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 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. Below is a facsimile of the Domesday Book entry.


The document tells us that it was land belonging to King William (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.

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 not 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.

Now, King William Rufus granted the manor of Wakefield to William de Warenne, second Earl of Surrey, whose father had accompanied William the Conqueror in his quest to gain the throne of England. The seat of the Warennes was Sandal Castle, on the banks of the River Calder, just outside Wakefield. William de Warenne’s son, another William (the third Earl of Surrey), died in the Crusades in 1148 and the manor passed to his only child, Isabel, who married William of Blois. After her husband’s death without issue, she married Hamelin Plantagenet and they had a son, yet another William, who became the fifth Earl and took the Warenne name.

Sandal Castle

The sixth Earl, John de Warenne, lost the Manor of Wakefield during the Barons’ uprising against King John, regaining it the following year at the battle of Evesham in 1265. 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 had to pay Surrey 1.000 marks a year to the Warennes. Lancaster was found guilty of treason in 1322 and the land reverted to the Crown, where it remained until the 17th Century.

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 over 23 square miles, 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 twice the value of Pontefract instead of half. 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 a later 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.

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


In 1699, the construction began on the Aire and Calder Navigation which ultimately gave access to the North Sea. 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. A year later, the town was to have its own piece hall built for trading woollen cloth, which was called the “Tammy Hall”.

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.

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.

Historic view of Wakefield Cathedral
error: © Christine Widdall - Kirklees Cousins