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History of Wakefield Battles


The Battle of Wakefield Green.

Standing on Sandal Castle Hill, with a drawing of the "praty castellet," as Leland calls it, it is easy to picture the scene that presented itself to the tenants of the fortress when the army approached from the Sheffield Road. What an imposing pile it was, with its clustered towers, standing on this commanding eminence in proud defiance, insulated by a moat and overlooking miles of forest. From one of the Norman turrets you could see villages and towns for thirty or forty miles round. No army could leave Pomfret Castle without being seen; no approach could be made on any side without detection; as for Wakefield it seems to lie crouching at the feet of Warren's home. There was the donjon, and there the drawbridge; here the great hall and there the court yard. The thick stone walls are punctured with holes for the archers.

It was built of rough ashlar, with a curtain wall uniting the towers. The picture issued by the Society of Antiquaries shows embattled turrets and many towers of massive proportions. It was a fortified position in Saxon times, and the place was enlarged under the Tudors, when the barons attained to great wealth and lived like princes. Earl Surrey (John de Warren), who had married Joan, Countess of Bar, was proceeded against for divorce in 1314, and the following year he released and quit-claimed his Castles of Sandal and Conisborough (the latter the resembling Pomfret somewhat) and the towns of Wakefield, Hatfield, Thorne, Braithwell, Sowerby, Dewsbury, Halifax, and Fishlake. The estate changed hands several times, passing into the hands of the King, who bestowed it on his favourites, and at this period it was possessed by the Earl Warwick.

In the sixteenth century "Wakefield-upon-Calder, (according to Leland, tempo. Hy. viii) ys a very quik market towne and on for meately large, well served of flesch and fische, both from the se and by rivers, where of divers be thereabouts, at hande, so that al vitails is very good chepe; there a right honest man shall fare for 2 pens a meale; in this town is but one chefe church. There is a Chapel beside. There is also a Chapel of our Lady on Calder Bridge a' peregrinis (by pilgrims). A forrow length or more out of the towne be seene dikes, and bulwarks and monliculus egestae terrae indicium turris specularis where by apperith that there hath bene a castel. The Gvarines, Erles of Surrey, as I rede, were ons the lords of this towne. It standeth now al by clothying." He then proceeds: "These things, I especially noted in Wakefield. The faire bridge of stone of nine arches, under which renneth the river of Calder, and on the est side of this bridge is a right goodly Chapel of our Lord, and two cantaurie prestes founded in it, of the fundacion of the townesmen, as sum say; but the Dukes of Yorke were taken as founders see for obtaining the mortemanye. I herd one say that a servant of King Edward's the ( father, or else of the Erle of Rutheland, brother to King Edward the iv., was a great doer of it. There was a sore batele fought in the south fieldes by this bridge and you could see the flite of the Duke of Yorke's parte. Either the Duke himself or his son th'erle of Rutheland, was slayne a little above the barres, beyond the bridge going up a clyving round. At this place is set up a cross in memoriam. The commune saying is there that the erle wold have taken there a poor woman's house for socour, and she for fere shut the dore, and strait the erle was killed. The Lord Clifford, for killing of men at this batail, was called the Boucher." He says the Parish Church was then new, large, and fair, and that four or five Vicars had resided in the parsonage at the east end of the Church garth. Being a good living after the impropriation to St. Stephen's College at Westminster, the Lord of the Manor (the Earl Warren) gave it to a kinsman. The town had a fair area for a market place, and the buildings were mostly of "tymbre," but some of stone; and there was plenty of "sea coal" in these quarters. Such being the Wakefield some eighty years after the battle, we can imagine the better the consternation of quiet tradesmen and artizans when a foraging party of soldiers entered the town to buy or plunder victuals for an army to be quartered in the castle to stand a siege, "Merrie Wakefield" that kept a good brew from its own grown barley (famous then as now), was alarmed and sad as cattle and corn were driven off to Sandal, and the inhabitants pressed to espouse the cause of York. The Jolly Pinder of Wakefield and the champion of its rights- who sang "There is neither Knight nor Squire, nor Baron that is so bold Dare make a trespass to the town of Wakefield: but his pledge goes to the pinfold"- would be very humble in the presence of the cavalrymen demanding provender and sustenance for York's army.

It is winter, and the country is shorn of its beauty, but we can the better watch the troops coming nearer, over the hills to the South. What a turmoil with rumbling waggon and prancing horse. What a pageant of spears and battle-axes, and what a regiment of archers.

The guardsmen carry crossbows swinging on their backs and swords by their sides. The armour flashes in the sun as the standard bearer draws near, and all along the road and up the hill extends the line of warriors, with here and there a heavy waggon. Now the advanced guard is marching over the drawbridge, and we can distinguish the Duke armed cap-a-pie, in a steel suit, riding a prancing charger, surrounded by nobles similarly clad. Where can all the soldiers be billeted? Certainly not in the Castle. See! tents are being pitched in the Park in which the fortress stands; a rampart is being made for the archers, and preparations are pushed forward with speed for the defence of the garrison. Then the day darkens, and we see the camp by moonlight and huge fires supplied with timber from the woods around. A day or two elapses, and news comes that Margaret is approaching along the Roman road from York with a great force. At length the Royalist host appears in view, and reaches Heath Common. The royal standard marks the tent pitched for the haughty and beautiful Queen. She sends a message to Richard and challenges combat. "Was it fitting that the future King of England should be cooped up in a fortress and be afraid to meet those whom he sort to dethrone?" This was the message she sent him; and a Council of War was held in the hall of the Castle. Salisbury and Sir David Hall counselled that they should wait till the Earl of March arrived with reinforcements, but Richard, rash and irritated, overruled the prudent, and decided to meet the Queen in the open field.

It was a fatal mistake - 5,000 to 18,000; but it was a clever piece of generalship on Margaret's part to get an engagement before reinforcements could arrive. Hence, concealing the large force, she drew towards Sandal as though intending to force an entrance to the Castle. Her army consisted to a large extent of raw recruits, hastily drilled, yet they were brave and well led by the Earls of Clifford and Northumberland, Somerset and Exeter. If she lacked archers, she was strong in swordsmen who could also wield the deadly halberd.

Four days after the Duke's arrival (on Christmas Eve) namely, on the night of the 29th of December, the camp of the King's supporters was in readiness. Soldiers were posted along the approaches to the Park, and a strict watch was kept lest the enemy attempted to escape under the covert of the darkness. Early on the morning of the 30th the clarion sounded the alarm, and the assembly in the Queen's camp. The insurgents were on the move, and spies could see that men were crossing the drawbridge and descending the mound into the open ground, Richard putting his men in the command of the Earl of Salisbury, Sir Thomas Harrington, Sir David Hall, Sir Thomas Neville, Sir Hugh Hastings, the two Mortimers, and others who had seen war in France and Ireland, and were doomed for slaughter that day. Richard made a dash upon the beseigers at the spot once called Mane-Gates, exposing himself to peril by his intrepidity.

It soon became a hand to hand fight all over the field, and the Lancastrians were driven towards the town. But Clifford, who had bivouacked on the Sandal Common, came to the rescue, and the engagement became general between cavalry and infantry. York was wounded, rallying his men near Mane-Gates, and galloping along the line to cheer them on against the overpowering array pressing on from Agbrigg; then he became exhausted from the loss of blood, and was taken prisoner-it is said where a clump of willows stood until 1860, in Cock and Bottle Lane.

The Lancastrians retreated towards Kirkgate Bridge in confusion, and all the way the track was marked with blood, with wounded, and with dying men. Young Edward, Earl of Rutland, fled for safety into the town, but every door was bolted, and the terrified inmates had mostly escaped to the other end of the town. A poor woman refused him admission lest he should be pursued and her life be endangered. Clifford was in hot pursuit, and coming up at this moment stabbed the youth to the heart with his sword, and the body fell from the horse on which he had galloped off to save his neck. He was but a lad of seventeen, and in the care of his tutor-Sir Robert Aspall-a non-combatant. Both entreated for mercy, but Clifford said, "As thy father slew mine at St. Albans, so will I slay thee and all thy kin." Clifford then returned towards the Castle (now in the hands of Lord Willis), and coming up with the royal prisoner stabbed him also, and then cutting off his head with a battle axe, he carried it to the Queen on a spear. She made no secret of her joy, but cursed the soul of her enemy, and ordered that the head should be decked with a paper crown and hoisted on one of the gates of York- Mickle-Gate with an inscription, "Let York overlook York," whilst the body was afterwards interred in the Priory Church of St. John, at Pontefract, where it remained for five years, and was then removed by Edward IV. to Fotheringay. Two thousand of the revolutionary band were slain, and many of the Royalist troops. Some of the factious knights and captains taken prisoners, were afterwards decapitated, and their heads sent to ornament the gates of York.

The Queen, whose pavilion had been pitched on Heath, (the entrenchments have remained to this day), took possession of Sandal Castle, and large holes were dug in the park for the burial of the corpses, but many remained unburied until the next day. That night there were great rejoicings in the Castle and Royalist Camp over a signal victory, and big bonfires lighted up the scene of carnage. "At midnight (says the letter of one who went in search of the body of his father) the kindly snow fell like mantle on the dead, and covered their rueful faces staring so fiercely to heaven." There was much lamentation in Wakefield, which sided with the Royal cause, yet succoured many a wounded soldier that managed to escape, on whichever side he fought, for they were Englishmen too. The captains were confined in Pontefract Castle, among them the Earl of Salisbury, who was decapitated there. After resting a while at Pontefract, the victorious Queen set off with her army towards York, and Wakefield was glad when military forays ceased, and drunken troopers did not disturb the tranquillity of the place.

We may regard the Chantry as the memorial of the battle, for though it dates back to 1357 (when Edward III. vested £10 per annum for two priests to say daily prayers), it was re-endowed by Edward IV., in order that prayer might be made evermore in it for the souls of his father (the restless rebel Richard) and his brother Rutland. It remained a wayside chapel to which pilgrims came to pray. The ancient sacristy in the basement remains, and is reached by a spiral staircase, but the upper structure was rebuilt, after the same design, in 1847. The foundation of the priests' house can be seen on the town shore of the river, and on the same side of the bridge. Though the Duke was dead his cause lived on in his eldest son, and there were plenty of hot partizans in the country to maintain the strife - as they did for thirty years-one of the darkest chapters of our national chronicles, though it had its good effect in the downfall of feudalism. On recording the battle of Barnet (of 1471) one historian says:- This deadly quarrel betwixt the houses of York and Lancaster had now occasioned twelve battles, the deaths in these battles of no less than sixty princes of these two families, above half of the nobles and powerful gentlemen, and above a hundred thousand of the common people, and still the bloodspilling went on with increased violence under Richard of Gloucester.

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