Wakefield attended Sedbergh School in the West Riding of Yorkshire (now part of Cumbria), leaving during World War I to join the Royal Naval Air Service. After the War he became the captain of the RAF rugby team and joined Harlequins. On 11 October 1919, he made his debut for Harlequins against Richmond and he continued to play for the club for the next ten years. He occasionally played for other teams during this time, but Harlequins was always his main club.
During his career with Harlequins, he appeared a total of 136 times - 82 as captain, and he made his final appearance on 25 January 1930 against Cambridge University. He scored 51 tries for the club, along with one penalty and 14 conversions. He was club captain in the seasons 1920/21, 1924/25 and 1927/28 to 1929/30.
In 1920, Wakefield made his England debut against Wales. He captained the Cambridge University team in 1922. In total, he appeared for England 31 times and was captain on 13 occasions. He led England to back-to-back Five Nations Grand Slams. His final appearance for England was against France in April 1927. Through his career, Wakefield's influence on the game was pronounced. As an excellent all-round athlete he helped revolutionise the role of the back row forward. Prior to Wakefield their role was mainly static -- pushing in the set scrum and winning the ball in loose scrums (or rucks, as they would later become). Wakefield's athleticism enabled him to play a more dynamic role: pressuring the opposition half backs in defence and supporting the attacks of the three quarters, and these remain the prime responsibilities of the modern open side flank forward.
In 1935, Wakefield moved into politics, becoming Conservative Member of Parliament (MP) for Swindon. At the 1945 general election, he moved to St Marylebone. His brother, Edward Wakefield, also became an MP.
Wavell was knighted in 1944 and in 1963, upon retiring from Parliament, became the first Baron Wakefield of Kendal. For many years he was an active member of the Conservative Monday Club.
He was still involved in Rugby and was the RFU president in 1950. From 1950 to 1980 he was president of Harlequins. An excellent all-round sportsman, Wakefield also became the president of the Ski Club of Great Britain, the British Sub Aqua Club and the British Water Ski Federation.
In 1999 Wakefield was inducted as the first English member of the International Rugby Hall of Fame.
He was instrumental in the preservation of the Ravenglass & Eskdale Railway and Lake District Estates, being Director of the former company after the death of Midlands Stockbroker Colin Gilbert. Upon Wakefield's death, his daughter, Joan Raynsford, took over as the head director of the railway company. His other two daughters are also active directors.