In order to remember my ancestors with the names Fozzard, Ellis, Stephenson, Aveyard, Booth, Burnill, Cawthorne, Gomersal, Archer, Hartley, Heald, Clayton, Croft, Jackson, Land, Lumb, Mitchell and Wilson, here is a short article to introduce Wakefield and its environs.

A good half of my ancestry originates in the area that is now within the City and Metropolitan District of Wakefield, including Ossett which for a time was an ancient parish of Dewsbury (the latter now lies in Kirklees). I’ve neglected Wakefield itself in my studies for some time, having concentrated more on the areas to the west of the city from Dewsbury to Huddersfield (in Kirklees), so this short article is an attempt to give some small justice to Wakefield.

A Potted History

Wakefield is 9 miles (14 km) south-east of Leeds and 28 miles (45 km) south-west of York. Just a village in 1086, it was recorded in the Domesday book, the great survey carried out by King William I.

Domesday Book

Below is a facsimile of the Domesday Book entry.


The document tells us that it was land belonging to the King (William the Conqueror). It comprised 9 villagers, 11 freemen, 22 smallholders, 3 priests. The number of inhabitants can only be guessed, as only the heads of households were counted. Not counting the priests, the 44 families could count between say 200 and 300 individuals. It had 51 ploughlands and 13 men’s plough teams. Other resources: Woodland 3 x 3 furlongs; 6 x 4 leagues of mixed measures. 2 churches.

The annual value to the Lord had been 60 pounds in 1066…but was only 15 pounds in 1086.

Tenant-in-chief in 1086: King William.
Lord in 1086: King William.
Lord in 1066: King Edward.
The land was partially waste (uncultivated) in 1086, which would be mainly due to the limited size of the population. It has been estimated that, at this time, the population of England was about 2 million, with a population density of approximately 3 per square mile.

West Yorkshire was one of the areas that had been most severely affected by the “Harrying of the North” after the Norman Conquest, when many of its towns and villages had been laid waste and inhabitants killed by the vengeful King William I, following the uprising in the north. The population of the Manor of Wakefield had not increased much in the following 20 years and large areas were still uncultivated (waste) in 1086. Before the Norman Conquest, Wakefield had been part of a royal estate of the Saxon Kings. In 1088, the population had become so depleted and the land so neglected, that its value to the Crown had reduced from £60 to £15.

The Manor of Wakefield

In 1107, King William Rufus granted the manor of Wakefield to William de Warenne (1081-1138), Second Earl of Surrey, a Norman whose father William de Warenne, First Earl of Surrey (who had died in 1088) had accompanied William the Conqueror in his quest to gain the throne of England. In 1088 William II had inherited his father’s lands in England and his Norman estates including the castles of Mortemer and Bellencombre in Haute-Normandy. He married Elizabeth de Vermondois, grand-daughter of King Henry I of France. They had five children.

Wakefield’s two castles were built in the 12th century, by the 2nd Earl and/or his oldest son, the third Earl, another William de Warenne (1119–1148). The seat of the Warennes became Sandal Castle, originally a motte and bailey structure, built on the south banks of the River Calder, on a natural stone ridge just outside Wakefield. The other, Wakefield Castle, also a motte and bailey structure, was built on the north side of the River Calder, at a place known as Lowe Hill or Lawe Hill, a name that came from the Anglo-Saxon word “hlaew”, meaning “a mound”. The motte here was about 50 feet in diameter and it had two baileys fortified by timber palisades. The baileys contained stables, workshops and garrisons for soldiers. The mottes of each castle was topped by a timber tower. The Warennes also held Conisborough Castle in addition to retaining their lands in France.

William the third Earl was a follower of King Stephen but died in the Crusades in 1148 and the manor passed to his only surviving child, the 11 year old Isabel, 4th Countess of Surrey (c1137-1203), who married William of Blois, the younger son of King Stephen, in 1153. After her husband’s death without issue, in 1159, King Henry II’s younger brother, William FitzEmpress, sought her hand in marriage, but Thomas Becket refused a dispensation on the grounds of consanguinity. In April 1164, the countess married Hamelin Plantagenet of Anjou, a natural half-brother of King Henry II, After the marriage he was recognised as Comte de Warenne and took the Warenne name. They had a son, yet another William de Warenne, 5th Earl of Surrey (1166–1240) who was loyal to his cousin, King John, and his name appears in the Magna Carta. After King John’s death, in 1216 he became a supporter of King Henry III.

Of the two castles, Wakefield castle did not survive. Sandal was fortified with stone, by the Warennes, in the 13th Century. The stone keep had four towers and a gatehouse and was surrounded by a moat. A curtain wall 20 feet high surrounded the bailey and crossed the moat twice. The Barbican, a three storey tower, had its own gate and portcullis and was situated between the main entrance and the keep. During excavation of the bailey in the 1960s, remains of a Mesolithic encampment (circa 5000 BC) were discovered.

Sandal Castle

The sixth Earl, John de Warenne (1231–1304), lost the Manor of Wakefield during the Barons’ uprising against King John, in 1264, regaining it at the battle of Evesham in 1265. His son William (1256–1286) was killed at a tournament in Croydon pre-deceasing his father, so never became Earl. William’s son, John (1286-1347) took the title 7th Earl after his grandfather’s death.

Throughout the Great Famine of 1315–1317, the Warenne family held on to the Manor of Wakefield but in 1319, it was ceded to the Lord of the Honour of Pontefract, Thomas of Lancashire, who was required to pay 1000 marks a year to the Warennes.

Lancaster was found guilty of treason in 1322 after which the land reverted to the Crown. In 1347, King Edward III gave Sandal to his fifth son, Edmund of Langley, who was six years old at the time. The descendants of Edward III’s seven sons and five daughters contested the throne for generations, coming to a head in the Wars of the Roses. The Wars of the Roses were fought over a period of 32 years (1455-1487). In December 1460, during the first reign of Henry VI, a major battle occurred at Sandal Magna, Wakefield, when the Yorkists under Richard Duke of York, were destroyed by forces of the Lancastrians under Henry VI’s Queen, Margaret of Anjou.

SIR JOHN SAVILE of Thornhill (near Dewsbury) was High Sheriff of Yorkshire 1455 and 1461; Member of Parliament for Yorkshire 1450, 1467; chief steward of the manor of Wakefield, which gave him custody of Sandal Castle. He died at Sandal Castle on the feast of St. Basil (January 2nd) in 1482.

In 1483, Richard Duke of York’s twelfth child and eighth son, King Richard III, chose Sandal as his northern base but he was killed in 1485 at Bosworth Field. After this, the castle was neglected and was in partial ruin by the time it was garrisoned in the Civil Wars of the 1640s. It was occupied by Royalist Soldiers. See the story at this link. At the end of the Civil war, the castle was slighted (made unusable) by Parliament.

Sandal Castle in 2020

Wakefield Market

From 1086 to 1300, there was a huge population growth as a result of the resettlement of the waste lands from outlying areas, colonisation of new land and also a natural growth in population aided by temperate weather and good harvests. The Manor was benefiting from an increase in trade and commerce and the setting up of a market. The market granted the rights to the sale of certain goods within a specified area. The market place was at the centre of the village, where agricultural produce, grain, cattle, horses, poultry and, importantly, wool, were traded. Bread, butter and cheese were staple foods, but more exotic produce like wine also began to be traded. Soon cloth and manufactured goods were sold and market booths grew to as large as 15 square yards in one case, at an increased price to the trader of course, who paid a license fee and yearly rent for his plot. Failing to obtain a license or infringing rules about the location and size of booths incurred heavy fines from the Manor Court.

View towards Emley © C Widdall
The Calder Valley from the remains of Sandal Castle © Christine Widdall

Medieval Wakefield

The Norman Manor of Wakefield comprised the village, 14 parcels of sokeland (soke denotes the right to hold a court), six vills (small townships) and eight berewicks (outlying parcels of farmland). It was second only in size to neighbouring Pontefract and extended from the foothills of the Pennines across moorland and the Coal Measures, to the pleasant arable land around the River Calder and extensive areas of woodland.

For administrative purposes the manor, under the Normans, was divided into 4 bailiwicks (Wakefield, Brighouse, Kirkburton, and Halifax.). A Manorial Court was held every three weeks at Wakefield, to deal with feet of fines (land transactions), enforcement of manorial duties and minor law infringements. In his absence, the Earl’s stewards were left in charge and below them were bailiffs and graves (the under-stewards).

By the time that the Lay Subsidy (an early national direct tax) was levied in 1316, Wakefield was becoming so successful that it had grown to twice the value of Pontefract instead of half the value that it had previously been. A 14th-century, nine arched stone bridge, named the “Chantry Bridge” was built around 1340 and still spans the River Calder near the present city centre.

Chantry Bridge over the River Calder at Wakefield, by Philip Reinagle, R.A. Dated 1793

Sheep rearing and the production of raw wool was now becoming very important to the prosperity of the area. The traded wool was carried to Lincoln for shipping to Flemish and Italian weavers. Livestock “fairs” were held twice a year and so successful was the wool trade, that Earl Warenne successfully petitioned for the right to hold a third fair, a three day wool fair, once a year. The fleece from ten sheep could fetch as much as 5 shillings at market and wool dealers “Wool-men” made a good living as middlemen. The particulars of the wool industry in West Yorkshire is dealt with more fully elsewhere in this website. Please visit this link.

Alongside the wool and woollen cloth trades, tanning, weaving, fulling and dyeing, iron smelting and coal mining were important to the local industry.

As Wakefield grew from a village into a town and later a cathedral city, it was prominent in so many of the national events of the time. During the Wars of the Roses, Richard Plantagenet, Duke of York was killed on 30 December 1460 in the Battle of Wakefield near Sandal Castle and Wakefield was an important Royalist stronghold in the Civil War.

Wakefield became known as the “Merrie City” in the Middle Ages and, in 1538, John Leland described it as…

…a very quick market town and meately large; well served of fish and flesh both from sea and by rivers

…so that all vitaile is very good and chepe there. A right honest man shall fare well for 2d. a meal

…There be plenti of sea coal in the quarters about Wakefield


17th Century onwards

In 1699, construction began on the Aire and Calder Navigation which ultimately gave access to the North Sea. The Calder and Hebble Navigation, constructed between 1758 and 1834 made the River Calder navigable between Sowerby Bridge and Wakefield.

The railways arrived in Wakefield in 1840 when Kirkgate station was built on the Manchester and Leeds Railway. Westgate Station followed in 1856 on the main line between Leeds and Doncaster.

For Wakefield’s Prison and The Wakefield Asylum (the latter played a central role in the development of British psychiatry), please see my articles, Misdemeanour, Felony and Bankruptcy and Are you Mad?.

Wakefield became the seat of regional government in Yorkshire and for two centuries provided the county headquarters of the West Riding. In 1765 Wakefield’s cattle market was established, which became one of largest in the north of England.

Wakefield’s Tammy (Piece) Hall

A cloth or piece hall was where clothiers sold their woollen pieces to merchants. The Wakefield clothiers made broadcloth and also thinner wool cloth pieces called “tammies”. Tammy is made from mixed fibres of combed wool, was often heavily glazed and was used in the manufacture of linings and underwear. Originally these cloths would be traded at local inns until the building of a first cloth hall in 1710. As trade increased, a group of “stuffmakers” (manufacturers of “stuff” or woollen fabric without a pile) bought a piece of land on which they would erect a new hall. By 1778, the town had a new piece hall built for trading woollen cloth, which was called “Tammy Hall”. It cost £367 and was paid for by subscriptions raised from 140 clothiers, who paid 5 guineas each for the privilege of having a stall there. Tammy Hall was a two-storey building, 230 feet long and 33 feet wide, with 60 windows on each side. Each storey was a trading room that stretch the full length of the building. The traders had their stalls down the centre of the building.

The market bell rang to begin selling at 10 am each Friday and the bell rang to end trading at noon.

The Tammy Hall rather quickly fell into disuse and was sold in 1820 to Marriotts who converted it into a factory. It later became a fire station and police offices. Later it was used as Magistrate’s courts, though it had been partly demolished to accommodate the Town Hall. Part of the building still exists on Tammy Street.

19th Century onwards

In 1888 the parish church, which has Saxon origins, acquired cathedral status and City Status was granted later that year. Wakefield became a County Borough in 1913 and, in 1974, it merged with neighbouring districts to become a local government district in West Yorkshire, with the status of both a city and a metropolitan borough. In 2018, the Wakefield Metropolitan area was home to 345,000 people in an area covering 338 square miles, a population density of more than 1000 per square mile, compared to 3 per square mile at the time of the Domesday Book.

Historic view of Wakefield Cathedral

Situated close to the M1 motorway there is easy access to major north-south routes and east-west routes via the M62. In recent years the city of Wakefield has been subject to a regeneration scheme, including the Wakefield Waterfront and the building of the Hepworth Art Gallery. Wakefield Cathedral, however, remains a familiar landmark, with its 247 foot (75 metre) high spire still the tallest structure around.