The series of conflicts that wracked the kingdom of England between 1455 and 1487 are today collectively known as the Wars of the Roses. The clashes were fought between two rival branches of the House of Plantagenet: the houses of Lancaster and York.
The Lancastrians take their name from John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster, whose descendants (Henry IV, V, and VI) reigned in succession from 1399, the year in which Henry IV seized the throne from his cousin, Richard II. The Yorkists are the dynasty established by Richard, Duke of York, whose sons eventually ruled as Edward IV and Richard III. Henry Tudor’s victory at the Battle of Bosworth hastened the end of the conflict.
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Although the powerful Percy family had aided King Henry IV in usurping his predecessor, Richard II, dissatisfaction with the new regime meant that they were soon in open rebellion against the king. Henry ‘Harry Hotspur’ Percy fell at the Battle of Shrewsbury in 1403; his father (the first Earl of Northumberland, also called Henry Percy) fled into exile after the failure of a plot led by Richard le Scrope, an Archbishop of York. He returned on 20 February 1408, accompanied by Lord Bardolf,The Abbot of Hailes and the Bishop of Bangor, at the head of an army of loyal Northumbrians and lowland Scots. A force led by Sir Thomas Rokeby, the Sheriff of Yorkshire, barred their way at the river crossings in Knaresborough and Tadcaster. The rebels withdrew to Bramham Moor; by agreement between the two parties, it was decided that battle should take place there.
The sheriff fought under a flag of St George. Little is known about the course of the battle, but it was probably short and furious. It resulted in the death of the Earl, whose body was stripped and beheaded. Bardolf was captured alive but died of his wounds soon after. King Henry came to York soon after to pass judgement on the rebels. The Bishop of Bangor received a pardon, but the Abbot of Hailes was hanged. The strategic significance of this site is today largely forgotten, but it also witnessed one of the last successful military actions of the Yorkist faction at the close of the Wars of the Roses, when on the night of 10th June 1486 Lord Lovell’s army, encamped on Bramham Moor, raided Lord Clifford’s camp at nearby Tadcaster.
Heworth Moor, York. Battle of Heworth Moor, 24 August 1453
The long-standing rivalry between the Percy and Neville families often resulted in skirmishes and raids, which helped to fuel the conflict between the Yorkists and the Lancastrians. On 24 August 1453, Thomas Percy, Lord Egremont, attacked the wedding party of Thomas Neville and Maude Stanhope, niece of Lord Cromwell, the king’s treasurer. Egremont and his brother Richard blocked the bridal procession from York to Sheriff Hutton. It isn’t known what actually occurred, although no deaths were reported and the Neville family arrived at Sheriff Hutton unscathed. The first overt battle between the families drove the Nevilles to seek the protection of the House of York.
During the Civil War, a meeting took place on 3 June 1642 at Heworth Moor. Charles I summoned over 70,000 lords and gentry of Yorkshire to gain support in his struggle against Parliament. Although the king and his son, Prince Charles, were greeted with loud acclaims, not all attending were sympathetic to the king’s cause. Lord Fairfax was required by Parliament to petition the king to stop raising troops against Parliament.
Duke of York Monument, Wakefield. Battle of Wakefield, 30 Dec 1460
After the Battle of Northampton in the summer of 1460, Richard Duke of York was created Lord Protector and his children would inherit the throne after the death of Henry VI. Henry’s wife Margaret was determined that her son would maintain his right to the throne, so worked with loyal nobles to raise a new army. Lancastrian supporters in the north were encamped at Pontefract and began attacking estates belonging to the Lord Protector. In late December 1460, Richard Duke of York, accompanied by the Earls of Rutland and Salisbury, travelled to Sandal Castle to entrench during the winter. Richard was aware that several Lancastrian armies were in the area under the guidance of Lord Clifford and Lord Ros. The Duke of York requested additional support from the Earl of March on the Welsh border.
The reasons the Duke left the security of Sandal Castle are unknown, but a possibly explanation is a rescue of a foraging party under attack. An advanced party harried the foraging party, which the remainder of the Lancastrian army hid in the nearby woods, giving the false impression of York’s superiority of numbers. As the Yorkists advanced onto Sandal Common, the Lancastrians attacked at the flank, quickly surrounding the army. The Duke of York was unhorsed and killed. The Earl of Rutland attempted to escape, but was caught and killed. The Earl of Salisbury left the field of battle, but was caught later that night and executed in the Lancastrian camp. The heads of York, Rutland and Salisbury were placed on Micklegate Bar as a warning to the Yorkist supporters.
The monument to the Battle of Wakefield was built in 1897 and marks the spot where Richard Plantagenet, Duke of York, died.
On 4th March 1461, Edward was crowned king of England. The next day he decided to march north to finally defeat Henry’s supporters. On 29th March, Palm Sunday, the Edward’s Yorkist army began pressing forward. The Lancastrian army occupied the high ground, with the Cock Beck on the right flank. The snowy, blustery weather overcame the Lancastrian positional advantage; the Yorkists had the wind to their backs and the Lancastrians were blinded by the snow. The battle raged for several hours until the Lancastrian left flank began to fold and were pushed down into the Cock Beck.
It is said that Towton was the largest and longest battle fought on British soil, but it is very likely that medieval chroniclers have grossly exaggerated the numbers involved and the casualties. Although the numbers can be disputed, the battle at Towton secured the throne for the Yorkists.
Dacre’s Cross marks the Lancastrian line. To see all aspects of the battlefield, take a circular walk starting from the Crooked Billet on the B1217 near Saxton, heading toward Lead Chapel.
All Saint’s Churchyard, Saxton
In the north-east corner of the Saxton churchyard is the 17th-century tomb of Lord Dacre and the modern memorial stone. The inscription on Dacre’s Tomb reads, ‘Here lies Ralph Lord of Dacre and Gilsland, a true soldier valiant in battle in the service of Henry VI, who died Palm Sunday 29 March 1461, on whose soul God have mercy’. Supposedly, this isn’t just the resting place of Lord Dacre – his horse is buried with him!
Gravediggers in 1861 discovered the skull of a horse very near the tomb, so it may be true that Lord Dacre was buried upright, astride his horse, as legend has it. Towton Battlefield Society erected the modern memorial in 2005 and marks the burial place of the bodies, discovered in 1996 at Towton Hall, which were re-interred at Saxton. The north side of the churchyard is thought to include a burial mound, or at least the burial site, of the knights killed in battle. A collection of bones was discovered by workmen digging in the churchyard in 1804.
St. Oswald’s Church, Methley
St. Oswald’s Church is mentioned in the Domesday survey of 1086 and has Saxon origins. The church is named for the Northumbrian king Oswald, who was killed in a battle with the Mercian king Penda in AD 642. Under the window of the south wall of the Waterton chapel, is the tomb of Lionel Lord Welles and his wife Cecilia, daughter of Robert Waterton. Lionel Lord Welles was killed at the Battle of Towton, known as ‘Palmesundayfield’ in 1461.
His body was brought back to Methley in a sack – a Lancastrian Lord brought back to his allied Lancastrian Methley home. His remains were hidden in a sack to prevent them being mutilated by his enemies. The figure of Lord Welles is clad in armour, his head rests on his helmet, his feet upon a lion (a lion is part of his crest). He has a chain round his neck, a belt with jewels and the garter with its motto on his left leg. Over his armour is a surcoat with the arms of the Welles. The tomb bears the arms of Waterton, Welles and Willoughby families.
Bootham Bar, York
Bootham Bar stands on the site of the Roman porta principalis dextra. Like the other city gates, Bootham was used to display the heads of traitors, including Thomas Mowbray in 1405. Thomas Mowbray, Earl Marshal and Archbishop Scrope, supported by Henry Percy, Earl of Northumberland, joined forces to oppose King Henry IV. Both men were seized and summarily executed in York. Shakespeare mentions this episode in Henry IV Part II.
Bootham was the site of another threat to the monarch in 1487, when Lambert Simnel’s supporters assaulted the city. Lambert Simnel was a child who has been put forward as the true Earl of Warwick, one of the princes who had died in the Tower. When Simnel was brought to York to be proclaimed king, he was refused entry. The York House Book notes that, ‘the lords Scrope of Bolton and Upsall…came on horseback to Bootham Bar, and there cried ‘King Edward’ and made assault on the gates, but the commons who were watchmen there well and manfully defended them and put them to flight’.
Significant damage was caused during the Siege of York in 1644 and the upper part of the outer façade had to be rebuilt.
William de Percy was granted the estate by William the Conqueror and built a wooden manor on the site. In 1309, Henry de Percy built the first stone castle after getting a licence to crenellate.
During the War of the Roses, the Percy family supported the House of Lancaster. After the Battle of Towton, in which the 3rd Earl and his brother Richard were killed, the castle was given to Richard Neville, Earl of Warwick. Neville had Spofforth Castle destroyed.
The land was eventually returned the Percys and a new hall was built. By 1600, the hall has been abandoned by the family.
During the Civil War, although not fortified, the castle was occupied by Parliamentarian soldiers. It was destroyed by the soldiers and left to ruin.
Micklegate Bar, York
As York’s most important gateway, Micklegate Bar is traditionally the point at which kings and queens of England enter when visiting the city, normally with great ceremony. It is also the place where the heads of traitors were displayed to serve as a lesson to others.
The head of Henry Percy (Harry Hotspur) seems to have been displayed on the Bar after his death at the Battle of Shrewsbury (1403). Henry IV, the king against whom Hotspur had rebelled, had the body exhumed from its grave at Whitchurch. The head was sent to York, where it remained on top of the bar for several months before being given to Hotspur’s widow for burial.
Micklegate Bar witnessed some of the most notorious moments in the Wars of the Roses, including the spiking of the heads of leaders from both sides of the conflict following the battles of Wakefield (1460) and Towton (1461). Richard, Duke of York, fell at Wakefield, and his seventeen-year-old son, the Earl of Rutland, was slain in its aftermath, along with the Earl of Salisbury. All three allegedly had their heads displayed on Micklegate Bar, until the Yorkist victory at Towton the following year, when they were replaced with the heads of slain Lancastrian leaders.
All Saints Church, Harewood. Date: 1465
All Saints Church is mainly 15th century construction with Victorian alterations. The church is home to a fine set of medieval alabaster tomb effigies of the Gascoigne family. Although originally painted, very little of the original colour remains. The Gascoignes of Gawthorpe Hall (now demolished) supported the Lancastrian cause throughout the War of the Roses. William Gascoigne I served as a captain under Sir Henry Percy, 3rd Earl of Northumberland. He fought at both the Battle of Wakefield (1460) and the Battle of Towton (1461) on the Lancastrian side. His effigy shows him with his wife, Margaret Clarell. An earlier William Gascoigne, Chief Justice of England, also has an effigy at All Saints. After the failed rebellion led by Earl Marshal Thomas Mowbray and Archbishop Scrope, the king wanted the Chief Justice to sentence the traitors immediately. Gascoigne refused since a secular court does not have the right to execute an archbishop.
St. Martin’s Church, Burton Agnes. Date: 1481
St. Martin is a Norman church, but it probably the second one to be built on this site. One of the alabaster tomb effigies depicts the ‘Dark Knight’ Sir Walter Griffith who fought with the Lancastrians in the War of the Roses. He was also the owner of Burton Agnes Old Hall in the 15th century. The hall was constructed in the 12th century for Roger de Stuteville, passing to the Somervilles and in 1323, Joan Somerville married Rhys ap Gruffud. Their descendant, Sir Walter Griffith, restored the Old Hall and added a great hall above the original vaulted chamber, and the present roof. In the 17th century, Sir Henry Griffith constructed the new hall nearby.
Topcliffe. Date: 28 April 1489
This was the site of a moated manor belonging to the Percy family. A manor house was built here (possibly in the 13th century) after the family moved from Maidens Bower (which lies to the south east), a Norman motte and bailey castle built in the early 11th century.
The Yorkshire Rebellion of 1489 began as a result of King Henry VII being granted a subsidy to aid Brittany in maintaining its independence from France. Henry Percy, 4th Earl of Northumberland was enlisted to collect taxes in Yorkshire. The local people were unwilling to provide more money to fight an enemy they didn’t see as a threat, especially as other northern counties were exempted in order to use their resources to defend against the Scots. Henry Percy appealed to the king, but was denied. When it was announced to the assembled people at Topcliffe that Henry Percy had been unable to sway the king, they burst into his manor at Cock Lodge, murdering him and his servants.
Sir John Egremont, the second son of Henry Percy, 2nd Earl of Northumberland, and a yeoman Robert Chamber led the rebels to York where the gates were opened to them. Henry VII dispatched the Earl of Surrey to disperse the rebels. Sir John Egremont subsequently escaped to Flanders and Robert Chamber was executed.
Beverley Minster. Date: 1489
Beverley Minster is the largest church in East Yorkshire. The Minster is located on the site of a monastery founded by Saint John of Beverley in 700AD. Construction of the present Minster started in 1220 and was only completed in 1425. Architectural styles had changed during that time, so the Minster contains three distinct Gothic styles.
After Henry Percy, 4th Earl of Northumberland was killed by rebels in Topcliffe, his mutilated body was embalmed then placed in a lead coffin with an oak covering. The cortege of mourners was said to have extended for miles. The lavish funeral cost £1,500 and another £1,200 was distributed to the 13,000 poor who came to view the procession. From Topcliffe, the procession travelled to Wressle Castle, Leconfield, and finally to Beverley Minster. The tomb no longer has an effigy or canopy, which were destroyed in the 18th century.
Sandal Castle was first constructed out of stone in the 1180s. In 1317, Thomas Earl of Lancaster besieged the castle and razed it to the ground; the castle was immediately rebuilt. In 1460, Richard Duke of York took his forces to engage the Lancastrians in the Battle of Wakefield.
Through the centuries, the castle was allowed to decay. Although the castle was in a poor state of repair, the castle was held by local Royalists. The Parliamentarians laid siege to the castle in 1645; in April, the garrison attacked the besiegers and the Parliamentarian forces withdrew to help at the siege of Pontefract. In June, the castle was besieged and once again, the attackers withdrew to Pontefract.
Once Pontefract Castle fell, the Parliamentarian forces returned to Sandal Castle. By September 1645, a full siege was been laid and guns had arrived to bombard the castle; the castle was reduced to rubble. On 1 October 1645, the castle surrendered. In 1646, Parliament ordered that the remains of Sandal Castle were to be destroyed.