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Yorkshire's Castles: Sandal Castle

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Sandal Castle in Wakefield.

Sandal Castle is the all-but-destroyed remains of a motte-and-bailey castle just outside Wakefield in West Yorkshire. At first glance there is little of the castle remaining - just a few jagged walls of stone on the bailey that do not appear to resemble anything, and the strong base of the inner barbican's twin towers and gate in the Motte's ditch. Yet despite this, Sandal Castle is a fascinating castle and the scene of one of the first battles of the Wars Of The Roses, the Battle of Wakefield.

The Bailey

The castle is in many ways a typical motte-and-bailey castle consisting of a D-shaped bailey east of a motte. The bailey, protected by a wide, deep moat, is 90 metres across and originally had a three-metre-thick curtain wall, none of which survives. It had a gatehouse tower on the north side where a drawbridge over the moat would give access to the castle. It is believed that turrets projected along the length of the curtain wall at regular intervals.

The bailey contained three main buildings, one of which was the Great Hall, which had its own Presence Chamber. This would have been entered via an external staircase from the courtyard. The other two buildings are Great Chamber and Privy Chamber. All three were stone and would have comprised two storeys. There were also service buildings, such as the square kitchen, larder, etc and the bailey also contained a 40-feet-deep well.

The Inner Barbican

The most unusual feature of Sandal Castle is the inner barbican. This defended the ditch between the bailey and keep on the motte. The barbican was a D-shaped 13-metre-wide tower in the middle of the motte's deep ditch. Entry to it was by a drawbridge near the Outer Bailey's gatehouse; the drawbridge was further protected by a strong door and portcullis. From here a passage led passed a right-angled corner to the right, giving natural advantage to the defender and preventing a battering ram from being used. The visitor would then pass another portcullis and gate before a drawbridge gave access to the keep's outer defences.

The barbican was built in the 1270s and contained accommodation chambers on the first floor, complete with latrine and sallyport. The barbican was designed to be able to be held independently even if the bailey had been captured.

The Keep

After passing through the barbican and crossing to the motte, a visitor would first come into contact with the defended stair that led up to the keep on the top of the motte. This was protected by its own gatehouse consisting of two strong round drum twin towers, the impressive bases of which still survive. These housed a further portcullis and door and flanked a passage that led up to the keep. The passage was open-topped and surrounded by high walls flanked by wall walks from which defenders could drop oil, stones or pour oil over any attacker.

The keep itself was initially of a simple circular shell keep design, that is, a round curtain wall on the motte's summit, with four circular towers to defend the keep's 'corners'. Two of the towers doubled as the keep's gatehouse, flanking the passageway from the barbican. The keep's walls were three metres thick with the keep's diameter 19 metres across. The towers were eight metres in diameter and four storeys tall, containing store-rooms, prisons and chambers.

The tower on the north side housed the keep's well in its ground floor. This tower was later rebuilt by King Richard III. The well tower was rebuilt as an octagonal tower that was designed to be able to be held even if the rest of the keep had fallen.


The construction of Sandal Castle was begun around 1110 in the reign of Henry I when the first wooden motte-and-bailey castle was begun. Henry I had granted the manor of Wakefield to William de Warenne, 2nd Earl of Surrey, in 1107, although the stone castle was not constructed until the 1180s.

William de Warenne, who had also inherited nearby Conisbrough Castle, held the castle until his death in 1138. On his death his son, another William, inherited the castle. In 1146 he suffered disgrace by fleeing from the Battle of Lincoln during the chaos of the Civil War between King Stephen and Empress Matilda when Stephen was captured.

William left England to join the Second Crusade to the Holy Land and never returned, dying in 1148.

Isabel de Warenne and Hameline Plantagenet

His estates were inherited by his daughter Isabel, who in 1149 was married to the son of King Stephen, Prince William de Blois, Count of Mortain and Boulogne, Earl of Surrey. At the time of his marriage to Isabel, William was only nine years old, and was nineteen on his death in 1159, when he died without heir.

On the death of William de Blois, both his estates in Normandy and the estates belonging to the Earls of Sussex were now the possessions of Isabel. As these estates were quite extensive, Isabel became a ward of King Henry II, son of Empress Matilda. As Isabel's lands were very extensive and not wishing to enhance the power of any of England's powerful families, Henry married Isabel to his half-brother Hamelin Plantagenet, a bastard son of Geoffrey Plantagenet, in 1165.

Hameline adopted Isabel's coat of arms and it is believed that he was responsible for beginning the construction of the stone castle. Hameline outlived his brother Henry II and was present at Richard The Lionheart's coronation. He also contributed generously to the fund for his ransom. Hameline died in 1201.

William de Warenne

In 1201 Hameline's son, William de Warenne, inherited the castle and it is believed that he was responsible for the construction of the curtain walls.

William died in 1239 and his son, John, inherited the castle at the age of five. The castle was lived in and looked after by his mother, Maud. When he was 12 he married Alice de Lusignan, Henry III's half-sister. He fought at the Battle of Lewes in May 1264 where Henry was captured by Simon de Montfort1.

John fled to France after the defeat, but returned to fight in the Battle of Evesham, after which his estates were restored. John's son died before him, dying in a tournament in Croydon, and on John's death in 1304 the castle was inherited by his grandson, John.

John de Warenne

John de Warenne was a warlike man who had fought well in Scotland. However, his arranged marriage to Joan of Bar, the ten-year-old granddaughter to the King, was not a success and his attempts at a divorce were thwarted by Thomas, Earl of Lancaster. In 1317 one of his squires abducted Alice de Lacy, the wife of Thomas, Earl of Lancaster2, from Canford Manor in 1317 and fled with her to Reigate Castle in Surrey. Thomas, Earl of Lancaster, was one of the most powerful men in the country and was grandson of Henry III and King Edward II's cousin.

Thomas, Earl of Lancaster, had even opposed the King and was one of those responsible for the death of the King's favourite, Piers Gaveston in 1312, besieging him in Scarborough Castle. Thomas, Earl of Lancaster, in revenge divorced Alice and then besieged John's castles at Sandal and Conisbrough. Although Edward II ordered Thomas to end this private war he captured and retained Conisbrough and Sandal Castle until his death in 13223. Sandal Castle was damaged during the siege. In 1326 John de Warrenne regained his castles at Conisbrough and Sandal. Although John had two illegitimate sons, on his death in June 1347 the castle became a royal possession once more.

The House of York

When Edward III gained Sandal Castle he gave the castle and much of the other Earl of Surrey estates, including nearby Conisbrough Castle, to his fifth son, Edmund of Langley, who was six at the time. The castle was at first administered by Queen Philippa, who was often in residence at her castle at Knaresborough nearby. In 1362, on the death of his uncle, Edmund inherited the title Earl of Cambridge and under Richard II, son of Edward III's first son, he was made Duke of York. Edmund married Isabella, heiress of Castile and Leon and three times ruled as Regent while Richard II, his nephew, was abroad. Edmund also supported Henry Bolingbrook, son of John of Gaunt, Edward III's fourth son's claim to the throne. Henry became Henry IV, first King of the House of Lancaster.4 Edmund died in 1402.

Edmund's son Edward, Duke of Albemarle, Second Duke of York inherited the title and the castle. He spent much time campaigning in both Ireland and France, and was given the title Constable of England. Although he had married Maud, he died at Agincourt without an heir. His younger brother, Richard Earl of Cambridge, had been executed by Henry V for conspiracy before the fleet set sail from Southampton to France. The castle therefore remained in the hands of Maud until her death in 1446.

Richard, Duke of York

Richard, Earl of Cambridge had married well, having married Anne Mortimer. Anne Mortimer was the daughter of Roger Mortimer, Earl of March who was the son of Philippa, who had married Edmund Mortimer, Earl of March. Philippa had been the sole heir of Lionel, Duke of Clarence who was the second son of Edward III.

Richard, Earl of Cambridge was Edward III's grandson by his fifth son. Richard, Earl of Cambridge and Anne Mortimer's son, Richard, Duke of York therefore was descended from both Edward III's fifth and second sons, whereas King Henry VI was descended from Edward III's fourth son John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster. It was this which led to the Wars of the Roses, the dynastic quarrel between the Houses of York and Lancaster.

Richard, Duke of York often stayed at Sandal Castle. Although Richard was the richest man in the country after the King, he spent much of his life nearly bankrupt trying to raise funds to fight the war in France, for which he had no support from Henry VI. Henry VI was an incompetent king who bankrupted the nation, gave away much of the lands in France that Richard Duke of York had fought to keep as a dowry to his wife, Margaret. Margaret was the true power behind the throne, and her influence was slowly crippling the country.

Margaret ensured that Richard was kept away from court by posting him in France and Ireland, and making sure he had no funds to be able to achieve any success. In the meantime Jack Cade's rebellion had caused chaos in England which Henry was unable to control.

Richard Duke of York, after attempting to remove Henry from Margaret's influence since 1450 finally rebelled against Henry in 1459 and in July 1460 had captured Henry VI at Northampton. In October Richard made himself Lord Protector in the king's name as well as Henry VI's heir.

The Battle of Wakefield


You are come to Sandal in a happy hour.
The army of the Queen mean to besiege us.

Sir John:

She shall not need, we'll meet her in the field.


What, with five thousand men?


Ay, with five hundred, father, for a need.
A woman's general - what should we fear?

Most of Shakespeare's Henry VI: Part 3 Act 1 is about the Battle of Wakefield, the early battle of the Wars of the Roses which took place just outside Sandal Castle near Wakefield.

In November 1460, Queen Margaret's supporters in Yorkshire under the Lancastrian castles of Pontefract, Pickering, Knaresborough and Skipton, were harassing Richard Duke of York's lands at Conisbrough and Sandal. Richard Duke of York therefore marched North with a small army of around 5,000 men to combat this.

On his arrival at Sandal Castle on the 24th December Richard found the castle unprepared for the arrival of such a large army, having little food in store. The larger Lancastrian army of at least 15,000 men, nine miles away at Pontefract, was aware of the location of the Yorkist force and was making preparations.

Richard Duke of York was expecting reinforcements to arrive soon under the command of his ally Lord Neville, a force of around 8,000 men. This would mean that the Yorkist army would total around 13,000 which Richard felt, after his years of experience in France, would be enough to defeat the 15,000 of the Lancastrian army.

Richard Of York Gives Battle In Vain5

On 30th December 1460, a foraging party from Sandal Castle came under attack from the Lancastrian army which had marched to Sandal to besiege the Duke of York. This attack, led by 'Bloody' Clifford of Skipton Castle and Andrew Trollope, was watched by Richard, Duke of York. The Lancastrian army was North of the castle, and Richard then saw behind them approach Lord Neville's force to their North.

Richard, believing that the Lancastrian force would be trapped between two fronts, then led a mounted charge down the hill from Sandal Castle to the south of the Lancastrian army. However, Lord Neville had changed allegiance and instead of attacking the North side of the Lancastrian army, swung round to attack Richard of York's troops from behind.

Thus outnumbered roughly 23,000 to 5,000 and tricked, the battle's result was inevitable. Attempts to regain the safety of Sandal castle failed, and Richard, Duke of York died fighting. His head was chopped off and taken to Micklegate Bar, York. Lord Clifford also executed Richard, Duke of York's second son Edmund, Earl of Rutland. He was sixteen at the time and was watching the battle with his tutor Sir Robert Aspeal from Sanctuary Chapel near Wakefield Bridge.

Despite having surrendered Lord Clifford murdered him, saying 'Thy father slayed mine6 so shall I slay thee.' It was from this act that Lord Clifford gained the name 'Bloody' Clifford The Butcher. Edmund, Earl of Rutland's head was also hung from Micklegate bar.

A cross built by Edward IV to mark the place where his father and brother died was destroyed by Parliamentary troops during the Civil War.

Before the Civil War

On the death of Richard III Duke of York, the castle was inherited by his eldest son, Edward Duke of York, who later became Edward IV. On the death of Edward IV the castle was inherited by his younger brother Richard III, who although preferring Middleham Castle ordered the construction of a new bakehouse and the keep's well tower. After his defeat at the Battle of Bosworth Field Sandal Castle was inherited by Henry VII.

Under Henry VIII surveys of the castle were carried out showing that it was in a poor state of repair. The castle was allowed to decay and was granted by Elizabeth I to her cousin Edward Carey in 1566.

The Civil War

Although on the outbreak of Civil War in 1642 Sandal Castle was in a state of disrepair local Royalists were determined to hold it for the King. Major Thomas Beaumont organised the garrison of Sandal Castle which was placed under the command of Major Ward. During his time in command the only event of note to happen was that he tripped down some stairs in the castle, broke his neck and died.

Colonel George Bonivant then took over the command of the garrison. The castle was besieged in 1645 by forces under Sir John Savile. In April 1645 the castle garrison attacked the besiegers, killing 42 and capturing a further 50. As a result of this Sir John lifted the siege, leading his men to help in the siege of Pontefract Castle nearby. The success was short lived as a foraging team from the castle were discovered by Parliamentarian troops and killed or captured in May. By June, Colonel Morgan and a company of Dragoons arrived to besiege the castle. They too withdrew to Pontefract, lacking the heavy equipment needed to penetrate the castle walls.

In July, Pontefract Castle had surrendered after its second siege. The forces besieging Pontefract were now able to pay attention to Sandal Castle. Troops under the command of General Poyntz besieged Sandal. By September full siege lines had been built around the castle and great guns behind earthwork batteries had arrived in order to bombard the castle.

By late September the castle had been reduced to rubble on the keep, whose well tower had collapsed. Holes had also been made in the stone walls. Finally on 1 October, 1645 the castle surrendered, its force having been reduced to ten officers and ninety men. Only Skipton Castle and Bolton Castle in Yorkshire continued to hold for the King, and they fell soon after Sandal.

Since The Civil War

In 1646 Parliament ordered that the few remains of Sandal Castle that had survived the siege were to be destroyed, leaving only that which remains today. The castle's owners, the Neviles, did nothing with the site, and nor did the Pilkingtons who acquired the castle in 1753. In 1912 the Wakefield Corporation began to lease the castle site from the Pilikingtons, and bought it in 1954. In 1964 excavations of the castle site began and the castle was cleared of the thistles, trees and bracken that had taken root.

The castle was landscaped back to its original form and recently a visitor centre was opened on the site, which is now a park.

1Simon de Monfort, Earl of Leicester had secretly married Eleanor, Henry III's sister, in 1238, and led the Civil War against Henry III in 1264.2Lord of Pickering and Pontefract Castles in Yorkshire.3In 1321 Thomas, Earl of Lancaster rose in open opposition to Edward II at the beginning of a five year period of Civil War. Thomas, Earl of Lancaster was defeated in March 1322 at the Battle of Boroughbridge, imprisoned at his castle of Pontefract and executed. 4These events are portrayed in Shakespeare's play Richard II which features Edmund Duke of York, his wife, and his son Albermarle5A phrase often used to remember the colours of the rainbow.6At the Battle of St Albans in 1455.

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