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Come walk with me at Sandal Castle

If you’re anything like me, you probably take for granted the place you grew up. Everything is so familiar that you just stop being curious about it. When you were younger you couldn’t wait to escape to somewhere more glamorous. Well, the phrase familiarity breeds contempt dates back to the works of Chaucer in 1386, so I’m not the first!

In 2020 I’ve been spending a bit more time in Wakefield with my family and friends, as and when coronavirus restrictions have allowed. It’s that kind of year isn’t it? We’ve realised the things that are most important to us. And as it’s 200 miles from Maidenhead to West Yorkshire, a rather dull 3 hour drive mostly on motorways, I may as well do some exploring while I’m here and make the most of it. Maybe I’ll even write a blog…

Today I’m visiting Sandal Castle for the first time in about 35 years. It’s just a ruin, but it has some pretty enthralling history. It’s just a couple of miles from where I grew up, and my Mum, AKA the fount of all local knowledge, is coming with me to make sure I don’t miss anything important!

Sandal Castle was built in the 12th century by the Warenne family, the Earls of Surrey, and passed down through the family for 250 years. The name of the 5th Earl appears on the Magna Carta in support of King John so this was a prominent family. What started out as a simple timber structure was eventually a forbidding stone edifice. In the 14th century the Warenne name died out and the castle became the property of King Edward III, who gave it to his son Edmund, the 1st Duke of York. But it’s in the 15th century that things get really exciting.

When I first mention visiting Sandal Castle, Mum immediately starts jigging about and singing an old nursery rhyme, I think, oh dear, she’s finally lost the plot! But, as is often the case, the words we were taught to chant in childhood were based on historical events. Oh, the Grand Old Duke of York, he had ten thousand men, he marched them up to the top of the hill and he marched them down again – the rhyme was inspired by what happened here in Sandal in 1460.

The Duke in question was Richard Plantagenet, 3rd Duke of York, who owned Sandal Castle. Richard was cousin to King Henry VI, also Duke of Lancaster. When Henry began to show signs of mental illness in 1455, Richard decided that the throne should pass to him. Naturally, the King’s wife and supporters did not agree. Civil War broke out in England, known as the Wars of the Roses due to the heraldic badges of each royal house – a red rose for Lancaster and a white rose for Yorkshire. As with all civil wars, families and neighbours were set against each other according to their loyalties, and it all got very nasty.

I don’t know about you, but when I studied history at school it was Chinese medicine and coal mining. Not the most exciting of subjects, and quite inexplicable choices when you consider all the amazing stuff they could have taught us. The Wars of the Roses would have had much more relevance. You may think this is all ancient history, but if so you’re obviously not from the North of England. The age-old rivalry between the counties of Yorkshire and Lancashire is still very much in evidence. Think Pulp (from Sheffield) versus Oasis (from Manchester). The Roses Match is still played by Yorkshire and Lancashire cricket teams.

So back to December 1460. Richard has King Henry as his prisoner in London, and rules England as Lord Protector and heir to the throne but Lancastrians rebels are massing in the north, and are particularly troublesome in Pontefract. Richard marches his forces to Yorkshire to deal with them. Safely ensconced on a hilltop in his castle at Sandal, with views across the surrounding countryside, he contemplates his next move.

Even my old friend Shakespeare was enthralled by the intrigue and in-fighting of the Wars of the Roses, and no less than four of his plays deal with the story of the Plantagenet family conflict. In Henry VI Part 3 Richard is shown here at Sandal Castle with his brother and sons, debating what to do next. The ruins of the Great Hall still stand, and the play is sometimes performed here. I need to come and see it, if it ever happens again.

Walking around this site, I’m really amazed by how far you can see, even on a rather grey October day. Right across Wakefield in one direction and as far as Emley Moor Tower in the other. It’s a great spot for keeping your eye on nearby enemies, so why did Richard leave? Shakespeare suggests that the Lancastrians were about to attack the castle, so he had no choice but to sally forth, despite being outnumbered four to one. But there’s no evidence that this was the case.

No-one really knows why Richard decided to leave the security of his vantage point and march his forces down the hill towards Wakefield on 30 December 1460. Contrary to the nursery rhyme, he didn’t have 10,000 men, but perhaps only 8,000 or even fewer, so he was certainly outnumbered by the Lancastrian army of 15,000 or more. Maybe it was treachery in his own camp? Maybe he thought reinforcements were coming? Perhaps the castle had run out of provisions? It’s a mystery, but the Battle of Wakefield was about to take place.

What we do know is that the Yorkist forces followed the route of today’s Manygates Lane and met with their enemies on the site of Castle Grove Park. Mum and I follow the same route downhill. All is peaceful, with hardly a soul around. It’s almost impossible to imagine the scene back then with thousands of soldiers pouring along this route. How did they feel? I know the day ends in blood and disaster but maybe they thought they could win. Richard Of York Gave Battle In Vain is the mnemonic we use to remember the colours of the rainbow – it doesn’t bode well does it?

Richard’s forces were crushed by the Lancastrians. Richard himself was killed along with an estimated 2,500 of his men. According to Shakespeare, Henry’s wife Margaret stabs him herself, but the Bard never lets truth get in the way of a good story – she was probably far away. Richard’s eldest son escaped the battleground but was caught and executed on the Chantry Bridge near Wakefield. The Yorkist leaders were decapitated and their heads displayed over the Micklegate Bar in the city of York with a sign stating Let York overlook the town of York. Richard was given a paper crown to wear, to ridicule his ambitions. Things were a bit grisly back then.

A memorial on Manygates Lane states that Richard died fighting for the cause of the White Rose. In 1897 someone felt strongly enough about the Yorkist cause to put up a statue. In 2020 there’s a ‘friendly’ rivalry around anything from sport (Leeds Utd – white kit, Manchester Utd – red kit) to who serves up the best fish and chips or who gets the worst weather. It’s always raining on the other side of the Pennines, you know. The past is with us still, make no mistake.

1460 is not the end of the story for the York / Lancaster conflict – as Mum gleefully points out, the Yorkist forces led by Richard’s son Edward trounced the Lancastrians at the Battle of Towton in 1461. It was the bloodiest battle ever fought on English soil, with up to 30,000 casualties in mostly hand-to-hand combat. The Yorkist Edward IV took the throne. As I told you, this story is still taken very personally today by ordinary Yorkshire folk. Mum is not normally quite so vindictive.

To finish off today, I’ll just say, look a bit closer at the places you take for granted, ask questions, and you could end up learning something fascinating about where you come from. And maybe make your mother happy too!


Published by stephpeech

So much world, so little time...

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