An hour later, we arrived at a small hill studded with medieval walls. Pontefract Castle was constructed around 1070 by Ilbert de Lacy on land granted personally by Willam the Conqueror as a reward for his support during the Norman Conquest. It passed out and back into the family with the fortunes of war, and in 1311 it came into the House of Lancaster, and so eventually to John of Gaunt, third son of King Edward III. Gaunt was the kingdom’s richest, most respected statesman.
As the 14th century ended, King Richard II (king because his father was Gaunt’s older brother) exiled John of Gaunt’s son Henry Bolingbroke. When Gaunt died, his son Henry should have been invited back to receive his enormous lands—including Pontefract—but Richard II seized and gave them away to his cronies.
Bolingbroke responded by returning to England with a private army. He headed for Pontefract, rallied the local nobles (aghast that Gaunt’s property had been seized—who would be the next target?), and with Richard in Ireland at the time, declared himself King Henry IV. Henry eventually captured Richard and dragged him to Pontefract Castle, where he died.
By preventing Henry’s inheritance, Richard had broken feudal protocol. By deposing an anointed king, Henry had overturned the natural order of the world even more. Thus began the blood feud between the Yorkist and Lancastrian branches of the royal Plantagenet family, setting the stage for a half-century of civil war.
The remains at Pontefract aren’t extensive. But the hilltop’s central location hasn’t changed, and when the wind quieted, we thought we could feel betrayal in the air, and hear vows of vengeance. After a few moments we drove straight into the late-afternoon sun, to Wakefield.
It’s 1460. Henry IV has died. His son Henry V has died. His grandson Henry VI has been king almost 40 years—a weak, sometimes-mad, unprepared king whom no one respects. His wife, the intelligent and noble-born Margaret of Anjou, is the real power behind the throne.
Richard Plantagenet—a Yorkist great-grandson of Edward III with a legitimate claim to the throne, grabs for it. He and the Lancastrian nobility compromise—Henry VI can remain king, but Richard is recognized as his heir, disinheriting Henry’s and Margaret’s son. But Richard can’t wait, and Margaret’s enraged. At Wakefield’s Sandal Castle he is stunned to encounter an enormous Lancastrian force.
Outmaneuvered by an army marched here from Pontefract and personally commanded by Queen Margaret, the Yorkists are crushed. Richard himself is killed, putting the Yorkists in the hands of his son Edward. Two months later, at the Battle of Towton (yes, at the very site we visited just days ago), Edward will get revenge, butchering a retreating Lancastrian army and declaring himself Edward IV. He will reign for 22 years, until he dies in bed—after which the killing will resume.
The Sandal castle’s remains are still standing. We climbed up to the top and surveyed the landscape, barely changed in 560 years. I could see the same road the Yorkists marched on, and the same forests in which Margaret hid her ambushing divisions. Richard never had a chance. The deaths of so many nobles at Wakefield cleared the way for a new generation on each side to pick up the seemingly endless cause.
After driving back to York, I finished off the day with a walk on its famous medieval walls. They are in fabulous condition, built on the Roman (of course) footprint. Several original gates into the city are still intact. Cars and bikes pass through them every day; I took my chances and simply gawked at one for several minutes, my last in this city of Roman, Anglo-Saxon, Norman, and medieval treasures.