Thomas Stanley

by Richard P. McArthur

On August 22, 1485 at Bosworth Field, Richard III, King of England, led a small group of horsemen in an attack on the rival force’s titular leader, Henry Tudor. The attack was on the verge of success. Henry Tudor “found himself supported by only a few of his soldiers, surrounded by Richard’s men and in great danger of his life“1. At this point, “William Stanley and a substantial force of soldiers, sent by his brother Thomas who was encamped with his troops not far from the battlefield, brought most speedy and opportune relief and saved him from death, King Richard being killed in the action.”2

Neither Stanley was a stranger to the King. Neither had been treated indifferently or as an enemy during Richard’s reign. Thomas, Lord Stanley was, at the date of Bosworth, Richard III’s Chamberlain and Constable. Sir William Stanley was Justiciar of North Wales. These were not petty offices.

Lord Thomas Stanley and Sir William Stanley have a bad reputation among those who have studied the Wars of the Roses. A pithy comment on them is found in anti-Ricardian Desmond Seward’s Richard III - England’s Black Legend “The key mover in the Stanley conspiracy, Sir William was even more treacherous than his brother and had a long history of changing sides.”3

The Stanleys rose to prominence in the late Fourteenth Century. Sir John Stanley (d.1414) was the first Stanley of distinction. By wise marriages and good service, the family rose. Thomas and William’s grandfather “had built up a powerful system of clientage among local families. He had pursued a vigorous policy of ecclesiastical patronage and frequently acted as arbiter in legal disputes. These activities were consolidated by William’s father, Thomas, first Lord Stanley”.4 By the time of the Wars of the Roses, the Stanleys were rich, well landed, mostly in Lancashire, and in office. Sir Thomas Stanley, first Baron Stanley and father of Lord Thomas Stanley of Bosworth fame, was Comptroller of Henry VI’s household.

Thomas Stanley was born around 14355. He was the elder brother to William, whose date of birth is uncertain. Seward suggests the two were twins,6 but there is no conclusive evidence. As Baron Stanley on his father’s death in 14597, Thomas was referred to as Lord Stanley.

As head of the Stanleys, Thomas held the fate of the family in his hands. Perhaps this responsibility made him cautious during the Wars of the Roses. Was his inner feeling that he had no enthusiasm for either side or was he simply cautious by nature?

Thomas first attracts attention from the Battle of Blore Heath, in 1459. By this time he was probably married to a daughter of Richard Nevill, Earl of Salisbury.8 Thomas is thought to have been near the field with 2,000 men, presumably in answer to a summons from Henry VI. In the context of a Fifteenth Century English battle, even in the earlier part of the Wars of the Roses, that was a sizeable force. Thomas could have made a difference then, but he did nothing to help either side.9 He is alleged to have “sent several messages assuring Queen Margaret of Anjou that he was on the way, even offering to take command of the royalist van in order to allay the suspicions aroused by his apparent dilatoriness.”10 However, he did nothing. William, Thomas’ brother, was on the Yorkist side at Blore Heath. Perhaps Thomas didn’t want to exacerbate his brother’s danger?

At the Battle of Northampton in 1460, Thomas supported the Lancastrian side. Both Paul Murray Kendall11 and Giles St. Aubyn 12 thinks Thomas fought there, albeit Kendall states “he apparently fought with little heart.”13 If Thomas actually fought at Northampton for Henry, he may well have been given an unholy shock. The battle was won for the Yorkists when the commander of the Lancastrian vanguard suddenly changed sides. The Duke of Buckingham, who was on the Lancastrian side, was killed. It may well have served to warn Thomas that war, especially civil war, could be very uncertain.

If Thomas was at Northampton, how did he get away? The usual procedure for the leaders in Fifteenth Century English armies was to dismount, and fight on foot. Mounting a horse was usually for flight or pursuit. At Northampton the Lancastrians were behind fortifications and on the defensive. The Yorkists definitely were on the attack, presumably Thomas, too, would have been afoot. When the Lancastrian army collapsed, getting out of the area must have been hair-raising. Perhaps this reinforced Thomas’ later aversion to risk.

Allegedly, Lord Stanley then fought on the Yorkist side at Towton.14 This seems based on a Fifteenth Century poem, The Rose of Rouen, a Yorkist propaganda piece. This refers to the heraldic devices and badges of the various participants, and claims as present for Edward IV “the Hart’s Head”, a Stanley device. According to most authoritative books on heraldry, the Stanley device consisted of the head of a male deer, common to all the coats of arms of the Stanleys.15 After the Lancastrians won at Wakefield and the Second Battle of St. Albans, it seems doubtful that Lord Stanley would risk everything by turning up and fighting at Towton. However, it is open to speculation that Thomas fought at Towton; if he did, he fought for York.

In the “first” reign of Edward IV, Thomas prospered. He was made Chief Justice of Chester and Flint, an appointment preceding Towton.16

When Warwick fell out with Edward, the former looked to Thomas for aid. In 1470, when fleeing Manchester, Warwick seems to have anticipated receiving aid from Thomas. It didn’t happen. In fairness to Lord Stanley, it should be pointed out that both Kendall and Charles Ross are of the opinion that Richard, Duke of Gloucester, hastily marching to Edward’s help, might have made Thomas think better of helping Warwick. Of course, by then, Thomas may have needed little inducement to stay out of hostilities.

Why did Warwick anticipate aid from Thomas? Had he sounded Thomas out and gotten some indications of sympathy, some offer or deemed offer for aid? They were in-laws then, but did Warwick really think that such a relationship, in and of itself, would induce Thomas to join in the defiance of the king? Yet I am aware of no source saying Thomas was a part of the anti-Edward conspiracy of Warwick and Clarence.

When Edward IV returned from exile, Thomas was once again a non-participant at either Barnet or Tewkesbury.

In the Anglo-Scottish conflict of 1482, Stanley served England sufficiently. He stayed at Berwick to mask it 17 while Richard, Duke of Gloucester went into Scotland. Lord Stanley completed the capture of the Berwick citadel. His services gained favorable mention to Parliament.18

Thomas, Lord Stanley, did fairly well during Edward IV’s reign. He was the principal lord in Lancashire.19 He had influence in North Wales and Cheshire.20 He and Richard, Duke of Gloucester thus to some extent abutted, and to some smaller extent overlapped, in territory and influence. Ross points out that Richard didn’t interfere with Stanley’s territory.21

Where the two might have differed was on a peripheral, but very probably annoying matter: the issue of ownership of Hornby. In March 1471, after Henry VI came back into power, Thomas besieged Hornby Castle in Lancashire for Henry. Thomas claimed ownership of Hornby and was feuding with the Harrington family over the claim. The dispute began with the Battle of Wakefield. Sir Thomas Harrington and his eldest son John were killed fighting for the Yorkists. John left behind two daughters, whose wardship passed to Edward IV after his accession. The wardship of the elder daughter, Anne, was granted to Geoffrey Middleton, head of the Lonsdale family. The girls’ uncles, James and Robert Harrington, seized the girls and the family lands; the latter on a claim of tail male.22 In 1468 the Harringtons were called upon to answer to the King’s Chancery. Edward IV gave the girls’ wardship to the Stanley family, by then powerful enough to contest the Harrington claims. The girls were then married into the Stanley family. The dispute raged well into the second reign of Edward IV. The Harrington family had been instrumental in helping Edward IV regain his throne, and they may well have thought they had a claim on him. In 1470, the Harrington family appealed to Richard, Duke of Gloucester. Richard was a good lord to the Harringtons.23 In 1473, Richard headed a commission, which had specific instructions from Edward IV to take and deliver Hornby to Lord Stanley, and “signally failed to carry out its task”.24 In 1472, the matter was settled. Hornby was given to the daughters of John Harrington and the property went to the Stanley family.

On the whole, Thomas and Richard seemed to have gotten along fairly well. Quite possibly Richard’s help to the Harringtons was indirect and not purposeful. His appointments and awards may have given them the wherewithal to keep the matter alive in the courts.

Something far more significant and ultimately unfavorable to Richard happened either in 1472 or early 1473; Thomas married Lady Margaret Beaufort Tudor Stafford.25 Lady Margaret was the person to whom the Lancastrian claim, derived from John of Gaunt, Edward III’s third son, reverted after the deaths of Edward of Lancaster and Henry VI, the last effective representatives of John’s line from Henry IV, his older son.26 Margaret represented John’s other descendants, by his third marriage to Katherine Swynford.27 There was some question as to whether a woman could wear the crown, but none as to whether a woman could carry and pass along the right to the crown.

Margaret’s right was not embodied in her so much as in her son of her first marriage: Henry Tudor. Henry was then in Brittany out of reach of Edward IV. Margaret’s second marriage, to a scion of the Staffords, had been childless. It seems that Margaret could have no other children.28 Margaret was permitted to marry a lord as powerful as Stanley was a good indication of Edward IV’s confidence that the Tudor claim was not serious.

When Edward IV died, Thomas was no doubt as shocked as anyone else. Stanley is not mentioned as being a player in the initial moves either of the Woodvilles or of Richard, Duke of Gloucester. It is only after Stony Stratford that Lord Stanley is mentioned. Hastings, Lord Howard, William FitzAlan, Earl of Arundel and Stanley, are noted as being a clique.29

On June 13, 1483, a council meeting was called. Richard, Duke of Gloucester accused Hastings, Lord Stanley, and others, of treason. Hastings was sent to the block, Thomas to a brief confinement.

Up to this point it must be noted that Lord Stanley, trimmer, cannot be positively shown to be Lord Stanley, schemer. No one seems to identify him as a plotter with Warwick and Clarence, or with the Woodvilles during Edward IV’s reign. He was a waiter on events; not one who tried causing them. The events of June 13, 1483 may simply have involved him as a suspect, not a proven plotter. The assumption that Richard was lenient to Thomas because he feared that Lord Strange, Thomas’ son, and William, would raise and lead troops for retaliation, as stated by Polydore Vergil,30 is a reasonable conjecture; but possibly Richard really had no evidence against Stanley. We know that Thomas raised no objection to Richard’s assumption of the throne.

Richard III appointed Lord Stanley Steward of the Household, and selected him as Knight of the Garter.31 Yet, during this time, Lady Stanley, Thomas’ wife, almost certainly started plotting Richard’s downfall.

How much of Margaret’s 1483 activities did Thomas know of? He wouldn’t be the first husband to be unaware of a wife’s activities, but one cannot imagine Thomas Stanley was totally unaware of his wife’s actions. On the other hand, he was apparently with Richard when the rebellion was discovered, which was where, as Steward to the Household, he should be on a Royal Progress. It cannot be ruled out that he was playing a cool game, was unaware of Margaret's practices, or that something simply went wrong. Ross and Kendall agree that the Kentish contingent of the rebellion moved prematurely.32 There is speculation33 that Lord Stanley had intended to join the rebels but changed his mind when Buckingham joined the conspiracy.

Thomas Stanley profited from Buckingham’s fall. He was appointed Constable of England,34 and received lands and holdings, the castle and lordship of Kymbellton35, the manor of West Lydford in Somerset,36 and Thornbury.

Thomas Stanley was given custody of Margaret, who was to be isolated; and the interest of a life estate in her lands, reverted to the crown.37

No one has ever suggested that Thomas fulfilled those conditions, except for the land. Margaret went back to conspiring, and very effective at it she was. From her previous marriages she no doubt had a wide range of acquaintances to be called on for help.

Thomas must have known what was going on, in general if not in particular. It has been suggested, by Ross at least, that Richard III’s arrangement with Pierre Landais of Brittany to get Henry Tudor was tipped off by Thomas to Margaret, thence to John Morton.38 This is plausible, though presently unproven.

Thomas was being very careful. His stepson might be the future King of England, but Lord Stanley wasn’t rushing to jump on the bandwagon. When Henry set sail in the summer of 1485 to stake his claim, Thomas wasn’t hurrying to hazard anything.

Why would Thomas, Lord Stanley, who was the Constable of England, Steward of the Royal Household, and a prominent beneficiary of Richard III, turn on him? Did he actually think Richard a usurping, child-killing, regicidal homicide, best removed from England’s throne? Did Thomas really care, or was he simply an opportunist? As pointed out at the start, the man is thought to have been a trimmer, without loyalty, except to himself, going for gain. Nothing in his record contradicts that.

It has been suggested that the Hornby matter had raised its head; that Thomas feared that Richard, either inadvertently or intentionally, was encouraging the Harringtons to renew their claim. I see no citation of any evidence of that, or anything done by the Harringtons to support the notion they were reviving that matter. I see no reason why Richard should incite the Harringtons. Besides, even if true, why should Thomas get upset over Hornby now? He was rich enough without it.

Or, did Thomas Stanley see gain in the offing? To be a stepfather to a king was almost certain to have its advantages. And to be the decisive player in a royal struggle must have its rewards, too.

Was the idea of using Lord Strange as hostage been Stanley’s? Richard III seems to have asked none other for hostages. The gambit would be excellent for inducing Richard to allow Stanley to be away and out of Richard’s immediate power. Richard could probably be counted on to be very hesitant in punishing Strange. It was not until the last moments before his final charge that Richard is alleged to have ordered Strange executed. (The order was not carried out). His son was in Richard’s hands would serve Thomas as an excuse to Tudor for a lot of pro- crastination.39

Strange’s attempt to escape Richard on the 15th of August in 1485, is a bit odd. If he thought himself to be watched as befitted a hostage, did he anticipate success?40 Did he think he was lightly watched that he would be able to escape? If so, then Richard III must have viewed Strange as less than a real hostage. Of course, Strange, who probably knew his father’s plans and intents and activities, may simply have gotten scared, and decided to avoid a hostage’s risks.

Thomas’ behavior from the landing of Henry Tudor to Bosworth is well known. He raised troops, prevaricated when summoned by Richard, avoided coming in to Henry when asked citing Strange’s risk, met with Tudor secretly at Atherstone on the 20 of August and fobbed him off with promises.

Whether he knew it or not, intended it or not, Thomas was committing himself to Tudor. If Richard won, the only way, short of actually fighting on his side and to avoid his wrath would be to dispose of all evidence that implicated Thomas. It meant Margaret and Urswicke, her messenger, and anyone who might have been contacted by them, the unknown for witnesses at Atherstone and whom else? Only by helping Tudor could Thomas get out of that bind.

Thomas’ behavior at Bosworth is not completely known. He was asked by Henry to join him before the opening, Thomas demurred. Some accounts would have us believe the Stanleys to be with Henry from the beginning of the battle; some have Thomas’ forces coming in against Richard before the King charged, even causing the charge as an act of desperation. But from what can be made out from Polydore Vergil, who may be the only writer who might have spoken to English participants many years later, Thomas stayed out, but gave his troops to William, who attacked Richard as Richard attacked Henry. That sounds a lot more like Thomas, Lord Stanley.

Most sources agree Thomas Stanley literally put Richard’s crown on Henry.

Thomas Stanley did very well after Bosworth. He was made Earl of Derby, held most of the property Richard gave him, and prospered. It is of some note that his son Lord Strange commanded, at least in name, the Stanley contingent of Henry VII’s troops at Stoke41. Perhaps Thomas was breaking him in, or maybe feeling the effects of age.

Thomas Stanley, Earl of Derby, died in 1503. His family holds the earldom to this day.


1. Vergil, Anglica Historia, Book XXIV, p. 77.
2. Ibid.
3. Ibid., p.185.
4. Williams, J.M., The Stanley Family of Lathom and Knowsley c1450-1504: A Political Study, University of Manchester M.A. thesis, 1979.
5. Dictionary of National Biography, Vol 18, p. 963.
6. Seward, op. cit.
7. Dictionary of National Biography, Vol. 18, p. 963.
8. Ibid.
9. Rotuli Parliamentorum V, 348, as referred to in Anthony Goodman’s The Wars of the Roses, 1981, pp.26 and (notes), p. 236.
10. Gillingham, The Wars of the Roses, p. 103.
11. Kendall, Richard III ,1983, p. 404.
12. St. Aubyn Giles, The Year of the Three Kings 1483, Athenaum, 1983, p. 126.
13. Kendall, op. cit., p. 404.
14. Boardman, A.W., Battle of Towton, Alan Sutton Publishing, 1994, pp. 51 and 52; Haigh, Philip A., The Military Campaigns of the Wars of the Roses, Alan Sutton Publishing, 1995, p. 60.
15. My thanks to Mrs. Haynie Hensel, of The Whyte Rose Shire of The Richard III Foundation, Inc. for bringing this to my attention.
16. Dictionary of National Biography, p. 964.
17. Rotuli Parliamentorum VI, p. 197.
18. Ross, Richard III, p. 165.
Horrox, Richard III, a Study in Service, p. 68.
19. Ross, op.cit., p.105.
20. Ross, op. cit., p.5.
21. Ross, op.cit., p. 36.
22. i.e., only a male may inherit the land.
23. Ross, Richard III, p.51 and Horrox, Richard III, A Study in Service, pp. 69-70.
24. Pollard, A.J., North Eastern England during the Wars of the Roses, Clarendon, p. 325.
25. Rotuli Parliamentarium, 13 Edward IV, Vol. VI, p. 77.

26. There was some Lancastrian claim through the Portuguese royal family.
27. Gaunt’s and Swynford’s children preceded their marriage.
28. Jones, M., The King’s Mother, Cambridge,1992, p. 40.
29. Kendall, Richard III, pp. 225-226.
30. Vergil, Three Books of Polydore Vergil’s English History, ed. H. Ellis, pp. 181-2.
31. Dictionary of National Biography, Vol. 18, p. 964.
32. Pollard, A.J., Richard III and the Princes in the Tower, p.114.
33. Ross, Richard III, p 119; Kendall, Richard III, p. 332.
34. Calendar Patent Rolls, p. 476.
Kendall, Richard III, p. 332.
Ross, Richard III, p. 166.
35. Harleian Manuscript 433, Vol. 1, folio 12ov.

36. Harleian 433, Vol. 2, folio 284.
37. Rotuli Parliamentorum VI, p. 250.
38. Ross, Richard III, p. 199.
39. My thanks to Haynie Hensel for her suggestion. I have been made informed by Joe Ann Ricca, CEO/President of The Richard III Foundation, Inc. of an article by Albert Makinson, The Road to Bosworth Field, that makes the same suggestion, p. 244.
40. Bennet, Lambert Simnel and the Battle of Stoke, 1987, p. 128.; Makinson, p. 245, suggests “it is clear that Strange was meant to make his escape from Nottingham later.”

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