The Historic Fortress of Sandal Castle, analysed by Dr Emma Wells

in Wakefield

A hidden gem tucked away yet equally in the plain sight of Wakefield’s urban sprawl, Sandal Castle is one of the most notable fortifications of the medieval era. It was originally constructed as a motte and bailey in the early 12th century after William de Warenne received the Manor of Wakefield from Henry I in about 1106. Following a rebuilding in stone towards the end of that century, it remained in the hands of the powerful de Warenne family, who held the title of Earls of Surrey, until the mid-14th century, when it passed into royal ownership.

The castle’s shining moment came when it stood at the epicentre of the machinations of the bloody conflict between the Houses of York and Lancaster, dubbed the Wars of the Roses. The culmination came on 30th December 1460, when the Battle of Wakefield was fought nearby on Wakefield Green, below the castle. Though the castle itself suffered little damage, Richard, Duke of York, was mortally wounded—and so destructive was the conflict that William Shakespeare even set scenes from his play ‘Henry VI’ here.

However, it was the duke’s son, later Richard III, who would make the castle his major
stronghold in the north and, subsequently, in 1484/85, ordered a series of works to strengthen the defences and transform the site into a comfortable residence. Richard’s defeat at Bosworth in 1485 brought an end to this development and ultimately the castle fell into decay.

Owned still by the crown during the English Civil War, it was briefly re-fortified by a
Royalist garrison in 1645, but after a siege by Parliamentary forces was successful, the castle was slighted and stripped of its defences. The remaining stone was subject to the elements, some of which was only revealed during the excavations in the 1960s and 1970s. Finds included, now on display at Wakefield Museum, a 500-year-old ring inscribed with the quote ‘I’m all yours’ in medieval French.

If visiting the castle, take the gravel path around the perimeter of the earthworks and reach the top of the motte by the wooden stairs.

Books by Dr Emma Wells

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