Category Archives: Wakefield

Curtain-Up on the Wars of the Roses: The Battle of Wakefield (1460)

Cast your mind back over 550 years.

You have arrived in Wakefield. It is Tuesday, 30th December 1460. It is only mid-afternoon; but darkness comes early at this time of the year.

In the gathering gloom, you walk the short distance to Wakefield Green, Between Sandal Castle and the River Calder. Wakefield Green is sadly littered with many dead bodies. Sandal Castle, lately occupied by Richard Duke of York, is strangely silent. Over by the River Calder, you espy a crowd of foot-soldiers loitering on Wakefield Bridge.  Plucking up your courage you wander across to the soldiers. They are gruff; but not unfriendly. They are retainers of Lord Clifford, the well-known Lancastrian supporter.  They tell you that they are guarding the place where earlier in the day Lord Clifford killed a prominent Yorkist leader, Lord Rutland. You are surprised and saddened by their news, as Lord Rutland is only 17 years old. A Renaissance Prince has been cut down in his prime. How could such an outrage have been allowed to happen?

The Battle of  Wakefield. 30th December 1460

  • In 1460, the forces of King Henry VI had been furiously engaged with the supporters of Richard, Duke of York, in what is commonly known as the Wars of the Roses. By December, Richard had taken part of his forces (about 9,000 soldiers) to his castle at Sandal, near Wakefield. Richard’s commanders included his own son, Edmund (Earl of Rutland) and Richard (Earl of Salisbury). Richard’s strategy was aimed at overpowering King Henry’s forces in Northern England.
  • However, the Lancastrians had called Richard’s bluff. They had secretly assembled an army twice the size of Richard’s force in West Yorkshire. This Lancastrian Army was commanded by Henry Beaufort (3rd Duke of Somerset), Henry Percy (3rd Earl of Northumberland) and Henry (9th Lord Clifford).
  • Having previously reached Sandal Castle on 21st December, Richard’s army had then quit the safety of the castle nine days later. Historians are still uncertain why Richard of York made such a strategic mistake. There are several theories:-

(i)                Richard’s Army was growing short of supplies, and so his army needed to forage for provisions.

(ii)              Only part of the Lancastrian Army was visible on Wakefield Green, at the foot of Sandal Castle. The rest were hidden in nearby woods. Richard of York therefore thought that his forces were not at risk.

(iii)            There is a possibility that both sides had agreed a temporary truce. Truces were very common in medieval warfare, and were virtually always respected.

  • Whatever the reason, Richard of York‘s decision was a blunder. Although daylight hours were restricted in late December, the Lancastrian Army, 18,000 strong, soon overwhelmed the Yorkist Army (only half the Lancastrian strength). In this military rout, virtually the entire Yorkist leadership was eliminated. Richard of York was killed in battle; Edmund Of Rutland (wounded and defenceless) was hacked down on Wakefield Bridge. The Earl of Salisbury did escape from the battlefield, only to be executed the following day.

Impact of the Battle of Wakefield

Historians regard the Battle of Wakefield as marking a decisive step in the Wars of the Roses. As Professor Michael Hicks has written, the Battle of Wakefield “raised the stakes yet further…….From Wakefield on, every victorious side systematically despatched any opposing leaders who fell into their hands, thus making the results more decisive.”  [‘The Wars of the Roses’, by Michael Hicks (2010), page 160].

The Lancastrians had certainly raised the stakes by killing young Rutland. They went even further after the battle. They beheaded the bodies of Richard of York, Edmund of Rutland and Richard of Salisbury. They also beheaded the bodies of Sir Thomas Neville and William, Lord Harrington. The former was the fourth son of Richard of Salisbury: the latter was Salisbury’s son-in-law. The Lancastrians then had these severed heads placed on the various gateways of York.

A contemporary chronicler, added: “The head of the Duke of York they also in contempt crowned with a paper crown.” [EHD, Volume IV, edited A.R. Myers, page 286

Conclusion

I entitled this Blog: ‘Curtain-Up on the Wars of the Roses’, and this title is deliberate. Shakespeare used the Wars of the Roses as the backcloth to his cycle of  three plays on the reign of King Henry VI. Shakespeare clearly knew his historical sources, including the contemporary source above mentioned, which is referred to in his play: “The True Tragedy of Richard Duke of York and the Good Henry the Sixth” {3 Henry VI}.  In Act 1, Scene 4 of this play, Shakespeare creates a magnificent inter-play between the captive Richard of York and Margaret of Anjou (Henry VI’s queen). In a famous speech, Margaret humiliates Richard of York. She finishes by putting a paper crown on Richard’s head:

“A crown for York, and lords, bow low to him.

Hold you his hands whilst I do set it on.

Ay, marry, sir, now looks he like a king,

Ay, this is he that took King Henry’s chair,

And this is he was his adopted heir.”

 

The rhyming couplet that concludes Margaret’s dramatic actions again reveals Shakespeare’s historical knowledge. Two months before the Battle of Wakefield, King Henry VI had agreed to Parliament’s Act of Accord, by which Henry had ‘adopted’ Richard of York as heir to his throne.

Finally, the ‘Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary’ defines the term ‘curtain-up’ as “the beginning of something which is very exciting or dramatic”.  My 2013 Blogs (regular and monthly) will focus on a key period of the Wars of the Roses between 1450 and 1461. This explosive period in English History was full of dramatic personalities and exciting events. I hope my readers  will find my historical  jottings  equally exhilarating and theatrical.

Question.

In the above Shakespearean Scene, what famous appellation does Richard of York bestow on Margaret?

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