The Battle of Wakefield West Yorkshire, Northern England 30 December 1460
Throughout The War of the Roses, battles would occur that changed not only the course of the war, but the course of English History. The Battle of Wakefield in 1460 was one of the most important of these battles.
Courtesy of the British Library Illuminated Manuscripts Collection
Richard, Duke of York, thought (and many historians agree) that he had the better claim to the throne than Henry VI. In addition to being descended from Edward III’s second son, Lionel, Duke of Clarence, Richard was one of the wealthiest men in England by both inheritance and through his marriage to the beautiful and intelligent Cecily Neville (aka The Rose of Raby). They had twelve children with four sons and three daughters surviving to adulthood.
Unfortunately, the Lancastrian King, Henry VI, descended from Edward III’s third son, John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster, lacked leadership qualities. But of great concern was that poor Henry suffered serious bouts of mental illness which left him totally unable to govern.
The Duke of York served as Lord Protector and proved a competent administrator, far more competent than King Henry and his supporters. When Henry regained his mental faculties and convinced a majority of aristocrats that he was again capable of ruling, York was forced to surrender his position and watch his enemies take control of the government. Chief among his enemies was Henry’s Queen, the French Margaret of Anjou.
When the Queen and the Duke of Somerset started harassing York, accusing him of treason and confiscating his lands, the Duke decided to fight back.
On October 11, 1459, the Lancastrian troops attacked at the Battle of Ludford. The troops that Richard Neville (Earl of Warwick, Governor of Calais and one of the Duke of York’s strongest supporters) had brought over with him from France refused to fight. The troops of York fled the field leaving a one-sided victory to the Lancastrian King’s army. The Duke of York and his Commanders fled. York went to Ireland (where he was still the popular Governor). Richard Neville; his father, the Earl of Salisbury; and York’s eldest son, Edward, fled to Calais.
Shortly after the York leaders escaped, the Lancastrians attacked York’s Castle at Ludlow. Under the command of Queen Margaret, her troops pillaged, raped, and murdered men, women and children. They stole everything they could lay their hands on.
The Lancastrian army captured York’s wife, Cecily, his daughter Margaret, and his youngest sons, George and Richard. The sheer brutality of this attack left a huge legacy of anger and bitterness among the Yorkists, especially against the Queen.
In June, Salisbury and Warwick returned from Calais and won the Battle of Northampton, capturing King Henry. The Duke of York left Ireland and returned to England in September. But politically, enough Lancastrians were left in Parliament to deny York the throne. They did, however, heap numerous honors on him, including An Act of Accord granting the English crown to York and his heirs upon Henry’s death.
Margaret of Anjou was incensed. If Parliament followed through on these promises, her son “Edouard”, the current Prince of Wales, would be disinherited. She wasn’t going to stand for that!
After the Yorkist victory at Northampton, the capture of King Henry, and the meeting of Parliament which made York and his comrades de facto rulers of England, the Queen fled to Scotland to try and persuade King James to help her raise an army against those she saw as “the usurpers”.
Jasper Tudor, half-brother of King Henry VI, returned to Wales to muster the Welsh for the Lancastrian cause. Henry Beaufort, Duke of Somerset and great-grandson of John, Duke of Lancaster, returned from France (after a futile attempt to capture Calais) to shore up the Lancastrian troops in the southwest.
In the north, Henry Percy, Earl of Northumberland, and John Clifford, Lord Clifford, joined forces. They were already York’s implacable enemies and they wanted revenge for their fathers, who had been killed in an earlier battle with the Yorkists.
Henry Percy was joined by Andrew Trollope, who moved his troops North. Trollope was once a trusted high-level Yorkist supporter. He had been a commander in Calais under the Earl of Warwick. He defected to Somerset and the Lancastrians the night before the Battle of Ludford carrying with him copies of all the Yorkist battle plans. On his way North, Trollope had some minor skirmishes with Yorkist troops.
By December 21, 1460, The Duke of York; his son, 17-year old Edmund, Earl of Rutland; along with the Earl of Salisbury and his son, Thomas, were all at Sandal Castle in Yorkshire with anywhere between 2,500 to 9,000 troops. (The records are quite varied.)
The men spent a somewhat subdued Christmas at Sandal Castle with few of the holiday excesses common at the time. There were rumors that supplies were running low, especially fire wood.
Sandal Castle occupied a prominent and high location. If well provisioned it probably could have withstood a siege for a lengthy period of time. The Duke of York was expecting his son Edward, Earl of March, to bring reinforcements soon.
No one is certain why the Yorkist troops decided to leave Sandal Castle on December 30. There are no eye witness accounts. The most interesting speculation is that Andrew Trollope set a trap for York and York rode right in to it.
The battle was not lengthy. The Yorkists were badly outnumbered and were fighting against soldiers who had a familiarity with the terrain. The cost of the battle was terribly high. The Duke of York was killed fighting, as was Thomas Neville. The Earl of Salisbury survived the battle but was beheaded at Pontefract Castle.
Young Edmund, Earl of Rutland also survived the initial battle but was killed pleading for his life. He was rumored to have been killed by Lord Clifford as revenge for the death of Clifford’s father. The heads of York, Salisbury and Rutland were displayed on pikes on Micklegate Bar in the city of York. The Duke of York’s head wore a paper crown.
In the end, that battle was the turning point in favor of the Yorkist claims to the throne. The general populace was almost as outraged by the brutality of the Lancastrian army as partisan Yorkist supporters. Their sympathies were turning to the Yorks. London welcomed York’s eldest son, Edward, with open arms and followed him into battle at both Mortimer’s Cross and Towton.
This time, there were no negotiations.. The Yorkists had won! Edward was crowned King just 6 months later on 28 June 1461 at Westminster Abbey.