Battle of Wakefield: How city played host to the bloodiest battle of the War of the Roses and inspired a popular nursery rhyme

The Battle of Wakefield is one of the bloodiest chapters in the city's history, and the scene of an estimated 3,000 deaths - but is perhaps best remembered as the inspiration for a popular children's nursery rhyme.

Wednesday, 30th December 2020, 4:41 pm

In December 1460, trouble was brewing in Wakefield.

Richard, Duke of York, the disputed King of England, had assembled an army of 5,000 men at Sandal Castle, ready to fight for his claim to the throne.

But just nine miles away, assembled at their base at Pontefract Castle, were the Lancastrian forces. Under the command of Margaret of Anjou, the wife of King Henry VI, they numbered an estimated 15,000.

The Battle of Wakefield is one of the bloodiest chapters in the city's history, and the scene of an estimated 3,000 deaths - but is perhaps best remembered as the inspiration for a popular children's nursery rhyme. Pictured is the memorial march in 2012.

Richard was waiting for his oldest son, Edward, to arrive with reinforcements, but, for reasons unknown, engaged in battle before they arrived.

On December 30, 1460, in near blizzard conditions, the forces went to battle.

It is estimated that as many as 3,000 men were killed in the battle, with Richard's forces, the Yorkists, accounting for most of the casualties.

As the battle drew on, Richard was killed, along with his younger son Edmund, who was beheaded close to Chantry Bridge as he attempted to flee the scene.

Today marks the 560th anniversary of the battle, which was fought at Sandal Castle in near blizzard conditions. Photo: Keith Souter

On the order of Margaret of Anjou, both men's heads were displayed on poles at Mickelgate, in York, and Richard's adorned with a paper crown.

Dr Keith Souter, chairman of the Friends of Sandal Castle, said it remains unclear why Richard chose to engage in battle when he was outnumbered.

He said: "No one knows why he left the castle. Whether they were running out of food or he just wanted to get rid of people once and for all.

"We don't know whether he was betrayed on the battlefield. But I think he would have been better staying put.

Queen Margaret placing a paper crown on the head of the Duke of York. Photo: Photo by The Print Collector/Print Collector/Getty Images

"Richard actually had a very good claim to the throne and some months before he was in London and put his hand on the throne.

"But they passed the Act of Accord in October 1460, which ruled that Henry VI would remain king for the duration of his life but after he died the throne would pass to the descendants of the Duke of York.

"Henry VI's wife, Margaret of Anjou, initiated the Battle of Wakefield where the Duke of York and his youngest son perished.

"Henry VI himself was not on the battlefield, it was his wife Margaret of Anjou. He was quite a passive and gentle chap, he wasn't really suited for Kingship."

While the details of the battle are not common knowledge, Richard’s poor military skills shown on the day are rumoured to be one of the inspirations for the popular nursery rhyme The Grand Old Duke of York.

In recent years, the anniversary of the battle has been marked with a parade from Wakefield Cathedral to Sandal Castle, led by the Bishop of Wakefield, and a reenactment of the battle staged at the castle ruins.

In addition, wreaths are laid at the castle, and at a memorial to Richard which is located on Manygates Lane, Sandal.

But the pandemic meant these plans had to be shelved.

Dr Souter said: "The purpose of the memorial march is to commemorate the battle, but also to pay our respects to all those who died in the battle and all battles and conflicts.

"Unfortunately, after discussions with Wakefield Council, due to the pandemic restrictions we regret that this will not be possible this year."

Instead of their usual march, the Friends of Sandal Castle have marked the occasion by sharing photos and stories of the battle and previous marches online, including extracts of Shakespeare’s Henry VI, which are set in Wakefield before and after the battle.

It is hoped that the memorial march will return next year.

Visit the Friends of Sandal Castle on Facebook for more information and to keep up to date with the castle.