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Wars of the Roses: Battle of Wakefield

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Battle of Wakefield - Conflict & Dates:

The Battle of Wakefield was fought December 30, 1460, during the Wars of the Roses (1455-1485).

Armies & Commanders:

Lancastrians

  • Duke of Somerset
  • Earl of Northumberland
  • Lord Clifford
  • as high as 18,000 men

Yorkist

  • Duke of York
  • Earl of Salisbury
  • Earl of Rutland
  • as high as 9,000

Battle of Wakefield - Background:

In the wake of the their defeat at the Battle of Ludford Bridge in October 1459, the leader of the Yorkist cause, Richard, Duke of York, fled to Ireland. Several of his commanders including the Earl of Salisbury and his son, the Earl of Warwick, escaped to Calais. There they were joined by York's son Edward, Earl of March. Despite Lancastrian efforts to assert their control over Calais and Ireland, they were unable to do so due to the strong Yorkist presence. In 1460, Warwick re-crossed the Channel and quickly raised an army to confront King Henry VI.

Advancing through London, he met the Lancastrian army on July 10 at the Battle of Northampton. Crushing the enemy, Warwick captured the Henry. With the deranged king imprisoned in London, York landed in northern Wales and rode to the capital. Attempting to claim the throne, he was blocked by the House of Lords. Unwilling to crown him king, they passed the Act of Accord which stated that Henry would remain king, but that York's children would inherit the throne. In lieu of the crown, York was made Lord Protector with powers to govern as the king's intermittent insanity prevented him from ruling.

Battle of Wakefield - Moving to Battle:

While events were unfolding in London, Henry's wife, Queen Margaret, worked to rally the Lancastrians. Retreating to Harlech Castle in Wales, she worked with loyal nobles to raise a new army. Similar efforts were moving forward in the north of England under the guidance of Lords Clifford and Ros. Mustering at Kingston upon Hull, the Lancastrian army may have numbered around 15,000. Taking action, these troops soon encamped at Pontefract and began attacking estates belonging to York and Salisbury. With the Lancastrians threatening his power as Lord Protector, York began military preparations.

Dispatching the Earl of March to the Welsh Marches to contain enemy forces there, he left Warwick at London and moved north with around 9,000 men. Accompanied by his younger son, the Earl of Rutland, and Salisbury, York departed on December 9. After a skirmish with Lancastrian forces at Worksop on December 16, York reached his fortress at Sandal Castle, near Wakefield, five days later. Having occupied this commanding position, he sent scouts to Lancastrian camp nine miles away at Pontefract. These scouts were turned back, leading York to request additional men from his son on the Welsh border.

Battle of Wakefield - Armies Clash:

Entrenched in his fortifications to await aid, York was aware that multiple Lancastrian forces were operating in the area. For reasons that are not clear, York sortied from the protection of Sandal Castle on December 30. Possible explanations for this action include a rescue attempt for a foraging party that was under attack or a Lancastrian ruse which led York to believe that he had numerical superiority. In the latter case, it is thought that part of the Lancastrian army, led by the Duke of Somerset and Lord Clifford, advanced in the open across Wakefield Green, while the remainder hid in nearby woods.

Regardless of his motivation, York's forces emerged from the gate on the south side of the castle. Marching around the castle to deal with the visible Lancastrians who were approaching from the north, the Yorkists were soon attacked in the flank and rear. Quickly surrounded, the Yorkists were overwhelmed and destroyed. In the fighting, York was unhorsed and killed. Rutland attempted to escape over Wakefield Bridge but was cut down. The battle lost, Salisbury managed to depart the field, but was caught that night and executed in the Lancastrian camp.

Battle of Wakefield - Aftermath:

Precise casualties for the Battle of Wakefield are not known with certainty, but sources suggest that the Lancastrians lost around 200 men, while the Yorkists incurred 700 to 2,500 dead. In the wake of the battle, the heads of York, Salisbury, and Rutland were placed on pikes overlooking the western gate of York. Though a decisive Lancastrian victory, Wakefield failed to end the dynastic conflict. Fighting continued for another twenty-seven years with the final actions coming at Bosworth Field and Stoke Field in 1485 and 1487.

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