastrian in context with the Wars of the Roses. Unlike the modern day cricket match, the term ‘Wars of the Roses’, does not reflect a geographical conflict between the County of Yorkshire and the County of Lancaster. In fact, the term ‘Wars of the Roses’ refers to a dynastic struggle between the House of Lancaster – the supporters of Henry VI and his heirs – and the House of York – the supporters of Richard, Duke of York and his heirs. Indeed, the reference to roses refers to the symbols that Shakespeare (in Henry VI) would have us believe (and now immortalised in the painting by Henry Payne), that each side chose as their emblems a rose – that is a white rose for the Yorkists, and the red rose for the Lancastrians. It was only after the event that the conflict was credited with the title the ‘Wars of the Roses’.
However, if the ‘Wars of the Roses’ is to be given any sort of geographical boundaries, then it could, loosely, be described as a north/south conflict. The reason for this is due to the fact that the supporters of the House of Lancaster held lands predominately to the north (including the majority of the County of Lancashire and Yorkshire and Northumberland) while the supporters of the House of York held lands along the south coast, Kent etc, East Anglia and in the Midlands.
This was to be a particular problem for the Duke of York during the Wakefield Campaign, due to the fact that while he owned Sandal, the surrounding lands were predominatly held by supporters of the House of Lancaster.

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The plucking of the red and white roses in the Old Temple Gardens, by Henry Payne, immortalising the scene from Shakespeare’s Henry VI, where opposing factions declare their loyalties by selecting either a red rose, representing the House of Lancaster, or a white rose for the House of York.

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Richard, Duke of York. Relatively secure behind Sandal Castle walls, Richard had to be tempted to come out and give fight. The Lancastrians used taunts and insults to lure the Duke of York into the open ground between Sandal and Wakefield.

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Pikeman’s helmet dating from the period of the Wars of the Roses.

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Some of the types of maces and battle hammers in use during the period of the Wars of the Roses.

'The Duke of York died on the field of battle with his back to a clump of three willow trees, for protection, facing his enemies.'

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Richard’s son, the seventeen year old Earl of Rutland, was caught in the vicinity of Wakefield bridge by the Lancastrians. Lord Clifford, upon learning who he was, stabbed him to death in vengeful rage. It was a merciless atrocity that would be repaid three months later.

Further Reading


Wakefield & Towton
(Paperback - 176 pages)
ISBN: 9780850528251

by Phil Haigh
Only £12.99

The Wars of the Roses was a complicated, bloody affair between the houses of Lancaster and York, and witnessed much changing of sides. That disjointed feuding persisted for a staggering thirty years and was a north versus south affair. However, the period and conflicts covered by this title are refreshingly clear. An intriguing tale of treachery and deceit.
Read more at Pen & Sword Books...

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