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Sandal Castle
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Sandal Castle is a ruined medieval castle in Sandal Magna, Wakefield, in West Yorkshire, England. One of two castles overlooking the River Calder, it was built by the Warrennes, the Earls of Surrey, who were Lords of the Manor of Wakefield. It was a site of royal intrigue, and the setting for a scene in one of William Shakespeare’s plays.


Castles built by William the Conqueror’s followers were self-sufficient strongholds, some of which were tax-gathering points; others controlled larger towns, river crossings or passes through hills. Two castles were built near Wakefield: Wakefield CastleFortification built in the 12th century on a hill on the north side of the River Calder near Wakefield, England. at Lowe Hill north of the Calder and Sandal to the south. Wakefield’s first castles were probably started and completed in the early 12th century by William de Warenne, 2nd Earl of Surrey after Henry I granted him the Manor of Wakefield.

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Moat and earthworks
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Sandal and Lowe Hill were motte-and-bailey earthwork castles with wooden towers on a mound and baileys with timber palisades and deep ditches. Sandal is built on a natural sandstone ridge, the Oaks Rock. Its motte was raised to 33 feet (10 m) and had a 23-foot (7 m) deep moat surrounding it.[1] Only Sandal survived, and during the 13th century the keep, curtain wall and other buildings were rebuilt in stone by either the sixth or seventh Earls Warenne.[2][3] Timber motte and bailey castles were often converted into stone if they were in use for long periods, and Sandal is a particularly good example.[4]

The stone keep was circular with four towers each four storeys high; two of them close together formed a gatehouse, and the east tower contained a well that was 121 feet (37 m) deep. The double-walled keep would have had guardrooms, storerooms and servants’ quarters on the ground floor, the main hall above and private apartments on the second floor. The tower rooms had garderobes[a]lavatories that discharged onto the outer walls of the keep.[2] The curtain wall was 20 feet (6 m) high with a wall walk along its length; it enclosed the bailey and crossed the moat twice to reach the keep.[5]

The barbican inside the bailey was a three-storey tower with a moat opposite two drum towers at the entrance to the keep, constructed in the early 1270s.[6] The barbican with its own gate and portcullis added an extra line of defence between the main entrance gate and the keep. Attackers entering the barbican had to make a right-angled turn to enter the keep, which was protected by a drawbridge between the drum towers. A stairway from the barbican led to a sally port, a hidden entrance near the moat from which surprise attacks could be made.[7]

The bailey lay to the south-east of the keep, with the main gatehouse on the north-east side. It was crescent shaped, about 233 feet (71 m) long and 171 feet (52 m) wide. Inside the bailey are a 39-foot (12 m) deep well and two privy shafts, one of which is 26 feet (8 m) deep.[8]


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Castle ruins
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The ruins were a source of stone for local building and became a place for locals to relax. They were depicted in the foreground of a drawing of Wakefield from the south by Samuel Buck in 1719 or 1722, and in 1753 an engraving was published of an Elizabethan survey drawing.

The ruins were excavated by the Yorkshire Archaeological Society in 1893. A more detailed project in summer 1964 was a partnership between Wakefield Corporation, Wakefield Historical Society and the University of Leeds. This project started as an experiment in adult education with more than a hundred volunteers. It grew into a complete and rigorous excavation that continued for nine years. Whilst excavating the bailey, archaeologists found remains of flint tools suggesting a Mesolithic encampment was there in about 5,000 BC.[9]

The castle is a Scheduled Monument[10] which means it is a “nationally important” historic building and archaeological site which has been given protection against unauthorised change. It is also a Grade II* listed building.[11]

Earls of Surrey and Warenne

William de Warenne, 2nd Earl of Surrey (1081–1138) was granted the Sandal estates in 1107.[12][13] He built the first Sandal Castle of timber. After supporting Robert Curthose against Henry I, he was banished from the kingdom for two years but was later given the Wakefield manor. William de Warenne, 3rd Earl of Surrey (1119–1148) spent little of his time at Sandal, having taken crusading vows and joined the Second Crusade. His only daughter, Isabel de Warenne, Countrss of Surrey (1137–1199), married William of Blois, son of King Stephen. He died in 1159 having no children. Isabel next married Hamelin (1129–1202), the son of Geoffrey of Anjou. He assumed the Warrene name on his marriage in 1164. Hamelin began to replace the wooden fortifications at Sandal with stone.[14]

William de Warenne, 5th Earl of Surrey (1166–1240) married Maud Marshal in 1225. He was loyal to his cousin, King John and is one of the four nobles whose name appears in the Magna Carta for John. On King John’s death in 1216 he supported Henry III.[15] Maud de Warenne, William’s widow, held the Wakefield Manor from 1240 until their son John de Warenne, 6th Earl of Surrey (1231–1304) came of age in 1252. John married Alice de Lusignan in 1247.[16] In 1296 the 6th Earl was appointed warden for Scotland by Edward I and in 1299, the Earl and his royal master were triumphant over the Scots at the Battle of Falkirk.[17]

William de Warrene (1256–1286) was killed at a tournament in Croydon pre-deceasing his father.[16] His son John de Warenne, 7th Earl of Surrey (1286–1347) was born in the year of his father’s death. John married Joan of Bar but lived adulterously with Maud de Nereford who was from a village near Castle Acre in Norfolk.[18][19] In 1347, the 7th Earl died. His sons John and Thomas became Knights Hospitaller in the Holy Land and predeceased their mother and after her death, the lands passed to Edward III.[20]

Dukes of York

In 1347, Edward III granted Sandal to his fifth son Edmund of Langley who was six years old. His elder brother John of Gaunt held Pontefract and Knaresborough Castles, Edmund was also granted Wark Castle near Coldstream in the Scottish Borders, and in 1377 Fotheringhay Castle in Northamptonshire which was to become his home. The family spent little time at Sandal, leaving it to the management of constables or stewards. In 1385 Edmund was made Duke of York as a reward for his support for his nephew, Richard II. He was succeeded by his son, also Edward who campaigned in Ireland and died at the Battle of Agincourt in 1415. Edward was succeeded by his nephew, Richard Plantagenet, 3rd Duke of York.[21]

Battle of Wakefield

Early in 1460, during the Wars of the Roses, Richard Plantagenet made a bid for the throne. He was initially not well-received, but an Act of Accord made in October 1460 recognised him as heir to the throne and named him Protector of the Realm. In December Richard went to Sandal Castle, either to consolidate his position or to counter Lancastrian dissent. He had an army of 3,000–8,000 men but on 30 December in the Battle of Wakefield, he was outnumbered and outmanoeuvred by Queen Margaret’s army, coming from nearby Pontefract. Richard suffered a crushing defeat and both he and his younger son Edmund, Earl of Rutland were killed. Just two months later Richard’s eldest son Edward became king.

Richard III

The castle’s last brush with royalty came in 1483 when Richard’s eighth son (and twelfth child) Richard III chose it as his northern base and ordered some significant investment but he was killed in the Battle of Bosworth in 1485.[22] After his death, the castle was maintained a little, but gradually declined, and the building of Wakefield Prison in the 1590s left it even less useful.

English Civil War

During the English Civil War Sandal Castle was Royalist. Although its neglected state mostly left it out of the major conflicts, in 1645 it was besieged at least three times by Parliamentarian troops. Butler recounts,”Having been assured that they would receive a safe passage to Welbeck House in north Nottinghamshire they surrendered the castle at 10 o’clock on 1 October 1645. The garrison was then 10 officers and 90 men, two of whom were called “seniors”, implying that they were professional soldiers rather than just non-commissioned officers. They also surrendered 100 muskets, 50 pikes, 20 halberds, 150 swords and two barrels of gunpowder: no pieces of artillery are mentioned. As a result of this capitulation only Bolton Castle in Wensleydale and Skipton Castle remained in Royalist hands in Yorkshire, but Sandal “was the most resolute of all the three northern garrisons” and its fall caused great rejoicing among the parliamentarian forces.[23]

By the end of the siege the castle was a ruin. The following year parliament ordered that it be made untenable.

Literary references

Shakespeare’s play Henry VI, Part 3 (Act 1, Scene 2) is set in Sandal Castle. It describes Richard’s sons urging him to take the crown before news is brought of Margaret’s approach. Act 1, scene 4 then depicts the death of Richard at the Queen’s hands. But this brief fictionalised account bears little resemblance to the history as it is understood today.


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