1460. England is on the brink of turmoil. Despite Henry VI’s best efforts to avoid future bloodshed following the First Battle of St Albans and to reconcile warring nobles, civil disorder had increased.
By the Autumn one figure could tolerate the stasis no longer. Forced into a political corner, Richard, Duke of York, believed that the only solution to the current crisis was for him to finally cross his Rubicon and put forward his own, better, claim to the Throne of England.
And so in Autumn 1460 Richard rode into Parliament, put his hand on Henry VI’s throne and stated that he was claiming the Throne for the House of York.
Richard, himself a grandson of the great warrior king Edward III, believed that this was his only option to alleviate the current political stasis.
Triggering civil war
But it proved an unwise move. Claiming the Throne was a drastic step and this shocked even York’s own supporters for several reasons.
The first was the ‘unconventional’ route York had chosen to make this proclamation. York’s supporters had already warned him that he could not yet make this claim for the kingship – in their eyes Richard first needed to assume clear control over Henry’s government.
The second shock was such a direct attack on Henry VI himself. This was a time when the Church dominated secular life: when people considered a king to be God’s anointed – chosen to rule by God. Defying a king was defying God’s appointment.
This dilemma was only increased by the fact that Henry’s father and predecessor had been Henry V. Deposing this much-loved legendary warlord’s son was far from popular. York could not simply hope to topple a king with such strong religious and secular links.
Henry VI also had time on his side. Richard did have a better claim to the throne, but by 1460 Lancastrian rule was embedded within English society. Ever since Henry Bolingbroke had forced Richard II to abdicate in 1399 a Lancastrian monarch had ruled the country. Changing a dynasty that had ruled for several (medieval) generations was far from popular.
York’s attempt to claim the Throne of England shocked friend and foe alike. In the Parliamentary settlement that followed – the Act of Accord – an agreement was reached. Henry VI would remain as king, but Richard and his heirs were named Henry’s successors.
The Lancastrian dynasty were pushed, well and truly, down the line of succession; the Yorkists were back in the royal picture.
The agreement polarised England like never before. Furious at seeing her son cut out from the succession, Queen Margaret of Anjou started recruiting troops. It was the trigger for civil war.
Trouble in Yorkshire
Two months later Richard headed north. Civil disturbances had broken out on his Yorkshire estates and Henry VI’s heir marched with a small force to quell this unrest.
After an arduous journey on 21 December 1460 Richard and his army reached Sandal Castle, a strong Yorkist bastion near Wakefield.
There they remained for over a week, spending Christmas within the stronghold. But while Richard and his men were resting within the Castle a large approaching enemy force was spotted.
It was a Lancastrian army loyal to Henry VI’s queen, Margaret of Anjou. From the Lancastrian stronghold, Pontefract Castle, this force had marched to catch Richard and his army by surprise as they recuperated behind the walls of Sandal Castle.
The Lancastrians looking for blood
Vengeance-seeking commanders dominated the top tier of the Lancastrian army. Two prominent generals had lost fathers at the First Battle of St Albans and now sought revenge against Richard and his family.
First there was Henry Beaufort, commander of the Lancastrian army and the son of York’s fallen arch-enemy Edmund Beaufort, Duke of Somerset.
Second there was John Clifford, one of Henry’s senior subordinates. Like his commander-in-chief, John’s father had also perished during the First Battle of St Albans.
Despite being outnumbered Richard decided to fight. Why he decided to leave the safety of Sandal’s defences with an outnumbered force to fight a pitched battle remains a mystery.
Several theories have been touted: miscalculation, too few provisions to withstand a siege or some element of Lancastrian deception are all candidates for the explanation. The truth, however, remains unclear. What we do know is that York gathered his men and sallied out for battle on Wakefield Green, below the stronghold.
The Battle of Wakefield: 30 December 1460
The fight did not last long. As soon as York’s army descended onto the plain, the Lancastrian forces closed in from all sides. Chronicler Edward Hall described Richard and his men becoming trapped – ‘like a fish in a net’.
Quickly surrounded Richard’s army was annihilated. The Duke himself was killed during the fighting: wounded and unhorsed before his enemies dealt him the death blow.
He was not the only prominent figure to meet his end. The Earl of Rutland, Richard’s 17 year old son, also died. As he tried to escape over Wakefield Bridge the young nobleman had been overtaken, captured and killed – probably by John Clifford in revenge for his father’s death at St Albans 5 years earlier.
The Earl of Salisbury was another prominent Yorkist casualty of Wakefield. Like Rutland he was captured after the main battle. Although the Lancastrian nobles might have been prepared to allow Salisbury to ransom himself due to his substantial wealth, he was dragged out of Pontefract Castle and beheaded by local commoners – to whom he had been a harsh overlord.
Margaret of Anjou was determined to send a strong message to the Yorkists after the Lancastrian victory at Wakefield. The Queen ordered the heads of York, Rutland and Salisbury to be impaled on spikes and displayed over Micklegate Bar, the western gate through the York city walls.
Richard’s head had a paper crown as a mark of derision, and a sign that said:
Let York overlook the town of York.
Richard, Duke of York, was dead. But Lancastrian celebrations would prove short-lived. York’s legacy lived on.
The following year Richard’s son and successor Edward would win a decisive victory at the Battle of Mortimer’s Cross. Marching down to London, he was crowned King Edward IV, later going on to win his most famous victory: the bloody Battle of Towton.
Richard may have died without laying hands on the kingship, but he paved the way for his son to fulfil this aim and secure the English Throne for the House of York.