The skyline south of Wakefield is dominated by ruined castle at Sandal. It was built by some of the greatest soldiers of the Middle Ages, the Warenne family. The town of Varenne near Dieppe, in North-East Normandy was the ‘home town’ of the Earl. The first known member of the family is Ralph de Warenne in the 1030’s, but the family’s advancement and enrichment was by his son William through his active support of William Duke of Normandy in the mid 1050’s. His reward for loyalty included the gift of a place upstream on Varenne called Bennecombre, where he built a massive motte-and-bailey castle. This remained the headquarters of the family in Normandy till 1204, and of the Norman branch until 1261. After 1066, William I de Warenne became one of the many European elites whose fortunes were transformed by the conquest of England: William fought at Hasting and was one of King William’s inner political circle and was one of the four magnates who ruled in King Williams absence in 1067.

By May 1070, William I de Warenne had been given the ‘rape of Lewes’ a large swathe of Southern England vulnerable to attack from the troublesome Dukes of Flanders and Boulogne. This was a task given only to King Williams most trusted allies. Warenne gained land in Norfolk through marriage to Gundrada – of Norse origin – sister and heir of Frederick who had received in 1866 the estates of Toki, which included what is now Castle Acre by 1071. He enlarged his landholdings by supressing a revolt in 1075 in East Anglia.

One of the earliest maps of Wakefield, made in 1823, shows the three main streets radiating out from the marketplace and Bull Ring. (Wakefield A Potted History, Amberley Publishing)

After King William’s death in 1087, Warenne supported King William Rufus (reigned 1087-1100) against the Kings rebellious half-brother, Bishop Odo of Bayeaux, and Robert of Mortain. He was rewarded with more land in Sussex and Surrey being created Earl of Surrey. Warenne was described by a near contemporary as ‘Warlike, fierce in spirit, strong in body and distinguished in fame.’ He met his end however, during the siege of Pevensy Castle in 1088 when he was struck in the eye by an arrow. The castle was held by Robert of Mortain.  Warennes body was carried to Lewes where he died shortly afterwards and was buried in Lewes Priory.

He was succeeded by William, second earl of Surrey (and the first to style himself Earl Warenne), who had a career as a soldier and politician en parr with his father. When Wiliam Rufus was killed by accident or murdered – it is hard to say – his younger and ruthless brother Henry took the throne. Civil war ensued and Warenne took the side of Robert Curthouse when had landed in 1101 to oust his younger brother, King Henry I. The invasion failed, and Warenne forfeited his lands. Seeking to win Royal favour - and to regain his lands - Warenne changed sides and fought by King Henry’s side at Tinchebrai in 1106. This was not the end of the vicious civil war than engulfed England and Normandy. Robert Curthouses’s son, William Clito, almost succeeded in establishing himself as Count of Flanders 1127, yet his death a year later ended the war. Now an intimate of the Royal circle, Warenne was frequently in the Kings company and was celebrated for his loyalty: he was rewarded with the granting of lands in Yorkshire which included the manor of Wakefield and also at Connisburgh and Tickhill, as well as more estates in Normandy. Warenne married Isabel de Vermandois in 1118, recently widowed, by which time according to one chronicle, she had already been living with Warenne for some years, ‘stolen by intrigue and treachery’.

It was on this William’s initiative – presumably- that work began constructing a motte-and-bailey castle near Wakefield at Sandal. It was also William who granted Robert de Flemming the power to found a Cistercian nunnery at Kirklees. William founded no other monastic institution in the manor, instead he invested heavily at his priories at Lewes and Castle Acre, and where great stone castles arose. This perhaps reflects Warennes ambivalent attitude to the small, impoverished village of Wakefield: at Castle Acre Warenne built both a Cluniac monastery, laid out a new town and invested in the stone castle. At Sandal, a simple timber hall and tower was deemed sufficient.  Perhaps a garrison of 50 men or less were based in the castle.

Presumably the castle at Sandal was completed by Warennes death in 1138. He was succeeded by his son, another William III, who died on crusade in 1148. He deserted King Stephen (reigned1135-1154) when the latter endeavoured to invade Normandy. Like his father, ‘seeing which way the wind was blowing’ he changed sides, and aided Stephen during the civil war against King Henry I daughter Matilda who sought the crown for herself. At William’s death near Laodicea in modern Turkey at the side of King Louis VII of France, his estates passed to daughter Isabel, and thus, with the Earldoms of Surrey and Warenne, to her husband William of Blois, King Stephen’s youngest son. It was probably William III who gave land in Alverthorpe to the Knights Templar, where they established a preceptory and farm, which boasted a water mill and over 200 acres of farmland.

Sandal Castle motte, erected by 1180. The castle is the single largest medieval structure in the immediate environs of Wakefield. (Wakefield A Potted History, Amberley Publishing)

In 1153 King Stephen came to an agreement that Henry de Anjou, son of Matilda, would be his successor. William of Blois, IV earl of Surrey and Count of Boulogne was excluded from the line of succession. When William died in 1159, King Henry II (reigned 1154-1189) decreed that Isabel was to marry Hamelin Plantagenet in 1164, half-brother of Henry II, making him fifth earl of Surrey. Hamelin was a loyal supporter of Henry II in his struggles with his sons and kith and kin. In 1167 both Philip Count of Flanders and brother Matthew supported King Louis of France against Henry II and their kinsman Hamelin: they threatened to invade, but were handsomely paid off by King Henry. The two brothers joined Henry II eldest son Henry ‘the Young King’ - crowned King of England but never allowed to rule – who paid them £1000 a year and were given lands in Kent and the castles of Dover and Rochester – and invaded Normandy. The young king was supported by his brothers Geoffrey Duke of Brittany and Richard and their mother Eleanor of Aquitaine. Matthew was killed in fighting at Drincourt in July 1173, Philip did not return to the field till 1174, planning to invade England, assembling a fleet at Wissant and Gravelines. Philip captured Norwich 18 June 1774. The revolt was joined by the King of Scotland, and other allies, in what became known as the ‘Great Revolt’ Peace was brokered in 1175, but the young king again rose in revolt in 1183, during which he died. Geoffrey was accidentally killed -murdered seems more likely- in 1186, which brought Henry II some peace. This was shattered by Richard and John rising in rebellion in 1189, during which Henry II. With Hamelin heavily invested in fighting he found little time or finances to spend at Sandal. He rebuilt the castle in Connisburgh shortly before his death in 1202.

Hamelin’s son, William Plantagenet V earl of Surrey, inherited his father’s estates in 1202. He perhaps never travelled to Sandal: his first tenure of office as Lord Warden of the Cinque Ports began in 1204 and lasted until 1206; he was again appointed as Warden in 1214. He was also a Warden of the Welsh Marches between 1208 and 1213. Between the years 1200 and 1208, and between 1217 and 1226 he was to serve as the High Sheriff of Surrey. He remained loyal to King John and had been present at the coronation of John on 27 May 1199. During the king's difficulties with the barons, when they sought for the French prince to assume the English throne, William is listed as one of those who advised John to accede to Magna Carta. His allegiance only faltered a few times when the king's cause looked hopeless; the invasion by French forces led by Prince Louis shortly before the death of John, tipped his loyalty to the Baronial and French cause. Had it not been for William Marshal acting to defend the English Crown, Prince Louis may well have been King of England, with the nation becoming a vassal of France, much as it had done in 1066 to Normandy and 1154 to the Angevin Empire. In March 1217 he again demonstrated his loyalty to England by supporting the young King Henry III (reigned 1216-1272), and he was also responsible for the establishment of Salisbury Cathedral. William married Maud Marshal – daughter of William Marshall - widow of Hugh Bigod, 3rd Earl of Norfolk, on 13 October 1225. They had one son, John, and a daughter, Isabel. John (1231–1304) succeeded his father as earl, while Isabel (c. 1228 – 1282) married Hugh d'Aubigny, 5th Earl of Arundel. William may also have had an earlier, childless marriage to another Maud, daughter of William d'Aubigny, 2nd Earl of Arundel. William V disliked the royal favourites who came into power after 1227, and by 1238 he was regarded as a leader of the baronial opposition, as the Great Council appointed him as one of the treasurers who were to prevent the king from squandering the subsidy voted in that year. He died in May 1240. It may have been this William who began building the stone castle at Sandal, commencing with the keep.

It would be during the life of John VI earl of Surrey and Warenne who completed the stone castle: he was but boy when his father died, Warenne became a royal ward. Peter of Savoy was appointed guardian of his holdings and Warenne was raised at the royal court. He married in 1247 the King’s half-sister, Alicia de Lusignan, further reinforcing the families long standing royal connections. A significant soldier and statesmen, in 1254, he accompanied the king's son Edward (the future Edward I) on Edward's journey to Spain to marry Eleanor of Castile.

During the conflicts between Henry III and his barons, Warenne started as a strong supporter of the king, switched to support for Simon de Montfort, and then returned to the royalist party. He opposed the initial baronial reform plan of May 1258, but along with other opponents capitulated and took the oath of the Provisions of Oxford. By 1260, Warenne had joined the party of Simon de Montfort, but switched back to the king's side in 1263. In April 1264, he and Roger de Leybourne were besieged by de Montfort at Rochester Castle. In May of the same year Warenne was present for the Battle of Lewes (fought near his ancestral home, Lewes Castle). After the capture of the king and Prince Edward he fled to the Continent, where he remained for about a year. His estates were confiscated but were subsequently restored. He returned to fight in the campaign which culminated in the Battle of Evesham, the Battle of Chesterfield and the siege of Kenilworth Castle.

Exterior of the Moot Hall built in 1656. It was the third such building on the same site. In the Middle Ages, governance of the town was vested with the steward to the lord of the manor. The king only granted the privilege of holding such a court to a few of his subjects. Unlike most lords of the manor, the earls of Warenne held the right to carry out summary trial and the execution of thieves. The court was held in the Moot Hall. (Courtesy of Yorkshire Archaeological Society, Wakefield A Potted History, Amberley Publishing)

Warenne served in Edward I's (reigned 1272-1307) Welsh campaigns in 1277, 1282, and 1283. In 1282, King Edward awarded him the Lordship of Bromfield and Yale in Wales, which was taken from Prince Gruffudd Fychan I and his son Madog Crypl. He was one of the negotiators for the 1289 treaty of Salisbury and for the 1290 treaty of Birgham and accompanied the king on Edward's 1296 invasion of Scotland where he commanded the only major field action of that year in the Battle of Dunbar, following which he was named warden of Scotland in August 1296. The following spring saw the rebellion of William Wallace, Warenne was ordered to lead his army North by the King after initially refusing to return to Scotland. He was defeated by Wallace at the Battle of Stirling Bridge and fled to York.

Nevertheless, the king appointed Warenne captain of the next campaign against the Scots in early 1298. He raised the siege of Roxburgh and re-took the town of Berwick. The king himself took the field later that year, and Warenne was one of the commanders during the decisive English victory at the Battle of Falkirk. During the campaign of 1300 Warenne was again in the field: On 8 August, near the estuary of the Cree, Edward ordered his men and Warenne's to charge at a Scottish force - causing the Scots to flee. He died in 1304 aged 73. How much time he spent at Sandal is unclear: Warenne spent 1285 to 1297 at Castle Acre where he welcomed Edward I five times. Certainly, it was he who commended the building of the barbican tower 1270-1271.

John’s heir, his grandson and namesake, earl of Surrey and the last earl of Warenne was an altogether different man: Johns father William had died in 1283 whilst participating in a tournament in Croyden. A minor when his grandfather died his lands were taken into the custody of the Crown at the time and was made a ward of Edward I. He was knighted on 22 May 1306 at Westminster Abbey along with 266 others, among which included the Prince of Wales, the future Edward II, and had his titles restored to him. John was one of the great nobles offended by the rise of Edward II's favourite Piers Gaveston, and helped secure Gaveston's 1308 banishment. The two were somewhat reconciled after Gaveston's return the next year, but in 1312 Warenne was one of the nobles who captured Gaveston. He was however unhappy about Gaveston's execution at the behest of the earl of Warwick, which pushed him back into the king's camp. He played a risky game constantly switching sides and alienating Thomas of Lancaster, the Kings Cousin, in what became a bloody feud. Sandal seems to have been attacked – perhaps sieged – in 1317, but we cannot say if the castle was seriously damaged or not. In 1319, the King granted the Earl of Lancaster the towns of Conisbrough and Sandal, along with the manors of Wakefield, Thorne, Hatfield, Sowerby, Braithwell, Fishlake, Dewsbury, and Halifax. They were restored in 1326, four years after Lancasters execution for rebellion against Edward II, following defeat at the battle of Boroughbridge. Warenne after his brother-in-law Edmund Fitzalan, 9th Earl of Arundel, execution went over to the queen's side, urging Edward II's abdication in 1327. His personal affairs were dominated by his attempts to divorce his childless wife, the King’s niece and to provide for the children of his mistress, Matilda de Narford.

Warenne died in 1347 at Conisbrough Castle. His burial took place at the Priory church of St Pancras, in Lewes. He was the last earl Warenne. His two sons served in the Holy Land as Knights Hospitallers: the Warennes had supported the foundation in 1213 for a Knights Hospitaller Commandery at Newland, near Normanton. Sandal and the Manor of Wakefield passed to the Crown. It marked the end of castle development at Sandal for over 100 years.

Paul L. Dawson's book Wakefield A Potted History is available for purchase now.