William Stanley - A Yorkist

by Richard A. McArthur

Sir William Stanley is the bete noir of the Stanleys to the Ricardian. He led, or at least commanded, the troops who attacked Richard as the latter came close to Tudor at Bosworth. Without this intervention, the Battle of Bosworth may well have had a different ending. This deed of William Stanley’s is often viewed, not only by Ricardians, as the climax of a life of treachery, coat-turning, trimming and time-serving. Desmond Seward, one of the more assertive anti-Richard historians, says of Sir William that he “…was even more treacherous than his brother and had a long record of changing sides.”1 But an examination of William’s life and actions, from Blore Heath to his death, will refute that opinion. William Stanley, all his public life from 1459 to 1485, was a Yorkist, fighting only for York when he came to the field. Perhaps his tragedy, and Richard’s, was that the two didn’t agree, in 1485, on what the House of York was.

William Stanley was the younger brother of Thomas. However, since we don’t know their birthdates, we do not know how much younger William was. Seward suggests the two were twins2, but he doesn’t say where he got the idea. As a younger son, William had a longer row to hoe than Thomas had. William made good progress, becoming what some thought was the richest commoner in England, Lord Chamberlain of England, and holder of many rich properties.3

William’s first recorded participation in the War of the Roses is at Blore Heath, 1459, on the Yorkist side.4 This contrasts rather sharply with his brother Thomas’ action, which consisted of standing apart.

When Edward IV gained control of England, William was appointed Chamberlain of Chester, a position kept right up to 1495.5 In 1465, King Edward granted William the Castle and Lordship of Skipton,and other lands in Craven which were taken from the Cliffords, who had been on the Lancastrian side.6 In September 1469 he was appointed Steward of Denbigh, in North Wales, for life.7

In 1465 he married Joan, daughter of the first Viscount Beaumont, and widow of John, Lord Lovel.8 For a time then he was stepfather to Francis Lovel. One wonders whether this might have caused some bitter personal reflections to Francis from 1485 to 1487. But, conceivably, it may never have been remembered except passingly.

When Warwick favored the Lancastrian side, and restored Henry VI to the throne, he did so without William Stanley’s aid. Indeed, Lancastrians, during the Re-adeption, ransacked William’s residence at Nant.9 Apparently, William had not even given such formal adherence to Henry as would defuse Lancastrian anger, otherwise the Lancastrians would almost certainly have refrained from such a step.

When Edward IV returned in 1471, William came to him as fast as reasonably possible. Edward’s landing in England is dated as March 13-15, 1471,10 and between then and March 29, 1471, when he penned Warwick in at Coventry,11 Edward had been at other locations. It was at Nottingham that Sir William Stanley joined Edward, bringing 300 men with him.12

William, Lord Hastings, brought 3,000 men with him to Edward’s service at that time, from Hastings’ Midland holdings.13 William Stanley’s holdings were not so extensive or rich, and were mostly in North Wales. A 300 man contribution by him must have come as a result of much recruiting work on his part. Clearly William spared neither his body nor his energy in serving Edward IV.

There is no direct reference to William at Barnet, but for his service to Edward at Tewkesbury, the king made William a Knight Banneret.14 A Knight Banneret was “a knight made in the field, by the ceremony of cutting off the point of his standard, and making it, as it were, a banner. Knights so made are accounted so honorable that they are allowed to display their arms in the royal army, as barons do, and may bear arms with supporter. A degree of honor next after a baron’s, when conferred by the king.”15

Clearly this was a signal honor, not to be given to one the king would have suspected of time-serving. The entire record of William Stanley during the House of York’s most troubled times was that of loyalty and service to York, no hesitations noted, no flirting with Warwick or Lancaster recorded.

Between 1471 and 1483, William Stanley thrived, retaining the positions and holdings he had received earlier in his career. There seems no indication that he played an independent part in any friction between his brother Thomas and Richard of Gloucester. Presumably, any part he played was ancillary. He is not noted as having any animosity to Richard at this time. In short, William was a loyal server to York, well treated by Edward IV and assumedly in good standing with Richard, Duke of Gloucester.

William was probably caught off-balance by Edward IV’s death, as was everybody else. There is no indication that he was in London at any time in the Spring of 1483. It has been surmised that William’s potential to lead troops against the Protector and subsequent King - may have been one reason for Richard’s supposed leniency to Thomas.16 William certainly made no recorded objection to Richard’s assumption of the throne. Perhaps he had no objection, or felt isolated in any discontent he felt with developments.

William was not in any way lessened between Richard III’s coronation and Buckingham’s rebellion. During the rebellion, William raised troops, no one has ever suggested they were to fight Richard.

Both Thomas and William profited by Buckingham’s fall. In November 1483, he was appointed Chief Justice of North Wales.17 Richard also gave William the Castle and Lordship of Holt on the Dee, and a moiety of Bromfield, Yale and four other Marcher lordships, three whole manors, and a moiety of seventeen others including Wrexham and Ruabon.18 A moiety is the half of anything, so William was receiving a substantial share of these properties.

The Bromfield estate apparently was obtained by an exchange of Thornhill, and cash, to the King.20 The combination of Bromfield and Yale is regarded as “one of the largest lordships in North Wales, valued at over 700 pounds a year.”21

As Margaret Beaufort spun her conspiratorial web against Richard after Buckingham’s death, William Stanley changed his course. He now became hostile to a Yorkist King. By the spring of 1485, he favored the deposition of Richard III, and the kingship of Henry Tudor.

Why would a man who for 26 years had been loyal to the House of York, through good times and bad, thick and thin, switch to the Lancastrian side? Whenever York called, he had come. Why the change in 1485?

Most probably he saw himself as still adhering to York, but considered York incarnate not in Richard III, but in Elizabeth, daughter of Edward IV. We have no contemporary statements from William in 1483. Like so many else in England, he abided the faits accompli of the spring and early summer. There is no reason to think that he genuinely accepted the story of the precontract and its inevitable corollary, the illegitimacy of Edward IV’s and Elizabeth Woodville’s children.

Sometime in 1483, probably shortly before the outbreak of Buckingham’s Rebellion, Edward IV’s sons disappeared from public view. Apparently, they were not seen privately by anyone who told others of them. The inference of their deaths arose, rumors of their murder spread, and were not contradicted, or disproven.

By 1485, Stanley and others must have thought Edward’s sons dead. As they had been in the custody of Richard III’s servants and supporters when they were last seen, and presumably could not have been reached by others, the conclusion seemed inescapable that Richard III had them murdered.

William Stanley, as did many others, drew that conclusion. There is no evidence to support the theory that Richard III gave him any assurance that this was untrue.

What could William and Richard have done? It would be almost unthinkable for anyone to go to the King and ask about his nephews. William Stanley would not be one to do that. Richard and he were simply not that close. Nor could the king volunteer any ignorance he might have been under. The simple lack of communication must have worked against Richard as effectively as any Tudor rumormongering.

William must have looked on Richard III as a murderer, and been the more confirmed in his disbelief of the bastardy of Edward IV’s children. Believing that Edward and Elizabeth Woodville’s children were legitimate, and that the sons were dead, William looked to Elizabeth of York, the oldest daughter of Edward and Elizabeth Woodville, as the lawful holder of the throne of England.

At Rennes, France, in December 1483, Henry Tudor promised to marry Elizabeth of York.23 A marriage between the surviving female claimant of one house and the sole male claimant of another house was an obvious way of reconciling conflicting claims and uniting rivals. William Stanley was pro-Yorkist, but there is nothing on record to indicate that he was a hater of Lancaster or Tudor. The uniting of Lancaster and York by a marriage between Henry and Elizabeth would not repel him. So, well before Henry Tudor’s return to England, William had probably decided to fight against Richard III.

Did it never occur to William, or others, that Richard might have had more incentive to keep Edward IV’s sons alive, and at least semi-visible, precisely to avoid such a union? As long as one, or both boys lived and were known to live, a plausible uniting of Lancaster (Tudor) and York was unlikely. After all, either a Tudor in England under a Yorkist King would be in danger; or a Yorkist heir under a Tudor king would be in danger. In either situation, the resurgence of the subject house’s claims would be a possibility, only to be prevented by arrest and execution. The English nobility, gentry, and other commons would not overthrow Richard simply to bring more instability. Only the deaths of Edward IV’s sons could leave the path clear to such a uniting. Richard would have known that. But no one seems to have seen that, and given Richard the benefit of the doubt.24

Richard III’s extensive preparations to repel Tudor’s invasion necessarily relied on local magnates and notables. In Wales, that included the Stanleys. In January 1485, Richard issued a warrant to the county of Chester, ordering obedience to Thomas Lord Stanley, Thomas’ son Lord Strange, and William Stanley in preparation to resist the rebels.25

When Tudor landed, William was a bit too open in his intent to fight Richard. He used his authority from Richard to raise troops, ostensibly to fight for Richard, when in reality, it was to fight against Richard.

But a problem arose, on or about August 15, 1485, about a week after Tudor landed, George, Lord Strange, Thomas Stanley’s son, was caught while trying to flee the entourage of Richard III. Questioned, Strange said William was plotting to join Henry Tudor. Richard reacted by declaring William a traitor.26

Meanwhile, William was carrying out his part in the Tudor dynasty’s making. His behavior was of great benefit to Tudor even before Bosworth. On August 16th or 17th, 1485, he met Henry Tudor at Stafford.27 On August 20th or 21st, both Lord Stanley and Sir William Stanley met Tudor at Atherstone28. Not much is known of what was said, but obviously Henry was not frightened into discontinuing his invasion. William is also stated to have arranged Henry’s welcome at Lichfield.29

On August 22, 1485, there could be no mystery as to William’s intent. Richard knew William would come in against him if he could. Only two things could constrain William: Thomas or the battle’s developments.

There is no point in discussing the many versions of how the Battle of Bosworth was fought. We can be almost certain that William did not intervene until Richard himself moved to attack Henry Tudor personally. Any version that the Stanleys were already active in the battle and then William’s troops went to Tudor’s aid is almost impossible. Fifteenth Century troops in England simply could not disengage from an active fight with one body of enemy troops and then go elsewhere on the same field to fight a different group of enemies. To be at all plausible, any version of William’s participation must assume that he was out of the fight until Richard placed himself in a position for William to get at Richard directly. William intervened, Henry won, Richard lost. Henry went on to marry Elizabeth of York, and William could consider himself to have placed Edward’s living heir on the throne. William didn’t do at all poorly after Henry’s rise. He was made Lord Chamberlain and Knight of the Garter30. He did have to yield Skipton to the Cliffords; and he seems to have had a problem with the heritability of Bromfield and Yale, in that William may not have been able to leave or will it to his descendants31 and his ambition to become Earl of Chester was frustrated32. But on the whole, he seems to have prospered.

He served Henry VII well at first. While he seems not to have been at Stoke in 1487, in 1489, he served with the Earl of Surrey in suppressing the disorders of that year. It may be worth pointing out that those disorders had resulted in the killing by a mob of Henry Percy, Earl of Northumberland.33

But after 1491 when, the Perkin Warbeck conspiracy became active, William Stanley joined it. This is, as one examines William’s life, astonishing. Why would he endanger, but actually throw away, all he had gained? Why take initiative, as he had not done before, in plotting to overthrow an occupant of the throne?

Vergil speculates that William felt his rewards did not merit his deserts.34 Bennett refers to the failure to obtain the Earldom of Chester.35 These possible reasons cannot be entirely ruled out. But they do seem disproportionate to the risk run, which, predictably, materialized.

Remember, William had always been a Yorkist. Almost certainly his actions in 1485 resulted from his certainty that the proper Yorkist throne holder was Elizabeth, daughter of Edward IV, because of the presumed-deaths of her brothers, Edward V and Richard, Duke of York. To the Tudors, absent their connection with Elizabeth, he probably felt no loyalty whatever. And, even with Henry Tudor’s marriage to Elizabeth, the Tudor dynasty would not retain William’s loyalty if a son of Edward IV still lived.

There had been no official pronouncement of the deaths of Edward IV’s sons by Henry Tudor. No one had been cited as their murderer(s). This must have struck William as a bit odd.

And then, in 1491, a young man appeared in foreign courts, claiming to be the second of Edward IV’s sons, Richard, Duke of York. His appearance, literally reminded men of Edward IV, he was apparently of the right age. It was not long before some in England accepted his claim and conspired to overthrow Henry VII.

Eventually in 1493, William Stanley either joined them, or indicated that he might join them. Oddly, the details remain obscure. One story represents William as assuring one Sir Robert Clifford that on Clifford’s signal, Stanley would assist Warbeck with all his resources.36 But this is not what Vergil, the Tudor dynasty’s most prominent “official” historian says. Vergil does not actually state what the charged acts were. He reports that some said that William Stanley, in speaking to Robert Clifford, said that “if he were sure that the man was Edward’s son he would never take up arms against him”.37

This is repeated by Bacon, who further says that William attempted to defeat the charges at trial by holding to the conditional nature of the conversation, and that the judges ruled that to allow such conditionals as “if” to qualify (lessen) words of treason would “allow every man…express his malice, and blanch his danger”. The court considered that the words “…he would not bear arms against King Edward’s son” a direct denial of Tudor’s title.38

It does seem that William Stanley had sent Clifford abroad to communicate with Warbeck39. In and of itself, that would be treason. But the additional embellishment of agreeing to rise against Henry VII on a signal from Clifford hardly jibes with the attempt at trial, as narrated by Bacon, to base a defense on “if”. Nor does it accord with Vergil’s reticence on the specific acts charged.

On balance, it seems that William had at least taken the initiative in contacting Warbeck, and that he had, perhaps tentatively, stated he would join him. For this, he paid with his life. On February 16, 1495 he was executed.40

William Stanley served the House of York - as he conceived it to be - all his life. That he may have been wrong in his conception of that House in 1485, and in 1493-95, should not change our awareness of that. The judgment of so many against William, that he was at one with Thomas in treachery, turncoating, and betrayal, is mistaken. He may not be owed much honor, but he does not deserve dishonor.


Primary Sources

Rotuli Parliamentorum, Vols. 348, 369, 582
Vergil, Polydore The Anglica Historia of Polydore Vergil, Camden Series, Vol. LXXIV, 1950
Ellis, Henry,Three Books of Polydore Vergil’s English History, Camden Society
Warkworth, John,A Chronicle of the First Thirteen Years of the Reign of King Edward the Fourth, edited by J.O. Halliwell, Camden Society, 1839

Secondary Sources

Arthurson, Ian, The Perkin Warbeck Conspiracy, 1491-1499 Alan Sutton, 1994.
Bacon, Francis,History of the Reign of King Henry VII, Bari Adriatica Editrice, 1964.
Black, Henry Campbell, Black’s Law Dictionary, Fourth Edition West Publishing, 1951.
Dictionary of National Biography,Vol. 18.
Gravett, Christopher, Bosworth 1485, Osprey Military, 1999.
Kendall, Paul Murray, Richard the Third,W.W. Norton & Company, 1955, 1983.
New World Dictionary of the American Language, Second College Edition, 1984.
Pollard, A.E., The Reign of Henry VII from Contemporary Sources, Vol.1, New York, 1967.
Ross, Charles, Richard III, University of California Press, 1981, 1984.
Seward, Desmond, Richard III, England’s Black Legend, Franklin Watts, 1984.


Archbold, W.A.J., “Sir William Stanley and Perkin Warbeck”, English Historical Review, Vol. XIV, pp.529-534, 1899.
Bennett, M.J., “The Stanleys of Lathom in English Politics, 1385-1485”, History Today, 1981.

1 Seward, Desmond, Richard III, England’s Black Legend, Franklin Watts Publishing, New York, 1984, pg.185.
2 Ibid.
3 “Commoner” is not a derogation. The New World Dictionary, pg. 286 defines “commoner” as “1.a person not of the nobility”. Black’s Law Dictionary, pg. 347 defines “Commons” as “The class of subjects in Great Britain exclusive of the royal family and the nobility.” William Stanley may have thus been a commoner, but he was not much less than a noble as far as standing in society was concerned, especially near the end of his life, before his fall.
4 Rotuli Parliamentorum, vols. 348, 369.
5 Dictionary of National Biography, vol. 18, pg. 968.
6 Ibid.
7Jones, Michael,”Sir William Stanley of Holt: Politics and Family Allegiance in the Late Fifteenth Century”, Welsh History Review, vol. 14, pg. 6.
8 Rotuli Parliamentorum, v. 582.
9 Jones, pg. 7.
10 Ross, pg. 20.
11 Kendall, pg.103.
12 Warkworth, John, A Chronicle of the First Thirteen Years of the Reign of King Edward the Fourth, edited by J.O. Halliwell, Camden Society, 1839, pg. 14.
13 Ross, pg. 20.
14 Jones, pg.7.
15 Black’s Law Dictionary, pg. 183.
16 Vergil, Three Books of Polydore Vergil’s English History, Camden Society, pp.181-2.
17 Ross, pg. 166.
18 Dictionary of National Biography, v.18, pg. 968.
19Black’s Law Dictionary, pg. 1156.
20 Bennett, “The Stanleys of Lathom in English Politics, 1385-1485”, History Today, 1981, pg. 10.
21 Ibid.
22 Vergil, pg. 212.
23 Kendall, pg. 335.
24 Unless such reasoning was shared by Richard’s friends and real loyalists, e.g. Lovel, Brackenbury, Norfolk and others. But this is not on record.
25 Ross, pg. 207.
26 Kendall, pp 417-418
27 Gravett, Christopher , “Bosworth 1485”, Osprey Military, 1999, pg.41.
28 Kendall, pg. 425.
29 Gravett, pg .44.
30 Dictionary of National Biography, v.18, pp. 968-969.
31 Bennett, pg.12.
32 Bennett, pg. 20.
33 Pollard, A.E., The Reign of Henry VII from Contemporary Sources, New York, 1967, vol. 1, pp.80-81.
34 Vergil, Anglica Historia, vol..LXXIV, Camden Series, 1950, pg.77.
35 Bennett, p.20.
36 Arthurson, Ian The Perkin Warbeck Conspiracy 1491-1499, Alan Sutton, 1994, pp.62-63.
37 Vergil, Anglica Historia, Vol. LXXIV, pg. 75.
38 Bacon, Francis, History of the Reign of King Henry VII, Bari Adriatica Editrice, 1964, pp.108-109.
39 Archbold, W.A.J. “Sir William Stanley and Perkin Warbeck”, English Historical Review, Vol. XIV, [1899], pp. 529-534.
40 Dictionary of National Biography, vol. 18, pg. 969.

©This article appeared in the November 2000 issue of the Medelai Gazette

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