The Battle of Wakefield was fought at Sandal Magna near Wakefield, in Yorkshire and was a decisive battle in the civil war known as the Wars of the Roses. A force led by nobles loyal to the Lancastrian King Henry VI faced the army of Richard, Duke of York, the rival Yorkist claimant to the throne, who met his death in the battle.
King Henry VI, who suffered from periodic bouts of insanity, transferred the right of succession to his cousin Richard Plantagenet, Duke of York, by an Act of Settlement signed in October 1460. The act recognised York's stronger hereditary claim to the throne and settled that Henry VI should retain the throne of England until his death when the crown would pass to York and his heirs, thereby disinheriting Henry's young son, Edward, Prince of Wales. Henry's strong-willed wife, Margaret of Anjou, refused to accept the act and continued fighting for the rights of her son.
The furious Margaret marched south with an army under the command of the Duke of Somerset. York dispatched his eldest son, Edward, Earl of March, (the future Edward IV), to put down a Lancastrian rebellion in Wales led by Jasper Tudor, the half-brother of Henry VI. Leaving Richard Neville, Earl of Warwick in London to guard the King, York marched from London with an army numbering around 8,000 to 9,000 men, accompanied by his second son Edmund, Earl of Rutland and his brother-in-law Richard Neville Earl of Salisbury.
After a skirmish with Lancastrian forces at Worksop on December 16, the Duke of York arrived at his castle of Sandal near Wakefield in Yorkshire on 21 December, where he improved the castle's defences against a Lancastrian attack and intended to spend the Christmas season there. The Lancastrian camp at Pontefract lay only 9 miles (14 km) to the east. On the morning of 28 December a Lancastrian force marched out from Pontefract to confront him, York was aware that Lancastrian armies were in the area and sent for aid to his son Edward, but before any reinforcements could arrive, he inexplicably sortied from the castle on 30 December.
The reasons behind York's rash act will never be known or fully understood. A theory was later recorded in Edward Hall's chronicle, written just a few decades after the event, but deriving partly from contemporary sources, was that in a plan devised by the wily Andrew Trollope, part of the Lancastrian force, headed by Somerset and John Clifford, Baron de Clifford or or 'Bloody Clifford' as he was sometimes known, advanced openly towards Sandal Castle, while further forces led by Ros and the Earl of Wiltshire hid in the woods surrounding the castle. York may have been low on provisions in the castle and believing that the Lancastrians were no larger than his own force, decided to go out and fight rather than withstand a siege.
Other accounts go on to suggest that York was further deceived, by some of John Neville of Raby's forces displaying false colours, into believing that the Earl of Warwick had arrived with aid.
The Yorkist army charged out of Sandal Castle down the present-day Manygates Lane towards the Lancastrian force under Clifford was positioned to the north of the castle. As York engaged the Lancastrians to his front, he was attacked by others coming in from his flank and rear, which cut him off from retreat to the castle, and the jaws of the trap snapped shut on the Yorkist leader.
Edward Hall recorded 'but when he was in the plain ground between his castle and the town of Wakefield, he was environed on every side, like a fish in a net, or a deer in a buckstall; so that he manfully fighting was within half an hour slain and dead, and his whole army discomfited.'
The battle lasted less than an hour, the Duke of York was slain in the melee, it was said that he went down fighting with his back to a clump of willow trees. His seventeen year old son Rutland, who had fought by his father's side, fled to escape over Wakefield Bridge, but was overtaken and killed, probably by Clifford in revenge for his father's death at St Albans.
Roderick O'Flanagan in his 1870 biography of Edmund states ' Urged by his tutor, a priest named Robert Aspell, he was no sooner aware that the field was lost than he sought safety by flight. Their movements were intercepted by the Lancastrians and Lord Clifford made him prisoner but did not then know his rank. Struck with the richness of his armour and equipment, Lord Clifford demanded his name. "Save him", implored the Chaplain; "for he is the Prince's son, and peradventure may do you good hereafter." This was an impolitic appeal, for it denoted hopes of the House of York being again in the ascendant, which the Lancastrians, flushed with recent victory, regarded as impossible. The ruthless noble swore a solemn oath: "Thy father", said he, "slew mine; and so will I do thee and all thy kin;" and with these words be rushed on the hapless youth, and drove his dagger to the hilt in his heart. Thus fell, at the early age of seventeen, Edmund Plantagenet, Earl of Rutland, Lord Chancellor of Ireland.'
Accurate casualties for the Battle of Wakefield are not known, but it is thought that the Lancastrians lost around 200 men, while the Yorkist dead numbered around 700 to 2,500. Salisbury's fourth son Sir Thomas Neville, and his son in law William, Lord Harington, were also killed in the battle. Richard Neville, Earl of Salisbury himself managed to escape the battlefield but was captured during the night by a servant of Sir Andrew Trollope, and taken to the Lancastrian camp at Pontefract Castle, where he was beheaded.
After the battle Margaret of Anjou 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 was crowned with a paper crown in derision.
York's death did not bring the desired end to the wars. The victorious Lancastrian army, reinforced by Scots and borderers hungry for plunder, marched south. They defeated the army of Salisbury's son, the Earl of Warwick, at the Second Battle of St Albans and recaptured the hapless Henry VI, who had been abandoned on the battlefield, but the Londoners, alarmed by the tale of plundering Lancastrian forces, stoutly refused them entry to the city.
York's eldest son, Edward, now the Duke of York, 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 were pursued and utterly defeated by Edward and Warwick at the bloody Battle of Towton in Yorkshire.
A Victorian monument, set up by subscription in 1897, occupies the site where the Duke of York was traditionally said to have been killed, a few hundred yards from the gatehouse of Sandal Castle. It replaces an older monument set up by Edward IV to the memory of his father, which was destroyed by Parliamentary soldiers during the Civil War.