Nostalgia: Scene of intrigue celebrated by the Bard

Sandal Castle.
Sandal Castle.
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Castles are dramatically situated and scattered throughout the UK. Steeped in history, they hold mystery, secrets, strange murderous stories and legends for many people.

Castle visitor numbers rise every year and Yorkshire castles enjoy this admirable trend. One them is the ruined medieval Sandal Castle at Sandal Magna, Wakefield in West Yorkshire where plenty has occurred over the centuries to fire everyone’s imagination. It was formerly the site of royal intrigue and the setting for a scene in one of William Shakespeare’s plays.

William de Warenne, 2nd Earl of Surrey (1081-1138), was granted estates in Wakefield in the early 12th century from Henry I. William is also is thought to have built the first Sandal Castle. It would have been a motte and bailey earthwork castle with wooden tower on the mound and bailey with timber palisades and deep ditches.

The term motte and bailey comes from Norman French words for mound and enclosed land. The Normans introduced this type of castle to England when they invaded the country in 1066.

The sides of the motte were always steep and a bailey could vary in size from one to three acres. Inside the bailey lived the followers of the castle owners with stables, storehouses, bakeries, kitchens, houses, and accommodation for soldiers.

Sandal was built on a natural sandstone ridge, the Oaks Rock. The motte was raised to 33ft with the 23ft deep moat surrounding it.

The castle passed down through various marriages and males assuming the Warenne name until it reached Hamelin (1129-1202). He assumed the Warenne name on his marriage in 1164 and perhaps he, but certainly his successors, began replacing Sandal’s wooden fortifications with stone during the 13th century.

The castle was besieged and captured by Thomas, Earl of Lancaster in 1317 but on his execution in March 1322 the property was returned to the Warenne family.

During 1347, the legitimate male line of the Warenne family passed away and the castle reverted to the Crown. Edward III (1312-1377) granted Sandal to his fifth son Edmund who in 1347 was only six. For the next few years it was left to the management of constables or stewards.

Edmund was made Duke of York in 1385 as a reward for supporting his nephew, Richard II. From Edmund the castle passed to his son Edward, then the latter’s nephew Richard Plantagenet, 3rd Duke of York (1411-1460).

On December 30, 1460, Richard was at Sandal Castle and led an army of thousands in the bloody War of the Roses battle of Wakefield. The opposing forces were an army led by nobles loyal to the captive King Henry VI of the House of Lancaster, his Queen Margaret of Anjou on one side, and Richard, Duke of York, a rival claimant, on the other.

He was outmanoeuvred by Lancastrian forces based at Pontefract Castle in the main battle fought on Wakefield Green. Richard, and his younger son Edmund, Earl of Rutland, were slaughtered.

The castle’s last connection with royalty came in 1483 when Richard’s eighth son, Richard III chose it as his Northern base and proposed major alterations to the building. A new tower was added to the keep protecting a well, and a new bakehouse and brewhouse were built. This activity was short-lived as Richard III was killed in the Battle of Bosworth in 1485. Thereafter, the castle fell into disrepair, although parts of it were used as the administrative centre for the constable of Wakefield and as a prison in Tudor times.

Shakespeare’s play Henry VI, Part 3, is believed to have been written in 1591 and Act 1, Scene 2 is set in Sandal Castle. It is a fictionalised version of history where Richard Plantagenet’s sons urge him to take the crown before news is brought of the approach of Queen Margaret’s Lancastrian army. A later similarly fictionalised scene depicts the death of Richard, Duke of York.

During the English Civil War (1642-1651) Sandal Castle was Royalist and although much run down by 1645 was besieged at least three times by parliamentary troops. When surrendered at 10am on October 1, 1645 there was great rejoicing among the parliamentary forces. After the sieges the castle became a ruin.

During the 18th century the castle ruins became the subject for artists such as Samuel Buck. Stone was taken for local buildings and the grounds became a place of relaxation.

In time ownership of the Castle passed to the Neville family of Chevet and in 1753 to the Pilkington family. In 1954 the site was purchased by Wakefield Council who had leased it from the Pilkingtons since 1912.

The castle continues to play a part in the community today. A visitor centre stands near the castle and there have been historical re-enactments and living history days, including a commemoration of the Battle of Wakefield.

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