The Wars of the Roses/[NevillFeast]/Wakefield and murder at Pontefract


Firstly, I need to say that others have written about the battle of Wakefield in more depth than I can here. Keith Dockray & Richard Knowles’ excellent article can be found here in its entirety; and Helen Cox and Philip Haigh have both written more detailed accounts, among many others.


I’ve been digging through some of the Chronicles today. There’s far more primary source material online than most of us realise! I seem to find something new every time I venture out into the interwebs. Taking a list of sources from Haigh, I found various references in: The English Chronicle; Gregory’s Chronicle; Halle; Stowe’s Annales (which I think might be an early draft of Halle); Polydor Vergil; Croyland and Fabyan. There are some elements everyone agrees on: the date York’s party left London, their arrival at Sandal on Christmas Eve; the date of the battle; the list of the dead. Most of the chroniclers stick to the bare facts (as they knew, or at least heard them). Only Croyland philosophises and only Halle embroiders. He gives a stirring speech to the Duke of York, full of “I’m no coward!” and “wouldest thou that I for dread of a scolding woman, whose weapon is onely her toungue, and her nayles, should incarcerate my self, and shut my gates then al men might of me woundre and all creatures maie of me report dishonor, that a woman hath made me a dastard…”. Halle gives no clue as to his informant of the astonishing, word perfect memory. Halle’s most egregious flight of fancy involves the death of the young Earl of Rutland. Not quite “scace of ye age of xii yeres, a faire getleman, and a maydenlike person” but a grown lad of 17 – too young to die, then as now, but by the lights of his times, old enough to go to war and fight by his father’s side. Interestingly, there’s no mention of either York’s pre-battle speech nor Rutland’s pathetic end (“chyldkylling”) at the hands of Butcher Clifford in the version to be found in Stowe’s Annales.

There are usually three reasons given for York leaving the safety of Sandal Castle and riding into the teeth of a superior enemy and his demise. Responding to the taunts of his enemies (or the ‘scolding woman’ with her tongue and nails), suggests he was hotheaded and impulsive. Riding out to rescue stranded foragers suggests he was noble and empathetic. Betrayal by Robert Nevill (the usual suspect) suggests he was trusting and, perhaps, desperate for allies and men. While most commentators will plump for one or another of these, there might well have been elements of more than one in play.

The deaths of the duke of York and his son, Edmund earl of Rutland, are usually the focus of Wakefield discussions, commemorations and thoughts. Their deaths were certainly a blow to the Yorkist cause, one that perhaps many feared they’d not recover from. Certainly the duchess of York feared for the lives of her two younger sons and sent them to safety in Burgundy the first chance she got. But for the Feast’s purposes, there were other deaths that day (and the next) that need to be remembered.

Richard Nevill, earl of Salisbury, was set upon by a mob, dragged outside Pontefract castle and summarily beheaded. The Bastard of Exeter, Henry Holland’s half brother, is often found at the top of the list of suspects. Far from falling into a catatonic trance at the news, as one novelist would have it, his widow sprang to action and launched a wrongful death suit against several men, on behalf of her surviving sons. It was unresolved at the time of her death in 1462.

Sir Thomas Nevill, Salisbury’s second son and husband of Maud Stanhope lady Willoughby, died in the battle. Those who enjoy a game of ‘what if’ with regard to Rutland may enjoy a similar game with Thomas. Just as with Edward IV, Thomas was the next brother down in a swag of brothers not known for their love of peace or the quiet life. He didn’t seem to have had much of a calming influence on either Warwick or Montagu, but his actions when York made his bid for the throne – the unknown words spoken to his uncle in private that got him to back down… a bit – suggest he was something of a diplomat. If he’d lived, he’d likely have been elevated to the peerage prior to 2nd St Albans. Instead of John, it might have been Thomas who remembered and celebrated his mother’s family name in his choice of title. I don’t think John would have been far behind him – and judging from his belligerence versus the Percies in the 1450s, I doubt John would have been overshadowed in war by Thomas, but with three Nevill brothers in the fight instead of two, things might have been very different – would Thomas have joined Warwick in rebellion? would Warwick still have rebelled? – or they might not. Who can possibly say?

William Bonville, Lord Harrington, 18 year old husband of Katheryn Nevill, was also killed. He died the same day as his father. William and Katheryn had been married just two years, and probably only sharing their own household for perhaps one. They were the parents of a six month old daughter, Cecily.

There were far too many deaths in England during the Wars of the Roses. The Nevills were wiped out; the Percies came close to it. The House of York supplanted the House of Lancaster and neither flourished in the end. Wakefield was just one tiny part of it, but the shock of the deaths of so many important Yorkists must have sent  the duke of York’s family and supporters reeling, as well as the earl of Salisbury’s.

And, for those of you who don’t know, I get to remember the murder of Salisbury on a very special day for me. It’s my birthday tomorrow!

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