The Battle of Wakefield: How the slaughter of a would-be king changed the course of history

Sandal Castle, where the Battle of Wakefield took place. Picture Scott Merrylees

Sandal Castle, where the Battle of Wakefield took place. Picture Scott Merrylees

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IT was a pivotal moment in the War of the Roses - and one of the bloodiest battles, that changed the course of history.

555 years ago, on December 30, 1460, the would-be King of England, Richard Duke of York, was slaughtered when his 5,000 strong Yorkist force was overwhelmed by 15,000 Lancastrian soldiers, loyal to King Henry VI, at Sandal Castle.

Historian Helen Cox, from Frei Compagnie re-enactment society, at Sandal Castle

Historian Helen Cox, from Frei Compagnie re-enactment society, at Sandal Castle

In the aftermath of the Battle of Wakefield, as it came to be known, the War of the Roses became even more bitter.

Historian Helen Cox, who has written two books on the battle, said: “The Battle of Wakefield was very significant, not just locally, but as a moment that shaped English history. A lot of people were killed, and they deserve to be remembered just as we remember the people who died in the first and second world wars.

“In the run up to the Battle, in October 1460, Richard of York had tried to claim the throne for himself.

“He had a valid claim, and this was recognised by the Act of Accord which that said he would succeed Henry VI as the next king. This infuriated his wife, as it meant her son was disinherited. She called the Lancastrians to arms and they began to formulate their attack plan.

It was a very decisive victory. The Yorkist army was completely out-numbered. In comparison, the Lancastrian army suffered very few casualties.

“The Yorkists knew it was coming. The Lancastrian army had been camped at Pontefract, nine miles down the road from where the Duke of York had based his army at Sandal. It seems the commanders agreed a brief truce over Christmas, on the understanding a battle would take place shortly after.”

And so, on December 30, the Lancastrian force assembled below Sandal Castle. The battle that followed was a blood bath.

Ms Cox said: “It was a very decisive victory. The Yorkist army was completely out-numbered. In comparison, the Lancastrian army suffered very few casualties.”

Richard, and his son Edmund, the Earl of Rutland, were both killed. Their heads were stuck on spikes and displayed over Micklegate Bar on York city walls, with the Duke wearing a paper crown and a sign saying “Let York overlook the town of York” - a message to those who remained loyal to him.

Re-enactors at Sandal Castle on the 553rd anniversary of the  Battle of Wakefield.'w307k354

Re-enactors at Sandal Castle on the 553rd anniversary of the Battle of Wakefield.'w307k354

“With the Duke and Earl out of the picture, it left the Duke’s eldest son Edward to carry on the campaign,” Ms Cox said.

“He was out for revenge - and it kicked off a phase of vendetta. Edward led the battle at Towton and went on to become King Edward IV.”

That battle, on March 21, 1461, was a decisive victory for the Yorkists, and led to Henry fleeing the country, and Edward taking the throne.

Each year, on December 30, historians and re-enactors gather at Sandal Castle to commemorate the battle, and wreaths are laid at the monument to Richard and all those who died on Manygates Lane, at the spot Richard is believed to have fallen.

Re-enactors at Sandal Castle on the 553rd anniversary of the  Battle of Wakefield.'w307k354

Re-enactors at Sandal Castle on the 553rd anniversary of the Battle of Wakefield.'w307k354

This year, the commemorations are taking a break, but will be back in 2016, Keith Souter, of the Friends of Sandal Castle said.

He said: “The period before the battle was one of great turmoil. Henry VI had a dubious claim to the throne - Richard’s was simply better.

“It was a pivotal moment in English history, when the two houses came head to head. It was a blood bath, and although it is regarded as a skirmish, there were several thousands involved and it was bigger than Bosworth.

“It’s important that people have an awareness of local history, but on a national front this changed the course of history.

“Who knows what would have happened had the Tudors not come to power.”

It is believed that between 2,000 and 3,000 people died in the Battle of Wakefield. Mass graves could sit beneath the battlefield, in the shadow of Sandal Castle, or under what is now Portobello.

The significance of what happened on December 30, 1460, was recognised by Shakespeare, who included references to the battle in two scenes in Henry VI.

Helen Cox: The Battle of Wakefield Revisited, can be brought here.

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