Unfortunately most of the town and its wealth built up before 1066 was destroyed as part of the ‘harrying of the north’ (1069-70). This was William the Conqueror’s revenge for the resistance to him by the independent northern population. The destruction was so bad that no farming took place in the area for nine years.
The first written record of the town – listed as ‘Wachfeld’ - appeared in the Domesday Book (1089):
In Wachfeld, with its nine Berewics, namely:- Sandala, Sorbe, Werla, Fesbe, Wadesurde, Crumbetonseton, Miclei, Langfeld, and Stanesfelt, there are sixty carucats and three oxgangs, and the third part of an oxgang to be taxed. Thirty ploughs may till these lands. This Manor was in the demense of King Edward the confessor. There are now in the King's hands four villanes, and three priests, two churches, seven sokemen, and sixteen bordars. They together have sixteen ploughs. Wood pasture, six miles long and four broad. The whole is six miles long and six miles broad. Value in the time of King Edward sixty pounds, at present fifteen pounds.
Berewic - a hamlet or small village annexed to a place of greater importance
Carucat - (or carucate) land measurement, 120 acres
Oxgang – land measurement based on fertility and cultivation, 15-20 acres
Demense - land retained by the lord for his own use as distinguished from that granted to others as tenants
Villanes - (or villeins) tenants of the lord
Sokemen – freemen landholders who paid rent for their land
Bordars - peasant farmers
Around 1090 the Manor of Wakefield was given to the Earls Warenne who held the land until 1347.
In 1100 the small church was replaced by a stone structure in the Norman style. It was continually added to until 1315 when the central tower collapsed and the decision was made to completely rebuild. The rebuilding was finished in 1420 and the spire on the west tower, at 247 feet, was the tallest in Yorkshire. Further extensions were carried out between 1458 and 1475.
The building of a castle at Sandal was started early in the 12th century and it was to become the stronghold of the manor. A companion castle at Lawe Hill (in Thornes Park) on the other side of the Calder was also built but eventually abandoned.
Wakefield now embarked on a period of growth and development throughout the middle ages. In 1204 King John granted the rights for a Fair to be held on the eve, feast and morrow of All Saints (1 November), and in 1258 Henry III granted another Fair to be held on the eve, feast and morrow of St. John the Baptist (24 June). These fairs and the weekly markets helped bring people and prosperity to the town. The market was situated close to what is now the Bull Ring. The stalls crammed into this area eventually became houses, and grew into the narrow lanes of Little Westgate, Bread Street, Silver Street and Butcher Row.
The main streets of Westgate, Northgate and Kirkgate were joined by a fourth, Warrengate (named after the lord of the manor).
In 1356 the Chantry Chapel on Kirkgate bridge was built. Originally a wooden structure, it was later built in stone and underwent an extensive makeover during the Victorian period. This chapel is one of only four in the UK to have survived into modern times.
Wakefield’s wealth grew and, helped by its position as a port on the Calder, it become a centre for the woollen and tanning trades. Cattle dealing was also big business. On the outskirts of the town coal was already being dug although it wasn’t the important industry it would eventually become.
The flourishing trade in the town led to the establishment of many craft and religious guilds. And, as in many other medieval towns, the guilds collaborated to organise and perform mystery plays each year on the feast of Corpus Christi. This particular cycle of 32 religious performances in Wakefield, based on stories from the Bible, was written down sometime in the 15th century by an unknown local author who has become known as the Wakefield Master due to his obvious literary skills.
In 1460 the Wars of the Roses came to Wakefield. Richard, the Duke of York had marched north with a large force to challenge the Lancastrian army, encamped at Pontefract Castle, that supported Henry IV’s claim to the throne. The Duke made Sandal Castle his base but on 30 December he was lured out of the safety of the castle and into a trap close by. He was killed after being unhorsed and refusing quarter. His son, the 17 year old, Earl of Rutland was caught fleeing the battlefield and summarily stabbed to death on Wakefield bridge. All the Yorkist nobles were executed when caught instead of being ransomed as was the usual practice. The rest of the Yorkist army tried to escape but most, caught in the ings around the River Calder, were killed in the ensuing rout. Many hundreds were captured and lodged in the Tower of London in what became known as the Wakefield Tower. This defeat at the Battle of Wakefield seems to have been the inspiration for the mocking nursery rhyme, ‘The Grand Old Duke of York’.
Richard's other son, when he became Edward IV erected a wooden cross in 1461 at the site of his father's death. This was destroyed during the Civil War, but replaced by a stone monument in 1897, which can still be seen in Manygates Lane.
In the 1480s Richard III began further work on Sandal Castle to provide him with a stronghold in the north, but his death at Bosworth in 1485 put an end to the building. From that point on the castle began a steady decline into ruin, and was finally destroyed by the Parliamentarian army in 1645.
Despite the mayhem of these years Wakefield continued to prosper, gaining a reputation as ‘merrie’ Wakefield (see note below). In 1538, John Leland, who was Henry VIII’s chaplain, 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 se coal in the quarters about Wakefield'
At the request of many prominent Wakefield citizens Queen Elizabeth I established a grammar school by Royal Charter in 1591. The wealthy Savile family were early benefactors of the school. The original building was built in 1598 at Goody Bower from locally quarried stone. Now heavily restored it is known as the 'Elizabethan Gallery' in Brook Street. The Queen Elizabeth Grammar School (QEGS) is still in existence today. It moved to its current location in Northgate in 1854.
In 1595 the barrister, George Savile left £20 in his will for the establishment of a house of correction in the town. This primitive prison was probably in Back Lane close to Westgate. It was added to over the years before being completely rebuilt in the 19th century.
The origin of Wakefield being called 'merrie' is unclear.
J W Walker's standard history of Wakefield "Wakefield, its history and its people" (1933) states that the townsmen earned the title in the medieval period due to their love of sports and games such as archery. Later in the book he claims that Wakefield may have acquired this tag because of its pageants (Wakefield mystery plays).
"A provincial glossary" by Francis Grose (1787) states that Wakefield was merry because of "cheapness and plenty of good cheer" quoting Fuller's "History of the worthies of Yorkshire" (1662). He also speculates that the word "merrie" is a corruption of the word "mirrie" which means faithful or true and may refer back to the Wars of the Roses.
There is also a folk song called "Merry Wakefield"