The Stanley who could have been King.

Ferdinando Stanley (1559-1594) was very briefly 5th Earl of Derby. He was descended from Mary Tudor, Duchess of Suffolk, and according to the terms of Henry VIII’s will, which had statutory force in this respect he was the heir to Elizabeth I, since the Scottish branch were excluded.

It is worth mentioning that he was a patron of Shakespeare, running a company of players called “Strange’s Men” – Lord Strangee being his title for most of his life. Ferdinando’s religion seems to have been in some doubt. He was very likely a Catholic – much of Lancashire was at this time – but he was not explicit in his beliefs and betrayed one Catholic plot to Elizabeth. “The Hesketh Plot”. You might have thought this would have endeared him to the ruling circle, but the reality is that no one seemed to trust him.

Then, rather conveniently, he died. Although there were strong suspicions of witchcraft, poison is the likely explanation. But on whose behalf was it administered? Queen Elizabeth and King James both had motives, and so did the relatives and friends of the betrayed Catholics. He left three daughters, but was succeeded as earl by his brother, William. The strict legality of James I’s accession seems questionable to me. He was the “right heir” by the usual standards of inheritance, but he had been excluded by Henry VIII‘s will. As Elizabeth was only Queen herself by the terms of that will (the succession being regulated by powers delegated to her father by Parliament) it is far from clear that she had any right to arbitrarily appoint a successor. But (presumably) Parliament gave its effective consent.

The Stanleys never achieved such dizzy heights again, although they remained very important in Lancashire for centuries, as by far the pre-eminent family in the region. Something very like a minor court was maintained at Lathom right up the the Civil War. But it is odd that having gained their earldom in the 15th century they were never promoted in the peerage, and are now most unlikely ever to be so. This is exceptional given that the 17th and 18th centuries saw gross title inflation. Also inexplicable.


  1. The Stanley’s – a Bye-Word for treachery. Should have been dismissed from the Nobility – thoning Noble about bringing about defeat of Your Rightful King !!


  2. I wonder if it wasn’t so much their specific betrayal of Richard (after all, such betrayal was not uncommon in the feudal system even if their actions were blatant and crucial), but simply that they were one of the most important families in a region distrusted by the monarch and by the London and southern regions generally. Security for a King or Queen of England and an assured succession were rare things for centuries, and the Stanleys were a reminder of the overmighty subjects of the past. No point in giving them *more* titles. But also, from their point of view, their autonomy was ancient and the did not need any cheap inflated titles.


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