The Battle of Wakefield – A Study in Contrasts

by: D. W. de Bogert

June 1994

In September 1460, Richard, Duke of York (father of Richard III) returned to England and arranged through Parliament an Act of Settlement which made York the heir to Henry VI’s throne. This provoked a massive buildup of Lancastrian forces in Yorkshire. In December, to meet this challenge, York, with a small force, march up to Sandal Castle near Wakefield. There he found himself outnumbered and with supply problems. On December 30, 1460, York, for unknown reasons, emerged from the castle with his men and was quickly overwhelmed and killed.

Trying to get beyond this basic account of the Battle of Wakefield poses problems, for this is an obscure battle which is difficult to understand. Exactly what happened in the battle? Why did York leave the safety of Sandal Castle? “Sources tell us virtually nothing about the battle itself,”1 writes Keith Dockray in the June 1992 edition of The Ricardian, and the various theories that do offer an explanation lead us into “controversial territory”.2

In gathering what information I could, I began to think of the Wakefield Campaign as a series of contrasts between the Yorkist and Lancastrian factions—contrasts in terms of the leadership, their age and style, the suitability of the Wakefield area, and the strategy used. Consider the differences of the following:

Yorkist Lancastrian
Who are the leaders?
Richard, Duke of York

Richard, Earl of Salisbury

notably the Duke of Somerset and Sir Andrew Trollope, also Northumberland, Clifford, Dacre
What are their ages?
All were in their late 40’s all were in their mid-twenties
Leadership style
a) traditional, overconfident, lacking in information a) “a new style of military leadership—devious, inventive and quick to exploit opportunities” 3
b) too trusting in agreements, such as the Christmas truce arranged between York and Somerset b) prepared to break agreements such as the Christmas truce
c) lacking perhaps in what some might call a “killer instinct” c) had a “score to settle” as each of their fathers had been killed at St. Albans
Suitability of the Wakefield Area (re: supplies, manpower and transportation)
a) York is not in a friendly area—he is too near Percy territory. Nottingham, father south, is suggested by Dockray as a better place for York. a) the Lancastrians can expect full cooperation from Percy (Earl of Northumberland) re: supplies and transportation (see map A)
b) York has supply problems and needs to send out foraging parties b) the Lancastrians do not have supply problems
c) York is vastly outnumbered c) the Lancastrians enjoy a massive manpower advantage
d) Difficult transportation—York, in marching north: “had to contend with widespread flooding, waterlogged roads and broken bridges”4 d) Easier transportation: the Lancastrians gathered earlier at Hull, which “was chosen because of the opportunities it provided for victualling an army by river and sea” 5 Again, the whole area around Hull is Percy-controlled.
Strategy at Wakefield
a) Incorrect—above all else York should have stayed inside Sandal Castle and waited for his son, the Earl of March, to join him. a) the Lancastrians “appear to have used a number of methods of deception” 6 designed to draw York out of Sandal Castle. Time was not on the side of the Lancastrians.
b) York was too confident in the Christmas truce holding. b) one method of deception may have been deliberately breaking the Christmas truce
C) York sent too many men out on foraging parties. c) another method of deception may have been to deliberately harass these foraging parties so as to provoke York, and cause supply shortages.

From reading Dockray’s article, I would suggest three theories to explain what happened at the battle and why York left the castle. All the theories imply a “method of deception” or “deviousness” on the part of the Lancastrian leadership.

The most common theory is the “Jean de Waurin theory”, which briefly states that a force of Lancastrians appears near the castle on December 29 and 30. They are wearing the badge of the Earl of Warwick to deceive the Yorkist. York is drawn out of the castle because, (a) he thinks they are a friendly force and goes to greet them, or (b) he is enraged by the attempted deception and goes to attack them. Once outside the castle, he is attacked on three sides by the Lancastrians (see map B).

Keith Dockray is quite dubious of this theory. The Burgundian chronicler, Jean de Waurin, is quite unreliable, and Dockray doubts that the Earl of Salisbury (Warwick’s father) would be deceived by Lancastrians wearing his son’s badge. However, Anthony Goodman and David Smurthwaite are two writers who give credence to this interpretation of events.

Personally, I like the theory of A.D. Leadman, who suggested that a Yorkist foraging party ventured too near the Lancastrians and was chased back to the castle. “After this episode, the Lancastrians advanced upon the castle, and so very carefully did their leaders arrange their troops that the greater portion of them lay in ambush. Vexed at want of success on the part of his foragers, and hunger staring him in the face, York decided to give battle to the pursuers.” 7

Leadman’s account (to me anyway) seems convincing, but again Dockray in The Ricardian, is dubious. “Leadman once more stretches the very limited evidence beyond credibility.” 8

Finally, there is the simpler “bad faith” theory. In this, the Lancastrians deliberately broke the terms of the Christmas truce when they saw an opportunity. “The Registers of Abbot Whethamstede of St. Alban’s conveys such an impression: its author believed the northerners attacked in bad faith…when they realised the southerners were out foraging without having taken proper precautions in the event of an attack.”9

The facts that Wakefield was a fifteenth century battle, fought in the north of England, and a Yorkist defeat, all conspire to it poorly documented. For 25 years afterwards, the Yorkists had the opportunity to chronicle the battle of Wakefield—but very likely they simply regarded it as a disaster and preferred to remember Yorkist victories at Towton, Barnet and Tewkesbury.

The battle of Wakefield altered Yorkist leadership completely. Replacing the Duke of York and Earl of Salisbury were now the 19-year-old Earl of March (soon to be Edward IV) and the Earl of Warwick.

At the battle of Towton, the Lancastrian leadership was almost completely destroyed. “The Earl of Northumberland was carried off the field badly wounded, only to die the next day; Lords Dacre, Clifford…were killed and among the knights to perish [was] Sir Andrew Trollope.”10 The Duke of Somerset was forced to flee with Queen Margaret of Anjou.

In just three months after Wakefield, the Yorkists has obtained their revenge.


  1. Keith Dockray, “The Battle of Wakefield and the Wars of the Roses”, The Ricardian, June 1992, p. 247.
  2. Ibid, p. 246
  3. Anthony Goodman, The Wars of the Roses, p. 43.
  4. Dockray, p. 244.
  5. Ibid, p. 253.
  6. David Smurthwaite, The Ordnance Survey Complete Guide to the Battlefields of Britain, Webb & Bower, 1987, p. 104.
  7. A.D. Leadman, “The Battle of Wakefield”, Battles Fought in Yorkshire, pp. 86-7 (Taken from The Ricardian, June 1992, p.255).
  8. Dockray, p. 255.
  9. Ibid,. p. 246.
  10. William Seymour, Battles in Britain and Their Political Background, p. 149.