York knew that Margaret, Somerset, and other loyal Lancastrians nobles had no intention of adhering to the accord and were willing to fight to restore the status quo. Within a matter of weeks, word reached London that a large Lancastrian force was assembling in Yorkshire. This was particularly unpalatable to York and Salisbury, who had substantial hereditary landholdings in the county. York’s first objective was to march north to reestablish control over his holdings in West Riding. Once that was done, he would, if necessary, fight the Lancastrians to ensure that the rebellion did not spread south. These were sound objectives, but York seemed to have little idea of the extent of the Lancastrian opposition or the size of its army, which seemed to grow larger with each passing day.
At some point before he set out for the North, York commissioned John Neville, Lord Neville, who was Salisbury’s cousin, to raise troops on York’s behalf to fight the Lancastrians in the North. York granted him permission to assemble all able-bodied men between the ages of 16 to 60 to fight the rebels. By combining whatever troops Neville might raise with those that York and Salisbury would gather on their march north, York hoped to face the Lancastrians with an equal number of men. Using the power granted him by York, Neville subsequently raised several thousand men.
The troubles York encountered raising troops in London and the surrounding area did not bode well for the upcoming campaign in the North. Not only was he substantially short on funds because of the large sums of money the crown owed him, but before shifting north he was compelled to dispatch his eldest son, the 18-year-old Earl of March, with a substantial force to Shrewsbury to block Pembroke from reinforcing the Lancastrian army in the North.
Departing from London
Before leaving London, York put together his will should he be murdered or fall in battle. While March blocked Pembroke on the Welsh border, Warwick remained in London to watch over Henry and defend the coast against any raids across the English Channel by the French. In addition to the forces he expected Neville to raise, York also planned to rely on a number of longtime supporters such as Richard Hanson, Edward Bourchier, and Henry Retford, as well as northern knights Thomas Parr, Thomas Harrington, and James Pickering.
York left London on December 9, accompanied by 60-year-old Salisbury and York’s second son, 17-year-old Edmund, Earl of Rutland. Between them, Salisbury and York began the expedition with fewer than 500 men. York planned to recruit the majority of his army on the way north, and therefore was not in a position to contest the advance of Somerset and Devon, who were en route to Yorkshire from the west country via Bath, Evesham, and Conventry. York also took with him guns from the royal arsenal in the Tower of London.
His army traveled along the Great North Road that passed just west of Cambridge and ran through Stamford and Newark. The men who joined his ranks were probably drawn from East Anglia, the Midlands, and Yorkshire. Altogether York and Salisbury were ultimately able to raise an army of between 5,000 to 6,000 men. It was a modest force for the time and sufficient to restore order in a region, but far short of what would be needed to win a set-piece battle against a well-organized and well-led foe. York and Somerset traveled separately in order to find places to camp more easily.
Arriving at Sandal Castle
By the fall of 1460, Yorkshire had fallen into a state of anarchy that allowed the Lancastrians to gain the upper hand. The Yorkists, lacking a strong northern champion, were on the defensive. In November, Northumberland, Clifford, and Roos held a council in the city of York, at which they agreed to kill or drive off the tenants of York and Salisbury in West Riding (the western portion of Yorkshire). At the same time, Northumberland and the other Lancastrian nobles in Yorkshire were actively recruiting an army to regain control of the crown for Margaret. The subsequent arrival in mid-November of Devon and Somerset, who had been joined by Exeter and Wiltshire on their march north, dramatically tipped the scales in the county in favor of the Lancastrians. The remarkable feat of fielding such a large army was testimony to the outrage felt by many common Englishmen toward the Act of Accord. When the Lancastrians from the south joined Northumberland’s already large army, the Lancastrians probably had more than 20,000 men under arms, ready to do battle with York.
York’s army marched north in dismal weather. The sky was bruised black and purple, and rain fell heavily on the soldiers. The Yorkists had to contend with streams and rivers in flood, with many bridges out. Worse still, enemy scouts shadowed their columns as they neared Yorkshire. At Worksop in Nottingham, the two sides clashed when York’s fore riders ran headlong into a mounted enemy troop led by Trollope. In the short but deadly clash that followed, Trollope’s men massacred York’s scouts, leaving his army without eyes and slowing its progress to a crawl.
York arrived in Sandal Castle on December 21. Although the march normally took less than a week, the miserable weather, the recruiting effort, and the artillery train stretched the trip considerably. Margaret had been so successful in mobilizing the Lancastrian nobles that York had no chance to substantially increase his manpower. He soon learned that most of his and Salisbury’s tenants in West Riding had been run off and their property burned and looted. The castle was a good defensive position at which York could wait for reinforcements from other areas. Lord Neville was thought to be operating in the area and might bring a considerable force, and at some point the Earl of March was expected to quit his blocking position at Shrewsbury and march to his father’s aid with a sizable force.
Holding for Reinforcements
The dilemma York faced was whether he had enough provisions to hold out until reinforcements arrived. The ranking Lancastrian in the area, Somerset, had established his base at Pontefract Castle, nine miles north of Sandal. Somerset had stationed his forces in the immediate vicinity of Sandal Castle to prohibit the Yorkists from obtaining supplies from the town of Wakefield and to block any reinforcements attempting to join York. For this reason, the keeper of the castle had been unable to collect sufficient provisions to feed York’s army. Lacking any artillery to conduct a siege, Somerset hoped to force York to quit the castle. The only good news was that York’s ally Edmund Fitzwilliam still held another stronghold, Conisburgh Castle, to the southeast. That position was nearly impregnable, as Fitzwilliam had improved its defenses considerably with Lancastrian artillery captured at Northampton.
Once he arrived at the castle, York set his men to work improving an already strong position. From his experience in France, York was well acquainted with the advantages of strong field fortifications. Without any artillery to conduct a formal siege, Somerset would be forced to wait for an opportunity to strike some or all of the Yorkist forces on open ground when they ventured away from the castle and outer works. Somerset’s plan was to strike the Yorkists from all sides if they ventured from the castle.
The town of Wakefield lay within view of Sandal Castle to the north, just beyond the Calder River. Somerset, Devon, and Northumberland were encamped on the south bank of the Calder, directly opposite the castle. Somerset and Devon were deployed east of the road from Sandal to Wakefield, while Northumberland was deployed on the west. Exeter and Trollope were positioned farther south of the Calder on the west side of the road, and Roos was farther south of the Calder on the east side of the road, hidden in a deep wood. To the south of Exeter and Trollope, and also on the west side of the road, Wiltshire was deployed. Clifford covered the village of Sandal Magna, just east of the castle.
The Duke of York’s Fatal Error
York and his men passed a dreary and somber Christmas at Sandal Castle. After the holiday, the duke had no choice but to send out foraging parties while he waited for reinforcements to arrive. Somerset and Devon waited as well for one of the parties to approach Wakefield in order to spring an ambush that might lure York out of his castle. They got their opportunity on the afternoon of December 30. Without the usual trumpet blasts that would signal an attack, the Lancastrians under Somerset and Devon formed up. Tramping south across open fields, they overtook the foraging party before it could escape. A desperate struggle ensued as the band of Yorkists fought for its survival.
As York watched the attack on the foraging party unfold, he observed another large force marching southwest toward the melee on the south side of the river. These men marched out quickly from behind a large tract of forest and joined the fight. York believed these men were reinforcements led by Lord Neville coming to his aid. York sallied forth at once in an attempt to unite with Neville and crush the Lancastrians. In a hastily convened council, Salisbury and the other captains advised against a sortie, but York was not intimidated by his enemy, thundering, “I think that I have there as many friends as enemies, which at joining will either flee or take my part. Therefore advance my banner in the name of God and St. George, for surely, I will fight with them, though I should fight alone.”
Orders were given to prepare for battle. But Neville, unknown to York, had aligned himself instead with the Lancastrians. Observing Neville’s force maneuver behind Somerset’s troops, York thought he was attacking the Lancastrians from the rear, when actually Neville was merging with the enemy.
York mustered his men and, accompanied by Rutland and Sir David Hall, his chief military adviser, led his troops away from the castle and onto the road toward Wakefield. He did not fully realize that Neville had switched sides until he drew closer to the action and observed them fighting alongside the other Lancastrians. Still confident in his ability to carry the day, York ordered his men into battle. Encouraged by the confidence of their leader, the Yorkists charged into battle and the enemy reeled under their onslaught.
“Like a Fish in a Net”
The battle did not favor the Yorkists for long. Those Lancastrian commanders not yet engaged waited patiently until York was exposed on level ground between the castle and the river before they advanced from hidden positions in the forest. Once York committed himself, Northumberland advanced and struck York’s left flank. Northumberland’s men soon joined the battle, and Roos emerged from the woods to the east of the road to strike York’s right flank. The Yorkists struggled to maintain their flanks as the battle quickly expanded. With casualties piling up, York’s line began to waver and his men gave up the ground that they had gained in their initial assault. York was now at least a half mile from the castle, and to retreat would mean complete disaster. His one hope was for Salisbury to gather the remaining troops at the castle and march to his assistance.
From the safety of the castle, Salisbury watched the disaster unfold before his eyes. Hastily assembling the few remaining troops who had stayed behind, Salisbury and his son, Thomas Neville, marched quickly off the hill where the castle was perched and across the flat ground to York’s assistance. About the same time that Salisbury reached the beleaguered Yorkists, the force led by Exeter and Trollope delivered a second hammer blow to York’s left flank. York’s presence on the front line with his men helped maintain their morale, and the addition of Salisbury’s small reserve enabled York to hold on for a short while in the face of overwhelming odds.
Realizing that his men were soon going to be completely surrounded, York somehow managed in the growing chaos to gather Rutland and his tutor, Sir Robert Aspall, and order them to try to make their way back to Wakefield and continue until they reached a safe haven. Spying Rutland and his tutor making their way toward Wakefield, Clifford took a handful of men and pursued them.
Within minutes of speaking his last words to his son, York and his men were attacked from behind by Clifford’s men advancing from Sandal Magna. An eyewitness described the outcome of the battle: “When [York] was in the plain ground between his castle and the town of Wakefield, he was environed on every side, like a fish in a net or a deer in a buckstall.” Assailed from all sides, York’s line crumbled. Those remaining alive fought in isolated pockets as the last of York’s force was crushed between the enemy like grain between millstones.
With no cohesive force left to lead, York threw himself into the melee. All around him men were dying. Disdaining to surrender, York took up his last position against a stand of three elm trees, where he fought gallantly until he was hacked to death. Once York was dead, all remaining resistance evaporated, and surviving Yorkists fled for their lives, discarding equipment and weapons that would slow their escape. Eager to settle scores that had festered over the past five years, the Lancastrians chased the defeated Yorkists and struck down a large number of them before they could get away. Other Lancastrian forces occupied Sandal Castle. The red rose had won the day.
Revenge of the House of Lancaster
The bodies of the dead were thrown into a large ditch next to the battlefield dug by the victors. That night a gentle snow fell on the battlefield where the dead were stacked together like cords of wood. The scene was recorded by a Yorkist soldier who survived the slaughter and was scouring the field for his slain father. “At midnight the kindly snow fell like a mantle on the dead and covered the battlefield with a blanket of white, which when it had finished gave no trace of what had gone before.”
The Lancastrians thirst for revenge was not quenched with the death of York. Clifford caught up with Rutland and Aspall on Wakefield Bridge. Despite the youth’s pleas from bended knee, Clifford was merciless. “By God’s blood, thy father slew mine, and I will do thee and all thy kin,” he said, thrusting his sword completely through the boy’s throat until it came out the back of his neck. Salisbury was captured and led off to Pontefract, where he was beheaded the following day. The heads of the three Yorkist nobles were then taken to the city of York and stuck on spikes atop Micklegate Bar, the gateway into the city. In a further gesture of contempt, the Lancastrians placed a paper crown atop Richard’s head to mock his claim to the throne.
The Yorkist army at Wakefield lost 3,000 men. Lancastrian losses were far fewer. The knights who fell fighting for York include Bourchier, Hall, Harrington, Parr, Pickering, Retford, and Salisbury’s son, Thomas Neville. The Lancastrians were able to bask in their victory for only a short time. After the beginning of the year, Margaret joined Somerset’s army in Yorkshire, bringing with her both Scottish and French mercenaries. By extensive pillaging on its march south, the large Lancastrian army alienated the population of the Midlands. To keep them out of London, Warwick fanned the flames by spreading propaganda about alleged atrocities committed by the mercenaries and claiming that they planned to sack the city.