The annual commemoration of the death of the Duke of York in 1460.

The Richard III Society Yorkshire Branch holds a small memorial service to remember those killed in the Battle of Wakefield each year on it’s anniversary.

It was a cold, damp and grey Saturday, the weather typical of England in the middle of winter, when I gathered with other members of the Yorkshire branch of the Richard III Society to remember those killed during Battle of Wakefield, in particularly Richard, third Duke of York (and, some would argue, King by Right) and his son Edmund Rutland.

One can only imagine what it must have been like 563 years previous when, on December 30th 1460, Richard sortied from Sandal Castle barely 500m away. He was, some say, riding to the aid of foragers in the wilds around the castle who had encountered attacks from Lancastrians forces arrayed in the area. Castles were not renowned for the degree of comfort we expect of the modern world, and heading out into what was probably an equally grey and miserable day as the one we ventured out into, the Duke and his forces must have yearned for a quick return to the comparative warmth of the castle hearth.


But it was not to be.

Lancastrian forces had advanced towards the castle on several different fronts. Lord Clifford and the Duke of Somerset brought pretty much half the northern Lancastrian army across Wakefield Green, possibly feigning desertion in an attempt to lure York from the castle, while others under Lord Ros and the Earl of Wiltshire hid in the woodland surrounding the area.

At the root of their grievance was the long standing enmity between Richard and rival Edmund Beaufort, the Duke of Somerset. From ancient grudge broke new mutiny  in 1455 after much to and fro between the respective parties, and the subsequent deaths of Somerset and many other Lancastrian nobles at the hands of Yorkist forces sowed seeds of vengeance that sprung from the ground mid-winter in 1460.

Things can’t have been helped by the Duke of York’s claim to the English Crown, a claim that had been confirmed by the House of Lords with an Act of Accord in October that year. Instead of Henry VI’s young son, Edward Prince of Wales, succeeding his father, Richard would supplant him as king on Henry’s death and the House of York would replace the House of Lancaster on the throne.

It was against this backdrop that Lancastrian armies had gathered in the north. Richard had already sent his eldest son Edward Earl of March to Wales to suppress an uprising in his lands there, while he journeyed to north to deal with matters. Possibly deceived by the feigning deserters from the armies of Lords Trollope and Neville, he may have left the castle believing he had a stronger force than he actually had. Chroniclers number his army anywhere between a few hundred and nine thousand, but it is possible that the larger number includes those who claimed to have joined his cause only to turn on him when surrounded on Wakefield Green.

The Yorkists marched out of Sandal Castle down the present-day Manygates Lane towards the Lancastrians located to the north. As York engaged the Lancastrians to his front, others attacked him from the flank and rear, cutting him off from the castle. Detailed sources of the battle are few and far between. Most of the Lancastrians who were there and then in a position to write the history of the event were killed in subsequent battles.

Some later works support the folklore that he suffered a crippling wound to the knee and was unhorsed, and he and his closest followers then fought to the death at that spot1.  

Others say that he was taken prisoner by Sir James Luttrell of Devonshire, mocked by his captors and beheaded2.

Either way

… when he 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; so that he manfully fighting was within half an hour slain and dead, and his whole army discomfited3 – Edward Hall, Chronicler.

Richard’s seventeen year old son, Edmund, was urged to flee by his tutor Robert Aspell but only made it as far as Wakefield Bridge. Captured by the vengeful Lord Clifford, who’s father had been killed at the First Battle of Saint Albans in 1455, his identity remained unknown for a while until the hapless Aspell revealed it while the lad was being interrogated about his fine armour4.

This was an impolitic appeal, for it denoted hopes of the House of York being again in the ascendant, which the Lancastrians, flushed with recent victory, regarded as impossible. The ruthless noble swore a solemn oath: “Thy father”, said he, “slew mine; and so will I do thee and all thy kin;” and with these words he rushed on the hapless youth, and drove his dagger to the hilt in his heart. Thus fell, at the early age of seventeen, Edmund Plantagenet, Earl of Rutland, Lord Chancellor of Ireland5. – O’Flanaghan, The Lives of The Chancellors of Ireland

In a great affront to the chivalry of the age, Richard and Edmund’s bodies, along with that on Salisbury, were posthumously beheaded and displayed on spikes on Micklegate Bar in York, the Duke wearing a paper crown and a sign saying “Let York overlook the town of York”. Room was deliberately left between the three heads for those of Edward, Earl of March (now Duke of York) and the Earl of Warwick.

But the arrogance of the Lancastrians was soon undone.

Although they had success against Warwick’s army at the Second Battle of St Albans, the residents of London refused them entry and within ten weeks of the calamity at Wakefield Edward of March was being proclaimed King Edward IV.

The purported site of Richard’s death is marked by a Victorian monument on Manygates Lane, set up by subscription in 1897. It was organised by local Wakefield historian J W Walker who had already undertaken the first excavations at Sandal Castle in 1893, which established the approximate layout of the castle. Walker believed that he had found the foundations of the original monument to Richard at the place where he erected a new monument designed by Gerald Horsley.

Although Edward IV is said to have created a monument to his father on the spot where he died, there is no record of what it looked like. It was mentioned by William Camden in the late 16th century in Britannia, his survey of the antiquities of Britain but destroyed by Parliamentary soldiers during the Civil War in the 1640s. The site was later said to be marked by three or four willow trees, but by 1865 only two remained.

If the place has been accurately remembered over the centuries, then the most surprising thing about the site of Richard’s death is how close it is to Sandal Castle. It lies only a few hundred meters from the castle gatehouse.

The Yorkshire Branch of the Richard III Society holds a small commemoration every year on the anniversary of the Battle of Wakefield, December 30th, and a contemporary Latin Mass at the Chantry Chapel of St Mary The Virgin on Wakefield Bridge. You can find out more about the York Ricardians here.

1 – Sadler, John (2011). Towton: The Battle of Palm Sunday Field 1461. Pen & Sword Military. ISBN 978-1-84415-965-9.
2 – Jones, Dan (2014). The Hollow Crown: The Wars of the Roses and the Rise of the Tudors. Faber & Faber. ISBN 9780571288090.
3 – Dockray, Keith; Knowles, Richard (1992). “The Battle of Wakefield” (PDF). Richard III Society. Retrieved 30 June 2009.
4 – O’Flanaghan, James Roderick (1870). “The Lives of the Chancellors of Ireland”
5 – Ibid.