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An Analysis of the causes of the Wars and the course which they took.

Michael D. Miller

Chapter 52: The battle of Wakefield: December 1460


Queen Margaret gathers her forces

If King Henry VI could think of nothing that needed saying, there were many others who found a ready use for their tongues. Predictably Queen Margaret, who had found refuge in Wales after the battle of Northampton, first in Harlech Castle and later in Denbigh Castle, was distraught when she heard that her son Edward, the 7-year old Prince of Wales, had been disinherited. Whilst she raved and ranted at every being who was unfortunate enough to come into her immediate vicinity, this indomitable and intrepid if misguided woman soon pulled herself together, and realised that the time had come for her to do what she did best of all; she would have to exert herself in a supreme effort, and inspire others to do the same.

Knowing very well with whom they were dealing:-

"The Lordys wolde fayne hadde hyr unto Lundon, for they knewe welle that alle the workyngys that were done growe by hyr, for she was more wyttyer then the Kynge, and that apperythe by his dedys......." [Gregory's Chronicles (CS) pages 208-210]

It was no more uncommon then than it is today for wives to be much cleverer and more determined than their husbands, or a lot more successful in their undertakings.

The Lords may have preferred to have her in London where they could keep an eye on her, but Queen Margaret was far too sensible to thrust her head into that noose. Instead, from her stronghold in Wales, she wrote letters summoning the Lancastrian Lords to war.

She found a ready response, writing as she did to men who were as appalled as she was herself by the thought of a Yorkist dynasty on the Throne. Henry Beaufort, Duke of Somerset, received her letter at Corfe Castle, and immediately made preparations to join her. So did Thomas Courtenay, Earl of Devon, who had by now cast off all his allegiance to the Yorkist cause. Henry, Lord Roos, John, Lord Clifford, Ralph, Lord Greystocke, and even George Neville, Lord Latimer, the brother of Richard Neville, Earl of Salisbury, received similar letters, and hastened to obey her summons. Gregory does not mention Henry Holland, Duke of Exeter, Henry Percy, the new Duke of Northumberland, or Sir Andrew Trollope, but none of these would have been forgotten by the Queen. Her letters seem to have had the effect desired by their writer, because the counties were soon echoing to the sound of marching men hastening to the meeting place. Gregory says that they were bidden to join Exeter in Hull and wait for the Queen there.

Worcester however, indicates that the forces were to concentrate at York. [Annales (RS) pp 774/776] This seems the more likely place, being more centrally situated.

The Lancastrian concentration was not quite complete by mid-November, because Somerset and Devon had yet to arrive. Worcester mentions a Council being held in York attended by Northumberland, Clifford, Latimer, and Ralph, Lord Dacre of Gillesland,  [Not to be confused with Richard Fenys, Lord Dacre 'of the South' who was a committed Yorkist and who fought at Northampton] when the decision was taken to ravage the Yorkist estates in the North. The obvious intention was to draw the Yorkists, particularly Richard, Duke of York and Richard Neville, Earl of Salisbury, away from their southern strongholds and force them to fight in countryside where the Lancastrians had much more support. [pages ]

Events in London - November 1460

Richard, Duke of York, having with some difficulty reconciled himself with being heir to the Throne rather than the reigning King, announced during the first days of November that he was Protector for the third time. Exactly what legal right he had to style himself so is far from clear. At that time, Queen Margaret's letter-writing had scarcely begun, and it could not be said that she posed an obvious and immediate threat of open warfare. Knowing the Queen as well as everybody did however, it was still justifiable to expect trouble, and it would do no harm to have a tried and trusted military hand upon the tiller. There seems to have been no objection to Richard's assumption of this office, and by mid-November, when the threat in the North was more obvious and more menacing, there was even less reason to protest.

By mid-November 1460, the extent of the Queen's concentration of Lancastrian forces in the North, both actual and prospective, would have been known. Apart from ordering the assembly of their own forces, which seems to have been done in a very leisurely fashion, the Yorkists did not re-act at once to the obvious peril. Indeed they seem to have taken a very casual attitude, and did not even contemplate a march to the North before the dissolution of Parliament on 9th December, although Parliament armed Richard with authority to suppress 'the riots and rebellions' in the North. Even when Richard did begin his march to the North on that same day, he was accompanied only by the veteran Earl of Salisbury and his 17-year old son, Edmund, Earl of Rutland, at the head of a force which has been estimated at no more than 6, 000 men and may well have been less than this. Edward, Earl of March, was sent off to the Welsh Marches to recruit soldiers, whilst Richard, Earl of Warwick and John Mowbray, Duke of Norfolk were left behind to recruit in London and the southern and eastern counties. If the Lancastrian concentration was by this time nearly complete, the same could not be said of the Yorkists; they had yet to assemble all their forces, and needed more time to do this.

The march north - December 1460

Richard was a general of enormous experience, particularly in the High Command of an army. He had served with distinction in France for many years, as indeed had Salisbury. Many of the junior officers and soldiers were tried and hardened veterans as well. In short, there was no lack of experience in Richard's force. 0nce away from London with its politics and legalistic wrangling, Richard at the head of his troops would have been a man who was once again restored to his natural element. He had the name of being a cautious and careful commander even if he was sometimes given to some ill thought-out actions. He could be impulsive, even rash on occasions, but in general he was considered to be a reliable commander who would not risk his army in a way which would be thought unacceptable.

In the early stages of the march, it became clear that Richard was not the man he once was. In 1460, he was 48-years old, an advanced but not a great age for the time, and an age when a man could still be at the height of his powers. Yet the spark seemed to have gone out of Richard, and in examining the disasters of the Wakefield campaign, the question arises why this should have happened.

In his early dealings with the King and Parliament, Richard had conducted himself with respect for the King and the Constitution. He had accepted in his own mind that his rebellion in 1452 had been a huge error, but that now lay long in the past and seemed to have been forgotten and forgiven. He had not sought to displace King Henry VI after his victory in the First battle of St Albans, but had only aimed at an improvement in the Government by a change of ministers. He had been scrupulous in his dealings with the King and the Constitution even when wielding the enormous powers of the Protector.

After the battle of Northampton in July 1460, Richard seemed to have changed, and here we can detect the influence of Bishop Coppini. Richard had now decided to abandon his earlier self-restraint, perhaps even self-effacement, and assert his own strong claim to the Crown. Perhaps the adulation he had received in Ireland [page ] had in some measure gone to his head, and it could have been a contributing factor. Having made such a decision, the natural thing to have done would have been to set out at once for London, and to have spent August and September closeted with his friends and advisers to determine what he must do to achieve his new aim. There can be little doubt that they would have agreed to help him because all of them would have been happy to be relieved of the Queen and her malign influence on affairs. There was some recent history, only 61 years before, when a King had been replaced in 1399. [Chapter ] The first step, now as then, would have been to persuade the King to abdicate, and to sign a document which had the additional effect of disinheriting Edward, the young Prince of Wales. There was a distinct possibility that the King would have agreed to do this, and would have been content to retire to a monastery or scholastic foundation to spend the rest of his days in study and prayer. The next step would have been to persuade Parliament to accept the abdication which, properly handled, could have been achieved. If both the first two steps were accepted by Parliament, then the final step was to persuade it to accept Richard as King; if the first two steps had been accepted, then there was little else that Parliament could do, and it would in all probability have agreed with a glad heart. All this had been done before, and could have been done again. As the dealings with Richard's petition show, the history of 1399 was well known to those living in 1460.

Instead of doing this, Richard had wasted the intervening period between July and 0ctober 1460 to no effect, and had then marched into Parliament on 10th 0ctober 1460 in a pre-emptory and arrogant manner to claim the Throne as his. [page ] Parliament, even though the Yorkist influence was very strong, would have none of this. He had then petitioned the House of Lords,  [pages] only to have his petition rejected. There can be little doubt that what happened in Parliament during 0ctober 1460 had dealt two massive blows to Richard's pride. Whilst he was not a man with a pronounced ego, his pride had been wounded, almost mortally so, by the experiences of that month, and he felt the humiliation very keenly. Such experiences can change a man, even to the extent that he does things which are out of keeping with his normal character, or indulges in actions which are sometimes less then sensible.

A man who has recently been humiliated and is nursing a bitter grievance is not always a predictable man.

The march north was carelessly conducted. 0ne of the tenets of medieval warfare was that there should be good scouting, and normally this was very competently done. Although mounted men usually fought on foot when battle was joined, there were plenty of horsemen for scouting duties, and they were usually able to find the enemy besides being skilful enough to make an estimate of his numbers and apparent intentions, two of the vital elements of military intelligence. At Worksop there was a collision with the rear guard of Somerset's force. It seems that Richard never even suspected that Somerset, on his way to join the Queen, was in the neighbourhood, and Somerset took the opportunity to ambush the Yorkist vanguard and maul it severely. By the time that Richard had recovered from his surprise, Somerset had slipped away to continue his march. Somerset's force was a mere contingent of the Queen's army, and if Richard had been doing his job properly, he could have forced Somerset into a fight when he greatly out-numbered him. The destruction of Somerset's contingent could have greatly influenced the out-come of the campaign.

Richard and the Yorkist army reached his Castle at Sandall without further mishap on 21st December 1460, and prepared to celebrate Christmas there. The Castle lay a few miles to the south of Wakefield, and the Lancastrians were found to be at Pontefract Castle, in greater numbers, about nine miles away. It was most unwise of Richard to sacrifice the mobility of his army by immuring it in Sandall Castle, which could neither accommodate it nor feed it. This meant that foraging parties had to be sent out far and wide for provisions, thus weakening its strength. He would have been better advised to leave a garrison in the Castle, and cover it by a mobile force in the countryside. This would have allowed him to fight on ground of his own choosing, or to withdraw if the odds seemed too great, and await the reinforcements which his son Edward was raising on the Welsh Marches, and Warwick and Norfolk were raising in the south.

It may be surmised that it was Sir Andrew Trollope, that very experienced soldier of the French Wars who had deserted Richard at Ludford in 0ctober 1459,  [page ] who put the idea into the heads of the Lancastrian Lords to lure Richard from the fastness of Sandall Castle and to fight in the open whilst the advantage of numbers lay with the Lancastrians. The stratagem employed bears all the hall-marks of operations during the French Wars. The Lancastrians had no siege artillery with which to reduce the Castle, and they could not afford to wait and see their advantage in numbers whittled away by reinforcements reaching the Yorkists.

Sandall Castle is today a ruin which lies 1/4 mile to the West of the Barnsley-Wakefield road, the A 61. The battlefield lies to the North-West of the Castle, and is now covered by the urban and industrial sprawl of Wakefield. In 1460, the land was heavily forested, but there was an open space to the North-West of the Castle which lead down to the southern bank of the River Calder. 0n 30th December 1460, a strong force of Lancastrians appeared on this bank of the river with its flanks resting on the woods on either side. It seemed to be offering battle in dispositions normal for the time. It never occurred to Richard that this could not be the entire Lancastrian army, which his experienced eye should soon have told him, or to ask himself where the rest of it might be. In fact the rest of the Lancastrian army was out of sight in the woods to either side of the open space. It had set an ambush for him to walk into.

Richard resolved to attack the Lancastrians that he could see. The main gate of the Castle faced south, so the Yorkist army had to wheel round to face the Lancastrian force before it advanced to the attack. The Lancastrians in the woods waited patiently whilst it did this, and as soon as the Yorkist army was well advanced, they sprang their trap.

Soon the Yorkists were totally surrounded. They fought desperately all afternoon, but the weight of numbers soon began to make itself felt. Richard, Duke of York, and many a valiant knight, lusty squire and stout soldier were stretched lifeless on the ground. The Yorkist losses were very heavy, whilst those of the Lancastrians were trifling. Besides the loss of valuable and experienced rank and file, a large number of their leaders were also killed. These included William, Lord Haryngton, the grand-son of William,  Lord Bonville who had carried on a feud for so many years with the Earl of Devon, Sir Thomas Neville, Salisbury's second son, Sir Thomas Haryngton and his son Sir John, Sir Edward Bourchier, the son of Henry, Viscount Bourchier, Sir Hugh Hastings, Sir William Parr and Sir James Pickering. These were leaders and supporters the Yorkists could ill afford to lose. Richard Neville, Earl of Salisbury and Edmund, Earl of Rutland managed to escape the massacre, but it availed them little. Salisbury was captured in the woods on the following day, and was taken to Pontefract Castle. There, without ceremony and with barely time to confess to a priest, he was summarily beheaded. Rutland's fate was even more gruesome. The 17-year old Edmund was overtaken on Wakefield Bridge by John, Lord Clifford. The boy pleaded for his life as Clifford stood over him with his dagger in his hand and his men standing round. Clifford hesitated, savouring the moment, with the light of the dying winters day glinting on his hard cruel eyes. "By God's blode" he said, "thy father slew myne and so wil I do the." With that he thrust his weapon into the boy's throat with such force that the tip appeared at the back of his neck.

The Lancastrian leadership, probably inspired by Sir Andrew Trollope, proved that they included amongst their numbers some redoubtable and skilful commanders. At one fell stroke, they had revenged their defeats at St Albans and Northampton, and had removed from the scene the heads of the two chief Yorkist Houses, Richard himself and Salisbury.

Scores of other Yorkist supporters had been dispatched and would oppose them no more. Triumphantly, and in keeping with the customs of a cruel and almost barbarous age, they cut off the heads of Richard, Duke of York and his son Edmund, and sent them with Salisbury's to decorate the walls of York. On York's, they mockingly placed a paper crown. The battle of Wakefield had been a disaster of the first magnitude for the Yorkist cause.

Copyright Michael D. Miller 2003