10 Facts About the Battle of Wakefield

Emma Irving

4 mins

16 Jan 2019

During the bloody War of the Roses, the Battle of Wakefield (1460) was a calculated attempt by the Lancastrians to eliminate Richard, Duke of York – a rival of Henry VI’s for the throne. Little is known about the action, but the Duke was successfully enticed out from the safety of Sandal Castle and ambushed. In the subsequent skirmish his forces were massacred, and both the Duke and his second eldest son were killed, along with one of his most important followers, Richard Neville, Earl of Salisbury.

Here are ten facts about this significant battle:

1. No one is sure why York sortied from Sandal Castle on 30 December

One theory says that some of the Lancastrian troops advanced openly towards Sandal Castle, while others hid in the surrounding woods. York may have been low on provisions and, believing that the Lancastrian force was no larger than his own, decided to go out and fight rather than withstand a siege.

Other accounts suggest that York was deceived by John Neville of Raby’s forces displaying false colours, which tricked him into thinking that the Earl of Warwick had arrived with aid.

A view of the Motte and Barbican at Sandal Castle. Credit: Abcdef123456 / Commons.

2. There are a lot of rumours about how the Duke was killed

He was either killed in battle or captured and immediately executed.

Some works support the folklore that he suffered a crippling wound to the knee and was unhorsed, and that he and his closest followers then fought to the death at the spot; others relate that he was taken prisoner, mocked by his captors and beheaded.

3. His son also died in the fighting

York’s seventeen-year-old son Rutland, who had fought by his father’s side, fled to escape over Wakefield Bridge, but he was overtaken and killed – probably by Clifford in revenge for his father’s death at St Albans.

Richard of York, 3rd Duke of York (Variant). The inescutcheon of pretence showing the arms of the House of Holland, Earls of Kent, represents his claim to represent that family, derived from his maternal grandmother Eleanor Holland (1373-1405), one of the six daughters and eventual co-heiresses to their father Thomas Holland, 2nd Earl of Kent (1350/4-1397). Credit: Sodacan / Commons.

4. The Earl of Salisbury was also killed at Wakefield

The Earl of Salisbury was a key supporter of the Yorkists, and was made Lord Chancellor by Richard, Duke of York in 1455. After the Yorkist defeat at Warwick, Salisbury escaped the battlefield but was captured during the night.

Upon discovery, the now traitor to the realm was taken to the Lancastrian camp. Although the Lancastrian nobles might have been prepared to allow Salisbury to ransom himself due to his large wealth, he was dragged out of Pontefract Castle and beheaded by local commoners, to whom he had been a harsh overlord.

5. There is no accurate record of the number of casualties

… but it is thought that the Lancastrians lost around 200 men, while the Yorkist dead numbered around 700 to 2,500.

How do the ideas behind chivalry translate to fighting on a battlefield? Jason Kingsley explains in the series The Knight on HistoryHit.TV. Watch Now. 

6. Margaret of Anjou used the bodies of the dead to send a strong message

She had the heads of York, Rutland and Salisbury impaled on spikes and displayed over Micklegate Bar, the western gate through the York city walls. York’s head had a paper crown as a mark of derision, and a sign that said “Let York overlook the town of York”.

7. The victorious army was famous for plundering

The northern Lancastrian army which had been victorious at Wakefield was reinforced by Scots and borderers eager for plunder, and marched south.

They defeated Warwick’s army at the Second Battle of St Albans and recaptured the feeble-minded King Henry, who had been abandoned on the battlefield for the third time.

However, they were refused entry to London because of their reputation for plundering.

A flanged mace was capable of denting or piercing even thick armour. From the short film How to Arm a 14th Century Knight on HistoryHit.TV.Watch Now

8. The battle didn’t bring about the end of the war

Despite York’s death, his eldest son, Edward, defeated the Welsh Lancastrians at the Battle of Mortimer’s Cross and was proclaimed King Edward IV of England.

The Lancastrians withdrew to the north, but they were hotly pursued and subsequently defeated by Edward and Warwick at the bloody Battle of Towton in Warwickshire.

9. The battle is said to be the source of a popular mnemonic

‘Richard of York Gave Battle in Vain’ stands for the sequence of hues commonly described as making up a rainbow: red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo and violet.

Richard of York memorial inscription. Credit: Commons / SMJ.

10. There is a Victorian monument to the Duke of York’s death

A few hundred yards from the gatehouse to Sandal Castle, there stands a Victorian monument on the site where traditionally the Duke was said to have been killed.

It replaces an older monument set up by Edward IV to the memory of his father, which was destroyed by Parliamentary forces during the Civil War.