The Rise of the Stanley family.

In the late 14th Century, the Stanleys were a gentry family, their power base lying chiefly in Cheshire, notably in the Wirral. Their ancestry might fairly be described as ‘provincial’. There were certainly no kings in their quarterings. This is not to say they were unimportant, but their influence was of a local rather than a national kind.

Sir John Stanley KG (1350-1414) was the man who began their transformation into the magnate class. He was a younger son of Sir William Stanley of Stourton and his wife Alice Massey of Timperley. (Sir William was Master Forester of the Wirral, and had a nasty reputation for oppression and illegal acts.)

John Stanley is a good example of a man ‘made by marriage’. He secured the important heiress Isabel Lathom, who brought him very considerable lands in Lancashire, including the future Stanley HQ, Lathom. This was good going for a younger son, and was achieved in the face of opposition from John of Gaunt.

Along with his elder brother, John managed to get himself outlawed for murder in 1376; but in 1378 he was pardoned – apparently for good service fighting the French. After that, John’s modus operandi was to be a ‘really useful engine’.

For example, in the 1380s we find him ruling Ireland, first as Deputy Lord Lieutenant to Robert de Vere (who never actually went over) and then as full Lord Lieutenant. A massive job for someone of (relatively) humble birth. Later he was Justiciar of Ireland under the Earl of March as Lord Lieutenant.

In the 1390s he helped maintain (relative) peace in Cheshire – a singularly restless and lawless county – and also took part in both Richard II’s Irish campaigns, while also serving as Captain of Roxburgh (Scotland) 1396-98. Clearly, he was a capable servant of the Crown and trusted with quite significant responsibility.

John Stanley had no problem defecting to Henry IV and remained loyal through that king’s troubled reign. He fought for Henry at Shrewsbury, where he was wounded in the throat. (Inevitably there were Stanley kinsmen fighting on the other side too!)

Among other honours, John was Steward of the Household of the Prince of Wales, King of Mann (granted 1405) and Knight of the Garter. At his life’s end, he was again appointed Lieutenant of Ireland and died in that country in 1414.

He was succeeded by his son, also Sir John Stanley (1386-1437), a relatively undistinguished man, although he served in various offices, such as Sheriff of Anglesey and Justice of Chester. He married Elizabeth Harrington, daughter of another important North-West family. As King of Mann he had the laws and customs of the island set out in writing. (Apparently a radical reform!)

The next Stanley in succession was Thomas (1405-1459), a much more distinguished figure.

This Thomas married Joan Goushill, the daughter of Sir Robert Goushill and his wife Elizabeth Fitzalan. Elizabeth was the daughter of that Earl of Arundel who was executed in 1397; a lady who had previously been Duchess of Norfolk, wife of Thomas Mowbray. (Thomas was banished in 1398 and died in exile in 1399.). Joan’s ancestry (at least on her mother’s side) was truly aristocratic, and this marriage undoubtedly raised the family into a higher sphere of society.

Succeeding his father as Lord (or King) of Mann in 1437, this Thomas Stanley secured great influence at the court of Henry VI, where he was reckoned among the following of William de la Pole, Duke of Suffolk. At various times he was Comptroller of the Household, Chief Steward of the Duchy of Lancaster, MP for Lancashire ( nine times), Chamberlain and Justice of Chester and Chamberlain of North Wales. It will be seen that many of these roles buttressed his local power in Lancashire and Cheshire.

In the early 1450s, the Commons demanded his removal from court because of his connection to Suffolk. However, in 1455 he became Lord Chamberlain and in 1456 was elevated to the peerage as Lord Stanley.

He had a large family and several grew up to be significant players.

Thomas Stanley died in February 1459 and was buried in Burscough Priory, Lancashire. Undoubtedly, he had transformed his family’s status and established them on the national scene as members of the nobility.

He was succeeded by possibly the most famous Stanley of all, his son, Thomas (1435-1504) who was, whatever may be said of him, a politician of the first order who rarely (if ever) found himself on the losing side.

In the early 1450s, he married Eleanor Neville, who was sister to Warwick the Kingmaker and a descendant of Edward III. This marriage arguably took the Stanleys up another division, so to speak, although Thomas himself, on the basis of his inheritance, was already a noble of substantial importance, especially in North West England. His nearest local rivals, families such as the Pilkingtons and Harringtons, were important gentry, certainly, but not in his class in terms of wealth and power. It is worth mentioning that his brothers and sisters added to his influence – they were a real clan, albeit not quite up to the standards of the Neville family.

In September 1459, Queen Margaret of Anjou ordered Thomas to join a force led by Lord Audley that was intended to block a Yorkist army, headed by Salisbury, on its way to Ludlow. Salisbury was, of course, Thomas’s father-in-law. Even more importantly, Thomas’s brother, William, was also in the Yorkist camp. Needless to say, Thomas held off and was not involved in the Battle of Blore Heath, although he had 2,000 men just a short way off.

Thomas seems to have excused himself successfully. Even though the Lancastrians were ultimately successful in this campaign, with York, Salisbury and Warwick having to go into exile, Stanley was not punished in any way.

Thomas Stanley then attached himself to the Yorkist cause for as long as it was successful. Arguably, he was a satellite of his brother-in-law, Warwick. That, or political judgement, explains why, when Warwick overthrew Edward IV, Stanley could be found on the Council of Henry VI’s re-established government.

As far as I can gather, Thomas did not get involved in military action at this time (although his brother, William certainly fought for Edward IV at Tewkesbury.) However, this did not hamper his career. Either he was forgiven or his temporary defection to Lancaster was simply ignored. Very soon he was Steward of Edward IV’s Household and a member of Edward’s council.

It may be that this was simply a pragmatic political decision by King Edward. Stanley was so powerful in his locality that – short of executing him – he had to be accepted and conciliated. A case, one might say, of keeping him in the proverbial tent.

Eleanor Neville died in 1472, and within a few months Thomas Stanley married again. His choice (or hers) was Lady Margaret Beaufort, Countess of Richmond. She was the daughter of John, Duke of Somerset, and had a distant claim to the throne which no one in 1472 would have taken seriously. She was nonetheless a fringe member of the royal family and Edward IV would have recognised her as a distant cousin. Socially, it was a ‘good’ marriage and as Margaret possessed considerable estates it was also financially advantageous.

They were fated not to have children, and Margaret was eventually to take a vow of chastity. This need not imply that, at least at first, it was anything other than a typical marriage among the nobility. Whatever its degree of success on a personal level, it was, in the worldly sense, a good option for both partners.

Stanley took several hundred men to France in 1475 and in 1482 led a large contingent to Scotland under Richard, Duke of Gloucester. It seems that it was only in a domestic conflict that he was reluctant to be a soldier.

Though Thomas Stanley is often said to have been among those who sought to prevent Richard III’s accession – it is sometimes even suggested he was arrested with Hastings – this seems to me to be an embroidery of history, added when principled opposition to Richard became sexy. Either that or Richard was quite incredibly forgiving. Stanley and Margaret both played prominent roles at the Coronation of Richard and Anne. Even if you gloss over this, the truth remains that Thomas Stanley was soon made a KG, given Hastings’ stall. This was a high and personal mark of royal favour. It seems improbable that King Richard would have given this great honour to one who he deemed an enemy, to be bracketed with the executed Hastings.

Both Thomas and his brother, Sir William, supported Richard at the time of Buckingham’s rebellion. In return, they were richly rewarded, almost beyond the dreams of avarice, and their hegemony in Lancashire, Cheshire and North East Wales was further strengthened. It is worth mentioning that Thomas and William Stanley were not just ‘the Stanleys’. William had a long track record of loyalty to York and there was no reason for King Richard to think that would change. Nor was Thomas Stanley the sort of man to lightly indulge in armed rebellion, however shifty he might be. Richard’s trust in them is largely explicable.

Of course, Margaret Beaufort was another kettle of fish. She had involved herself in the Buckingham rebellion, no doubt in the interest of her son, Henry Tudor. Her lands were taken from her and given to Thomas Stanley, and she was placed in her husband’s custody. How this differed from the normal status of a married woman is not clear, but it was probably as far as Richard thought it wise to go. Thomas Stanley was so powerful that he had to be conciliated – the alternative was effectively to make war on him and then cut off his head. Richard, at this point, would not have been able to justify doing that. As mentioned above, Stanley had been loyal.

Something then changed. Perhaps it was simply Margaret’s influence, but at some point, the two Stanley brothers decided that Henry Tudor represented the future. Thomas may have thought that to be the King’s father by marriage would be yet another step up the ladder. William may have resented the accession of Richard III if we assume he was an Edwardian Yorkist. It is hard to see how either could have expected to be treated more favourably than Richard had used them.

There is little doubt that the Stanleys were in written communication with Tudor. It is possible, even likely, that at least one of them had a secret meeting with him after his landing. Yet they did not join his army. They stood off – meaning neither Richard nor Henry could be sure of their support on the battlefield.

This was extremely unusual behaviour, and I do not think it has ever been satisfactorily explained. It seems cynical, even by the standards of the age. As is well known, it was William who became engaged in the battle and was instrumental in the defeat and death of Richard III. But Thomas did not get involved. He simply stood there with his array. Why? What was he about?

He was created Earl of Derby by Henry VII and confirmed in office as Lord High Constable and High Steward of the Duchy of Lancaster. Confirmed though – he had held these jobs under Richard III, so was no better off.

Thomas was arguably at his most powerful under Edward IV and Richard III. In Henry VII’s reign, his wife took a vow of chastity and was given the status of femme sole. While this was by no means a divorce, it was about as close to it as a medieval couple could achieve. Margaret had her status as ‘King’s Mother’ but Thomas Stanley did not share it. In an age when men who did not ‘control’ their wives in the way society thought proper were mocked, was this change a humiliation for Stanley? Perhaps.

Whatever influence he retained, it was insufficient to save his brother William from execution in 1495.

Thomas lived on until 1504. Perhaps by then his days of power were gone – except at a local level. (His family were to dominate Lancashire for generations.) However, he could look back on his career with satisfaction. He had survived. His family had retained and enhanced its position. In those times it was a record that few others could emulate.


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