Last updated on May 1st, 2012 | Written By Richard Smyth
Discover the local history of Wakefield
Sandal Castle ruins in Wakefield from above.
Wakefield, these days, is a city that looks to the future: glassy shopping arcades gleam in the revamped city centre, while nationally important galleries showcase the latest in cutting-edge sculpture. But this is also a city that knows how to cherish its heritage. Across the river from the celebrated Hepworth Gallery is the 14th-century chantry chapel; the Trinity Walk shops share the city with a spectacular 16th-century cathedral. The landmark castle at Sandal preserves the memory of one of the most dramatic battles of the mediaeval age.
Nor has the city forgotten the industries on which it was built: a few miles down the Huddersfield road, the pit at Caphouse Colliery has been reimagined as the National Coal-mining Museum, while a striking piece of sculpture in sprawling Thornes Park commemorates the city’s traditional role as a corner of West Yorkshire’s ‘rhubarb triangle’.
Wachfeld in the Domesday Book of 1086
As ‘Wachfeld’, the city makes an appearance in the Domesday Book of 1086. At that stage, Wakefield – like many of the region’s settlements – was just recovering from the brutal shellacking doled out by the new Norman king William I in retribution for opposing his rule. Before long it was a major metropolitan centre. It was a town of many trades: various branches of the textile industry flourished here, as did leather tanning and cattle-dealing.
The chantry chapel – a small church built on the main bridge across the Calder – was constructed in around 1356; it’s been extensively rebuilt since then, but it is (in a sense) still there. It’s one of only four surviving structures of its kind in the UK.
In the 15th century, Wakefield – later the home of writers including George Gissing, David Storey and Stan Barstow – made its first mark on the literary world. The city’s 32 ‘mystery plays’ were written by the anonymous ‘Master of Wakefield’ to mark the feast of Corpus Christi. They tell stories from Christian scripture, from the fall of Lucifer to the Last Judgment. You don’t get that at Wakefield Cineworld.
Wars of the Roses
The winter of 1460 brought further lasting fame to the district. Contrary to popular belief, the Wars of the Roses weren’t a clash between Yorkshire and Lancashire at all; they were simply a struggle for power between nobles who happened to belong to the House of York and the House of Lancaster.
It was Richard of York (the one who Gave Battle In Vain in the rainbow mnemonic) that brought the wars to Wakefield. Riding north to challenge the Lancastrian force camped at Pontefract, he established his army at the stronghold at Sandal. On December 30, for reasons that aren’t very clear, Richard led his Yorkist army away from the safety of the castle to take on the Lancastrians.
He may have been tricked; on the other hand, he may just have been an idiot. The Yorkists were quickly surrounded (‘like a fish in a net’, one historian reported) and destroyed. The severed heads of Richard and his generals were later displayed on spikes on the walls of York. A jaunty paper hat was set on Richard’s head, bearing the words ‘Let York overlook the town of York’.
Sandal Castle was reduced to its present ruinous state during the Civil War of the 1640s. But Wakefield had continued to grow: its prosperity had earned it the nickname ‘merrie Wakefield’. By the 19th century, it was established as the administrative headquarters – the capital, in effect – of Yorkshire’s West Riding. The city expanded into the surrounding countryside. New industries emerged: glass-making, chemicals, coal-mining and, of course, rhubarb – by the 1870s, two trains a day were leaving Wakefield laden with rhubarb for London’s Covent Garden markets.
Wakefield in the Victorian era
The city set about acquiring all the necessary fashionable accoutrements of a thriving Victorian metropolis: two railway stations, hospitals, a town hall, an opera house, and, of course, a bustling workhouse (with facilities for 360 paupers).
Two of the institutions that have made Wakefield a well-known name beyond West Yorkshire were established at around this time.
Wakefield Trinity rugby club was founded in 1873, and the club moved to its present home at Belle Vue in 1879. However, many of the club’s most famous games were played out a long way from Wakefield, at Wembley Stadium. The best-known of these ended in agonising defeat: in the last minute of the 1968 Challenge Cup final, man-of-the-match Don Fox slewed an easy kick wide of the uprights, gifting Leeds an 11-10 victory and prompting commentator Eddie Waring to lament the ‘poor lad’ from Sharlston.
The city’s other famous Victorian institution has a less glittering history. Wakefield Prison has existed since the 16th century, but most of the current buildings date from the 1800s. It’s now the largest high-security prison in western Europe.
Local historians have attempted to lend a little colour to the legend of this bleak place by claiming that the nuresry rhyme ‘Here We Go Round The Mulberry Bush’ was inspired by a mulberry bush that grew in the prison grounds – but it almost certainly wasn’t (while we’re pooh-poohing local legends, I’m afraid ‘The Grand Old Duke Of York’ probably wasn’t inspired by the Battle of Wakefield, either).
But in a city (yes, it is a city, and has been officially since 1888) with such a long and rich history, there’s no need to make up legends.
Map of Wakefield
Browse the map and click on the pins to find the location of the places featured in this guide.