Thomas Stanley is known either as a politically adroit magnate who successfully navigated the stormy seas of the Wars of the Roses or a treacherous little so-and-so – depending upon your historical view point. Stanley is the bloke married to Margaret Beaufort who is best known for being a tad tardy at Bosworth whilst his brother, Sir William, turned coat and attacked Richard III. Stanley wasn’t the only one whose behaviour during the various battles of the wars seems lacking in the essential codes of knightly behaviour but he certainly seems to have been the most successful at avoiding actually coming to blows with anyone unless there was something in it for him – and no this post is not unbiased.
Thomas was born in 1433 , meaning he was some eight years older than Margaret Beaufort. The Stanley family held estates and office in Lancashire and Cheshire into the Peak District as well as being the titular kings of the Isle of Man.
Thomas turns up in 1454 as one of Henry VI’s squires. By the end of the decade he was married to Eleanor Neville, the daughter of the Earl of Salisbury; making the Kingmaker his brother-in-law.
When the peace between the Lancastrians and Yorkists ground to a sticky halt in 1459 Margaret of Anjou ordered Stanley to assemble men to confront Richard of York. This was a tad tricky as Stanley’s brother-in-law, the Earl of Warwick, was with Richard at Ludlow as indeed was his own brother William Stanley. Apparently the earl of Salisbury also corresponded with Stanley at this time – consequentially although Stanley raised a force of 2000 men they sat and twiddled their fingers whilst the Lancastrians and Yorkists expressed their differences of opinion at Bloreheath in August of that year. Parliament was not amused but everyone decided that the best course of action would be to pretend that it never happened.
Richard of York and the Earl of Warwick scarpered to Ireland and Calais respectively in the aftermath of the battle of Ludford Bridge but their return in 1460 saw Stanley trying to sit on the fence and please both sides. It’s quite tricky to spot where he was during the Battle of Towton – but possibly not in Yorkshire. In any event it helped having a powerful brother-in-law on hand to make the new regime more accessible.
Stanley spent the next few years concreting and pacifying his regional power base. He is recorded as going north to take on the Lancastrians during the first part of the 1460s and he was at court when Edward IV’s marriage to Elizabeth Woodville was made public. He became the Justice for Chester – so was one of the magnates that Edward used to rule the regions on his behalf.
Unfortunately Stanley’s brother-in-law was feeling aggrieved. The Kingmaker had not expected Edward IV to get married to a widow with a large family or to start ignoring his advice. In 1470 after the relationship had finally gone sour Warwick took himself and his son-in-law George duke of Clarence off to France to patch things up with Margaret of Anjou and whilst he was at it he arranged the marriage of his youngest daughter Ann Neville to Margaret’s son Prince Edward. Stanley was once again on a sticky wicket. Did he remain loyal to Edward or did he support his brother-in-law?
To answer the question of what Stanley would do it is important to take a step back to 1469 and before that even to 1461. Richard of Gloucester needed someone else to fulfil the role of steward of Penrith Castle and warden of the west march. He chose a man named John Huddleston. Huddleston looked to the Harrington family for patronage. The Harringtons were one of two families who dominated Lancashire and Cheshire – you already know who the other bunch were. The Stanley family – not noted for it front line approach to war- took advantage of the death of Thomas Harrington’s death at the Battle of Wakefield in 1461 fighting for Richard of York, and also that of his son, John, leaving John’s two daughters to inherit. There was a messy court case, some fisticuffs and rather a lot of fudging by Edward IV and Richard of Gloucester who both recognised the loyalty of the Harrington family and the, er, how can I put this – oh yes- shiftiness of the Stanley. Edward IV rather astutely recognised that he couldn’t do without Stanley so he gave the wardship of the two girls to Stanley who intended to marry the little girls to his own son and nephew and thus take control of the estate.
However, the Harrington family argued that the girls were only heiresses if their father -John- had been killed after their grandfather at Wakefield. If Harrington junior had been killed before Harrington senior then there was no case at all because the girls would not be heiresses, their uncle James ( younger brother of John) would automatically inherit. The Harringtons clenched their teeth and retreated to Hornby Castle where they prepared for a siege. Richard by selecting John Huddleston for the important role of warden signposted a downturn in Stanley fortunes and power because he was effectively saying that the Harringtons had a good case for not handing everything over to Thomas Stanley.
Stanley, keen to lay hold of Hornby Castle in Lancashire, sided with Warwick and Henry VI not because of any great loyalty to his brother-in-law or the Lancastrian king but because he was busy having his own baron-on-baron war. Hornby remained Yorkist and the Harrington family who owned it were supported by Richard of Gloucester. It was thanks to this connection that Stanley hadn’t already got his chubby paws on the property. High minded ideals about kingship aside, Stanley besieged the castle because he wanted it he could claim he was doing so in support of Henry VI and with Edward IV on the back foot his irritating little brother couldn’t put his oar in and ruin Stanley’s plans. In short whilst armies were marching around the country slaughtering one another at Barnet and Tewkesbury Stanley was sorting out a property dispute and siding with the colour rose most likely to benefit him.
When Edward IV arrived back in London having dispatched the Lancastrians the Stanley boys removed their red roses and were brandishing white ones with enthusiasm – Thomas from a safe distance. He was swiftly re-admitted to the political fold with a place on the privy council.
By this time Stanley was a widower so had no dodgy Neville extended family. In June 1472, eight months after the death of Sir Henry Stafford, Margaret Beaufort took Stanley as husband number four. The two were, naturally related, in this instance via Sir Henry Stafford (husband number three). Stanley’s marriage to the last Beaufort standing didn’t seem to do Stanley any harm. He became Lord Steward of the Royal Household and turned up in 1482 in Scotland when he was part of the force that captured Berwick-upon-Tweed back from the Scots.Margaret Beaufort probably chose her fourth husband based on the idea of needing someone who could protect her interests and Stanley had already demonstrated advanced skills in self-interest as well as being, somewhat bizarrely, well-in with Edward IV. Whilst Margaret worked on re-establishing her son, Stanley continued to work on dominating vast tracts of Lancashire and Cheshire. For a man not keen to wield a sword on the battle field rather a lot of his opponents soon found themselves on the wrong end of Stanley’s weaponry. Sir John Butler of Warrington was murdered by Stanley’s servants – it was a reminder about who was in charge in the region. Stanley got away with it – he doesn’t even appear to have got his wrist slapped.
There was no love lost between Richard of Gloucester and Stanley. There was the Hornby Castle affair to consider as well as Stanley’s failure to relinquish key northern roles to Gloucester in 1469. It is perhaps not surprising that in 1483 when Richard was unsure who to trust in the run up to taking his nephew’s throne for himself that Stanley found himself briefly under arrest. Stanley who was at the privy council meeting in the Tower on the morning that Lord Hastings was summarily executed was perhaps lucky not to meet with a similar end.
So what did Thomas Stanley have that both Edward IV and Richard III needed that he was able to get away with murder and change sides without too much inconvenience? One gets the feeling it wasn’t his charm and sparkling personality. Stanley was effectively a “mini-king maker” although not as wealthy or influential as the earl of Warwick, Stanley ran the Northwest of England and the border with North Wales. He was able to put a huge number of men in the field (even if they did just stand around). It seems to be that both Edward IV and Richard III felt that it was better to have Stanley on their side than against them.
Stanley played an important part at Richard III’s coronation and did rather well out of the duke of Buckingham’s rebellion in 1483, even though Margaret Beaufort found herself under house arrest and all her assets transferred to her husband.
He became Lord Constable of England although there was the caveat that when Stanley left court to go to Lathom that Richard expected Stanley’s son Lord Strange to be on hand…not a hostage….an incentive for Stanley to return. Of course, once Henry Tudor landed in 1485 Lord Strange was very definitely a hostage. Richard III reminded Thomas that if he don’t tow the line there would be unpleasant consequences for Lord Strange.
At Bosworth on 22nd August 1485 Thomas Lord Stanley did what he did best – he sat around and twiddled his fingers. Lord Strange survived the battle despite the fact that his father’s forces sat between the two opposing armies and did absolutely nothing. Meanwhile Sir James Harrington (you remember the Harringtons and Hornby Castle) rocked up loyal as you please to Richard III. The Harringtons had been loyal to the white rose from start to finish. Sir James may well have been carrying the king’s banner when he died at Richard’s side.
On the 27 October 1485 his step-son, now Henry VII of England, made his earl of Derby and naturally Thomas found himself taking on lots of other jobs as well although Henry VII did execute brother William Stanley in 1495 for his part in the Perkin Warbeck affair.
Thomas Stanley died on the 29 July 1504 – in his bed at Lathom. I’m not actually sure why I object to the man so much. He’s no better and no worse than many other magnates of the period. He was singularly successful at not being present on any battlefield ( which shows a modicum of common sense singularly lacking at the time). He was undoubtedly intelligent and was able to excel politically during a time of instability – more able in some respects than the various Plantagenet scions that hacked one another to pieces on the battle fields of England; definitely more savvie than the honourable Harringtons. However, the Harrington affair, the murder of Sir John Butler and Stanley’s ability to sit on the fence, irrelevant of the plight of his son, combine in my mind at least to make him an unpleasant little weasel who definitely didn’t get what he deserved …which means, as Mr Spock would say, that my logic is defective as this is History and not a story book where honourable loyal people live happily ever after.
Michael J. Bennett, ‘Stanley, Thomas, first earl of Derby (c.1433–1504)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn, Jan 2008 [http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/26279, accessed 30 April 2017]
Norton, Elizabeth. (2011). Margaret Beaufort: Mother of Dynasty. Stroud: Amberley Press
Wagner, John A. (2001) Encyclopedia of the Wars of the Roses.