1460 saw some dramatic fluctuations in the fortunes of the house of York. At its beginning the Yorkist lords were in exile and their estates confiscated; in the summer their victory at the battle of Northampton gave them control of the hapless King; and, by the Act of Accord made in the October Parliament, the duke of York was adopted as heir to the throne. Yet their position remained insecure. Powerful Lancastrian lords, headed by Queen Margaret, a force to be reckoned with in a way that her husband was not (or as the contemporary ‘Gregory’s Chronicle’ put it, ‘more wyttyer then the kynge’), remained determinedly unreconciled to the new dispensation. That insecurity mounted as, with striking speed, the Lancastrians gathered their forces in the north. York seems to have underestimated the threat. He had no choice but to meet it yet, in doing so, he gave preference to haste over thoroughness.
He and his ally, Richard Neville, earl of Salisbury, left London in early December, a few days after Parliament had been prorogued, taking with them only a small force. Although they gathered further troops as they marched north, when they reached York’s castle of Sandal near Wakefield on 21 December they had a much smaller army than the Lancastrians. The problem of supply added to their difficulties. Sandal castle had not been well enough provisioned to withstand a siege, and thus the Yorkists did not have the option of awaiting reinforcements from the south. York had, in short, put himself in the unenviable position of having to give battle when hopelessly outnumbered.
The circumstances in which that battle was joined are uncertain. One account claims duplicity on the Lancastrian side: the Yorkists left the security of the castle to gather provisions in the belief that they were protected by a Christmas truce. Another claims that York, either recklessly or in desperation, sallied forth from the castle to give battle, probably with the hope of escaping south. Whatever the case, the result was the same. The Yorkists were routed with ‘Gregory’s Chronicle’ putting their losses at 2,500 against the Lancastrian at 200. York’s own end was ignominious: according to the contemporary monastic chronicler, Abbot Whethamstead of St. Albans, he was taken alive and, as a prelude to his beheading, was crowned with a paper crown and mocked by the Lancastrian soldiery.
Beyond the chronicle accounts, formal government records give an occasional glimpse of the events of the battle. Two relevant cases came before the court of King’s bench. The most interesting of these concerns the death of the earl of Salisbury. In the most circumstantial of the chronicle accounts, he was captured at the battle and brought to the castle of Pontefract, a few miles away, by one of the Lancastrian commanders, Henry Beaufort, duke of Somerset. Beaufort was ready to ransom him ‘for a grete sum’ but ‘the commune peple of the cuntre, whyche loued hym nat, tooke hym owte of the castelle by violence and smote of his hed’.
A later legal action, however, shows his death had a different cause. His widow sued a common-law appeal of murder against Sir William Plumpton and other retainers of Henry Percy, earl of Northumberland. Percy’s father had been killed on the Lancastrian side at the first battle of St. Albans in May 1455 and it is probable that Salisbury’s execution was revenge for this earlier death. More bizarre was an action brought by the duke of York’s servant, Thomas Colt. He claimed that Roger Thorpe, son of Thomas Thorpe, Speaker in the Parliament of 1453, had chosen the battle as the opportunity to avenge himself for the part he thought Colt had taken in his father’s arrest and imprisonment in 1454. The bill follows the conventional legal language of such petitions, only the numbers it cites were a departure from the norm. Colt claimed that, on the day before the battle, his adversary had collected 20,000 malefactors (interestingly, this corresponds with the estimate of the size of the Lancastrian army in one well-informed chronicle) arrayed in warlike manner and lay in wait to murder him at Wakefield, where he beat and wounded him. Clearly this was not a literal description of events, although there is no reason to doubt a personal clash between the two men.
Another vignette of the battle and its aftermath comes in a petition presented to Edward IV in 1467 by a former Carlisle MP, the elderly Thomas Derwent. A long-standing servant of the earl of Salisbury and a veteran of earlier battles, he found himself once more in the earl’s ranks at what he described as the ‘male iournay’ of Wakefield. He was captured and imprisoned in Skipton castle, the stronghold of the notoriously violent Lancastrian, John, Lord Clifford (accused by one chronicler of murdering the duke of York’s second son, the earl of Rutland, at the battle). Unlike his master, he was ransomed for £20, a heavy sum for a man of his modest rank, but his troubles were not over. While travelling north to his home in Carlisle, he was captured by another leading Lancastrian, Humphrey Dacre, and taken to the Dacre castle of Kirkoswald (near Penrith). Dacre reacted unfavourably to the discovery in his captive’s possession of a pedigree justifying the Yorkist title to the throne. Fortunately for Derwent, however, Dacre did not make good his threats to kill him and contented himself with depriving him of his remaining £22.
The defeat at the battle of Wakefield should, on the face of it, have been a decisive reverse for the Yorkists. There were, however, reasons why it was not. First, the Yorkist cause was strengthened by the deaths of York and Salisbury for it brought its leadership into the more effective hands of the duke’s eldest son, the earl of March, and Salisbury’s son, the earl of Warwick. Second, in raising an army to oppose the Act of Accord, the Lancastrians had broken that agreement and so cleared the way for the earl of March to claim the throne in Henry VI’s lifetime. Third, the brutality of the Lancastrians, exemplified in the executions of York and Salisbury after they had been taken alive, served to alienate the uncommitted. That brutality also had another consequence, bringing into being the unhappy convention that important captives would not be spared if taken in battle. The Yorkists executed the King’s stepfather, Owen Tudor, widower of Queen Katherine, after the battle of Mortimer’s Cross; the Lancastrians, William, Lord Bonville, and Sir Thomas Kyriel, after the second battle of St. Albans; and the Yorkists, the earls of Devon and Wiltshire after Towton.
Biographies of William, Lord Bonville, Thomas Colt, Thomas Derwent, Sir Thomas Kyriel, Sir William Plumpton, Roger and Thomas Thorpe can be found in The History of Parliament: The Commons, 1422-60, ed. Linda Clark.
K. Dockray and R. Knowles, ‘The Battle of Wakefield’, The Ricardian, ix (1991-4), 238-65.