Review: The Battle of Wakefield Revisited – Helen Cox

Posted: March 3, 2011 in Cox, John Nevill, Richard Nevill, Earl of Salisbury, Richard, Duke of York, Thomas Nevill, Wakefield, William Bonville, Lord Harrington

This was one of the most eagerly awaited books in my collection, as real, careful, scholarly work on the battle of Wakefield is very thin on the ground. For a battle with such profound consequences, there is very little in primary sources and most of the secondary sources can’t be taken at face value. Cox had done a good job sifting through all. Her greatest achievement in this book is addressing the various myths surrounding the battle. Her own conclusions about the battle cover a disappointing sixteen pages and, unfortunately, left me unconvinced. Not, I hasten to add, the substance of it, but rather some of the speculative detail. (I want to stress that Cox herself sets out her conclusion in terms of “conjecture, theory and speculation” (p74).)

It’s a slim volume, almost more a long journal paper than a book, but it packs quite a wallop for its size. The first two chapters are given over to a brief account of the background to the Wars and, more specifically, the lead up to Wakefield. It left me a little breathless, but certainly did its job! As the likely readers of this book would fall into two camps – WoR tragics like me and battle tragics – there was certainly no need to go into excruciating detail here. The first group of readers should be assumed to have at least a working knowledge and the second group might be assumed to want to get straight into the meat of it – the battle itself. Either way, the introductory chapters are quite sufficient in this regard.

Chapter 3 was, for me, by far the most interesting, useful and valuable. Cox takes the myths surrounding the battle – the various purported reasons for York’s catastrophic defeat – and knocks them down one at a time. She takes as her starting point the idea that York was no fool militarily and builds from there, making extensive use of both primary and secondary sources, as well as taking into account the topography of the battlefield and the (scant) archaeological record. My own preferred hypothesis was demolished along with the rest! This is something I have surprisingly few regrets about.

One mystery snippet – the so-called battle of Worksop – was very nicely cleared up in this chapter as well. When I first heard mention of it, I was puzzled, thinking that something so important as an actual battle slipping through my radar unnoticed was a sad indictment on me and my powers of perception. Detail about this event is so limited that that in itself is a clue Cox uses to put it into perspective. All told, chapter 3, Dispelling the myths, does exactly that, clearly and concisely.

Briefly, Cox credits the Lancastrian victory to the treachery of lord John Nevill (Salisbury’s nephew). This isn’t a startling new theory and, of those considered in the chapter on myths, is by far the most convincing. What I had questions about, as I read, was more precisely how this was carried out. With bad blood between lord John (one of the Wrong Nevills) and his uncle, it seems to me that, had Nevill turned up at Sandal days before the battle pledging his support (through York) to Henry VI (it shouldn’t be forgotten that, since the Act of Accord, rightly or wrongly, Margaret of Anjou and her armies were now the rebels and York was the upholder of the king), it would be Salisbury who needed convincing rather than York.

Another important consideration in this is that Cox quite clearly states that John Nevill, lord Montagu, was present at the battle and (needless to say) survived. Few others do, and I think there’s very good reason for that. Had such a high profile Yorkist fought and survived, we’d know a great deal more about Wakefield than we do. While I don’t quibble at all with the core of Cox’s conclusion – it’s by far the most likely – I do have questions about some of the detail. Treachery the depth of lord Nevill’s (rather than an in the field change of sides, akin to Grey of Ruthyn’s at Northampton, or even Stanley’s at Bosworth) would not have gone unremarked by Montagu, had he been there. While (most likely) Grey and (definitely) Stanley  communicated their intentions ahead of time, the conspiracy espoused by Cox is, I think, rather unnecessarily complicated. The closer to the actual battle Nevill appeared, the less time Salisbury would have had to question or challenge his presence. In fact, the longer Nevill was around, the more likely tension or conflict would develop between him and Salisbury. The bitterness between the two branches of the family cannot easily be overstated. Cox quite rightly states that if he was issued a commission of array from Sandal, it would have left him with no time to raise troops, and therefore he already had his men with him. York would also have been able to work this out. I think it’s more likely that Lord Nevill showed up some time very close to 30 December, when York was no doubt aware that he was outnumbered. Salisbury may have expressed doubts, but there wasn’t sufficient time to inspect the teeth of this particular gift horse and whatever pledges he might have made, to Henry VI or otherwise, Nevill was welcomed, perhaps over Salisbury’s doubts and protestations.

The remainder of the book deals with the aftermath of the battle, the fates of various surviving participants and a last word about history’s view of various dukes of York.

Lastly (and I don’t want to be overly critical of this book) there’s what might be considered a fairly minor point but one which, given my focus on the Nevills, is a little perplexing. In all the texts in which they’re mentioned (and they’re by no means mentioned in all of them) the William Bonvilles (father and son – who both lost their lives in the battle) are listed with the Yorkists. Cox has them fighting for the Lancastrians. For purely personal reasons, I really do need to pin this down!

All in all, this is a very useful book and an important contribution to our understanding of a battle about which so little is known. The myth demolition chapter alone is worth the price of admission! Cox’s exploration is holistic and thorough. While I’ve been deeply disappointed in the past with eagerly awaited books, I wasn’t disappointed with this one, though I hoped for a little more about the battle itself. Given the scant information available, I was probably asking for too much! A Wars of the Roses collection without this book is incomplete.

  1. Susan Higginbotham says:

    I haven’t read this one from front to back, but I was impressed by what I did read of it. I had guarded expectations for it–I was half expecting a diatribe about the saintly Duke of York undone by his evil enemies–and I was very pleased to find it fair to both sides.

  2. anevillfeast says:

    Yes. I think she set out to restore York’s reputation a little, but not at the cost of villifying anyone.

  3. Gail Frazer says:

    I suppose much of the “saintly York” stuff is a reaction to the generations of scholars (many of their books still readily available) who have presented him as little more than a cardboard figure labeled “Ambition”, as unsubtle as a character in a mediocre morality play and no better than the lords of the court party. I know when I started deep research into the time, I expected to find things pretty evenly balanced between the two sides so far as who-did-what-and-to-whom. It upset all my preconceptions to learn just how corrupt and treacherous the court party was. A whole thesis for a novel had to be dumped. But I certainly didn’t swing to “sainted York” either. Trying to swallow “sainted Henry VI” was hard enough, poor man. 😀

    • anevillfeast says:

      York’s ‘sainthood’ also kind of works retrospectively for some, Gail, due to the ‘sainthood’ of his youngest son. I think York was as complex a man as any of his time. I don’t subscribe to the idea that, as a proven military commander, he was incapable of making a mistake, just as I don’t subscribe to the view that his defeats ‘tainted’ Warwick. Far too many novelists, imho, present these people as one-dimensional archetypes, none more so than my poor Nevills! (Hardbitten Salisbury, loyal John, worldly George and, of course, greedy, ambitious, arrogant and overmighty Warwick. As for the girls, well they’re just invisible to the naked eye.)

  4. […] Review: The Battle of Wakefield Revisited – Helen Cox […]

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