Battle of Wakefield, 30 December 1460

The battle of Wakefield (30 December 1460) was a major Lancastrian victory that resulted in the death of Richard, duke of York, his son Edmund of Rutland and one of his most important followers, Richard Neville, earl of Salisbury.

Background

Between 1459 and 1461 the balance of power in England changed repeatedly and rapidly. At the start of 1459 the country was in a state of armed and rather tense peace. Richard of York had won the first battle of the Wars of the Roses, at St. Albans in 1455, but his power had soon faded and by the end of 1458 the court party was back in power. York's ally Richard Neville, earl of Warwick and captain of Calais, was one of the few Yorkists to have retained a position of power, but even that led to tensions. Prompted by a lack of pay from England Warwick had carried out a number of piratical attacks on neutral shipping in the channel. He was summoned to London to explain himself, but this visit ended in a clash between Warwick's men and the Royal Guard. Warwick retreated to Calais and refused to return to England, an act of open rebellion.

Battles of the Wars of the Roses
Battles of the
Wars of the Roses

In 1459 the Lancasrians decided to make a move against York and his supporters. A great council was summoned at which the absent Yorkist lords (York, Salisbury and Warwick) were charged with treason. Both sides then began to raise armies, but the Lancastrians had more support. Although the main Yorkist armies were able to unit on the Welsh borders they were still outnumbered, and after part of the Calais garrison changed sides, unwilling to fight Henry VI in person, the Yorkist commanders fled (battle of Ludford Bridge, 12-13 October 1459). York escaped to Ireland while Warwick, Salisbury and York's older son Edward, earl of March (the future Edward IV) escaped to Calais.

Although their position looked to have collapsed, the Yorkists began to prepare for a return to England. Warwick was even able to visit York in Ireland, evading a Lancastrian fleet on the return trip. They finally made their move in June 1460. Early in the month Warwick's men captured Sandwich and on 26 June Warwick, Salisbury and March landed back in England. They advanced across Kent, gathering support as they went. They were reluctantly admitted into London, before on 5 July moving north to deal with the Lancastrian army.

When the Yorkists landed at Sandwich the court was at Coventry. Henry VI advanced south-east towards London, reaching Northampton, where they took up a defensive position to the south of the town, with the River Nene behind them. On 10 July the Yorkists attacked. The resulting battle of Northampton was short - one of the key Lancastrian leaders, Lord Grey of Ruthin, changed sides, letting the Yorkists into the Royal camp. Henry VI was captured and a number of his most important supporters were killed.

The Yorkists now had control of the government. They summoned a parliament, and waited for the arrival of Richard of York. When he finally reached London his first appearance in Parliament was disastrous. Warwick had made much of his loyalty to Henry VI and repeated the usual claims that their argument was with his advisors. On 15 October York entered parliament and placed his hand on the empty throne, hoping that he would be acclaimed as king. Instead he was greeted with a stunned silence before being asked if he would like to meet with the king. It was clear that there was no appetite for a change of king. A compromise was soon found. In the Act of Accord Henry was allowed to keep his throne, but York and his sons became his heirs. Henry's son Prince Edward, who was still at large, was excluded from the succession.

The Lancastrian Comeback

Although the Yorkists had captured the King at Northampton, the Queen and Prince Edward were still at large. At first they had fled to Wales where they had gathered support, but they then sailed to Scotland where they attempted to get help from the Scottish court. The Lancastrian cause in Wales was maintained by Jasper Tudor, earl of Pembroke, who prepared to return from exile.

In the south-west the Lancastrians were led by Henry Beaufort, duke of Somerset. In 1459-60 he had been engaged in an attempt to capture Calais, but after the battle of Northampton he agreed to abandon this and went into exile in France. Now he returned to England, and advanced to Corfe Castle.

In the north Henry Percy, earl of Northumberland and John Clifford, Lord Clifford, both of whom had lost their fathers at the first battle of St. Albans, dominated the countryside. York's own estates and those of his Neville allies were attacked. In late November things got worse when Somerset moved north, passing through Coventry on the way, and joined the northern Lancastrians at York.

Faced with several different threats the Yorkists split their forces. Warwick remained in London, where he was to guard Henry VI and watch the south coast. Edward, earl of March, was sent to the Welsh borders, partly to raise fresh troops and partly to gain control of the Principality. On 9 December the main Yorkist army, about 6,000 strong, headed north. The Duke of York was in command, and he was accompanied by Richard Neville, earl of Salisbury. York's son Edmund, earl of Rutland, and Salisbury's son Sir Thomas Neville were also with the army.

The Yorkist advance wasn't uncontested. A Lancastrian force under Andrew Trollope caught part of the army at Worksop, but the main force got past and by 21 December York had reached Sandal Castle, one of his properties in Yorkshire.

The Battle of Wakefield

Sandal Castle is just to the south of Wakefield, with the River Calder running between the two places. York's 6000 men were based at Sandal. Somerset and the bigger Lancastrian army were a few miles to the east at Pontefract. York sent messages to Edward, earl of March, ordering him to move north with reinforcements, so Somerset's big problem was how to convince York to risk a battle before these fresh troops could arrive.

The biggest mystery of the battle is why York chose to attack a larger Lancastrian army, abandoning his relatively strong position within Sandal Castle. A number of different stories are recorded. According to Hall's chronicle York was too proud to stay behind strong walls when faced with an army led by Queen Margaret and his example forced his allies to agree to fight (the main problem with Hall's account of the battle is that Queen Margaret didn’t join the Lancastrian army until after the battle).

Waurin provides a more complex story. In this version York was tricked by Andrew Trollope. He had first appeared in the Wars at Ludford Bridge, where he led a contingent of the Calais garrison that had accompanied the earl of Warwick. When they found themselves faced with the prospect of fighting Henvy VI in person Trollope and his men changed sides, and he had remained loyal to the Lancastrian cause ever since. According to Waurin Trollope dressed some of his men in Warwick's livery and sent them to join York's army, where they pretended to be reinforcements coming from Lancashire. On the following day Trollope led more of his troops into York's camp. York now believed that he had enough men to risk battle, and left the safety of his castle. Once York's men were committed to the battle Trollope revealed his true colours. A similar variant on this story has the trick carried out by Lord Neville, brother of the earl of Westmorland and thus a member of the Lancastrian branch of the Neville family. Other chronicles have a simpler story of a broken truce. 

The final possibility is that the shortage of food caused the problem. York had been forced to send foraging parties out to find supplies. On 30 December one of them was attacked between the castle and the river. Seeing his men in danger York led out his main army in an attempt to rescue them.

The basic outline of the battle is largely the same in most sources. York led his men out of the castle and advanced towards the visible part of the Lancastrian army (Hall has him advance towards the main battle, commanded by Somerset). Once York was committed the other flanks of the Lancastrian army (one commanded by James Butler, earl of Wiltshire and one by Lord Clifford) attacked from both sides. York and his men were trapped. York was killed on the battlefield as was Sir Thomas Neville. Hall records that 2,800 Yorkists were killed, making this the first battle of the Wars of the Roses to see high casualties.

The Yorkist losses continued after the fighting was over. Edmund, earl of Rutland, attempted to escape north to Wakefield, but he was captured on Wakefield Bridge and killed by Lord Clifford, getting vengeance for the death of his father. The earl of Salisbury was captured late in the day, taken to Pontefract and executed on the day after the battle. The heads of York, Salisbury and Rutland were then put on poles on Mickelgate Bar at York. York himself was said to have been given a paper crown to mock his claims to the throne.

Aftermath

Although the battle of Wakefield was a disaster for the Yorkists they still had two armies in the field - Warwick's force in London and Edward of March on the Welsh borders. Events would soon prove that Edward and Warwick were actually better leaders than their fathers had been, although for the moment they were in a very vulnerable position.

Things were soon to get worse. At first March decided to head for London to join with Warwick, but he then learnt that Jasper Tudor, earl of Pembroke had landed in Pembrokeshire. March was forced to stop in the borders to deal with this threat, winning the first of his key victories at Mortimer's Cross on 2 February 1461.

In the meantime Queen Margaret and the Lancastrians were heading towards London. Warwick left the city and advanced slowly towards them, but he was caught out and defeated at the Second battle of St. Albans (17 February 1461). Henry VI, who had been present at the battle, was freed and reunited with his wife and son.

After this second victory the Lancastrians appeared to be triumphant. They dominated the north, they had regained control of the king and they were close to London. Edward of March was approaching from the west, and had united with Warwick, but they were still some way distant. A determined march on London now might have secured the Lancastrian victory. Instead they found themselves involved in slow negotiations with the mayor and alderman of the city, who were worried about reports that the Lancastrian army had looted towns on its march south. The Londoners refused to grant them access, and on 26 February Edward made his entry into the city.

At the start of March Edward made a much more successful move for the throne. He was acclaimed as King Edward IV, and after securing control of the city prepared to move north to face the Lancastrian army. The resulting battle of Towton (29 March 1461) was one of the costliest fought on English soil, and was a Yorkist victory that secured Edward's control of the country. Soon afterwards he held his coronation. There would still be fighting in this first phase of the Wars of the Roses, but Edward's grip on the throne wouldn’t be weakened until he fell out with Warwick. 

Books on the Middle Ages - Subject Index: War of the Roses

How to cite this article: Rickard, J. (22 November 2013), Battle of Wakefield, 30 December 1460, http://www.historyofwar.org/articles/battles_wakefield.html

Help - F.A.Q. - Contact Us - Search - Recent - About Us -  Subscribe in a reader - Join our Google Group - Cookies