Thomas Stanley, 1st Earl of Derby, was a Baron with significant landholdings in the North West of England and along the northern Welsh Marches. Along with his brother, William, Thomas Stanley is remembered perhaps most for his controversial decision making at key moments in the Wars of the Roses, most famously, at the Battle of Bosworth. His role within the Wars of the Roses and into the Tudor era are substantial, including administrative positions, disputes with senior figures, elevation to an Earldom, marriage to Margaret Beaufort, and an approach to battles that splits opinions greatly.
Sir Thomas Stanley, 1st Earl of Derby
Sir Thomas Stanley was supportive of the Yorkists at the beginning of the conflict between the Houses of Lancaster and York. This, perhaps, is at odds with the history of the Lancastrian kings having promoted the Stanley family and awarding them an increasingly significant selection of roles within Cheshire and the North West. Lord Stanley had, however, been called to Parliament as a Lord by Richard 3rd Duke of York. His ties to the Yorkist cause were strengthened through his marriage to Eleanor Neville, daughter of the Earl of Salisbury and sister of the Earl of Warwick.
Nonetheless, his allegiance had not been assured. As tension mounted in 1459 Lord Stanley was ordered by Queen Margaret to raise a force to intercept the Earl of Salisbury and engage him in battle. Sir Thomas, Lord Stanley, did raise a force, but did not engage the Earl of Salisbury and may have contributed men to his father-in-laws cause at the Battle of Blore Heath. That suggestion is hard to prove, though his brother, Sir William Stanley, did fight in the battle in the Earl of Salisbury’s force. Sir Thomas is noted for having written to both the Queen and the Earl of Salisbury following the battle, ensuring that he remained in favour of both factions.
In 1460, though, his retainers are recorded as having taken actions on behalf of the Yorkists. In the aftermath of the Battle of Northampton the Queen and Prince of Wales fled through Stanley lands towards Harlech. Stanley’s men are known to have attempted an intervention, and succeeded in seizing the Queen’s goods and jewels:
Upon this Queen Margaret with the Prince fled The Queen from Eccleshall towards Chester, and was nearly taken the Prince to prisoner by John Cleyer, a retainer of Lord Stanley, and thence to was robbed of all her goods and jewels by her own servants; nevertheless she got safely with the young prince to her castle (Harlech) in Wales.
Introduction to the Chronicles of the White Rose of York.
Following the Yorkist victory at Towton, Lord Stanley and his retinue participated in some of the sieges in the North East of England. Support appears not to have been wholehearted from Cheshire, as the Stanley’s were instructed to take legal recourse against those from the region who had failed to remain in the Yorkist force for a campaign in the north against the remnants of the Lancastrian regime. In the mid 1460’s, Lord Stanley was loyal enough to lead the actions against Lancastrian rebels  and was trusted to keep the peace in the region following the capture of King Henry VI in northern Lancashire.
When the Duke of Clarence and Earl of Warwick instigated a revolt against King Edward IV, the support of Thomas Stanley was sought by the pair. Had he intervened on their behalf at this point, the outcome of their revolt may have been somewhat different. However, when the Duke and Earl appealed to Lord Stanley, they were rebuked:
…although he might now be discouraged, yet he made as thoughe he passed not and would not beleue, to the entente that he myghte the more enboulde certaine of his compaigny, then despayryng and geuyng theimselfe to flight, beganne to make a newe hoste, and with many faire promyses did wowe his brother in lawe Thomas Stanley to take his parte. But when said Thomas would by no meanes- fight or rebel agaynste kyng Edwarde.
John Hardyng’s Chronicle
‘And than (when) the Duke of Clarence and the Earl of Warwick heard that the king was coming to them ward, incontinent (immediately) they departed, and went to Manchester in Lancashire, hoping to have had help and succour from the Lord Stanley; but in conclusion there they had little favour, as it was informed the king; and so men say they went westward…’
The refusal of Sir Thomas to support the Duke of Clarence and Earl of Warwick did not mean that there was no conflict between the Yorkist establishment and the Stanley’s. As noted in the Chronicle of the Lincolnshire Rebellion, there was a clash between Lord Stanley’s retainers and Richard Duke of Gloucester:
Once Edward had Welles’ confession to use and once he was assured of support in other areas of the country, he could show his. hand and legally shout ‘treason’. The assurance of support came with the Earl of Northumberland’s swift actions against the uprising in Yorkshire, and) by a little known and seldom mentioned action in Cheshire between Richard Duke of Gloucester and retainers of Thomas Lord Stanley.
Chronicle of the Lincolnshire Rebellion
This clash was over the ownership of Hornby Castle, which Stanley lay siege to and Richard Duke of Gloucester offered support to the Harrington family, who were defending the castle.
Lord Stanley avoided participation in any of the battles fought between the Earl of Warwick and King Edward IV. He did participate in the Readeption government though and was noted as being one of the Lords at the heart of events when King Henry VI was restored to the throne.
“On the 25th of October, the Duke of Clarence accompanied by the Earls of Warwick, Shrewsbury, and the Lord Stanley, and other Lords and Gentlemen, some for fear, and some for love, and some only to gaze at the wavering world, resorted with great company to the Tower of London, and thence with great pomp brought King Henry VI. apparelled in a long gown of blue velvet, through the high streets of London, to the Cathedral Church of St. Paul, the people on the right hand, and on the left hand, rejoicing and crying: “God save the King!”
In 1472, Thomas Stanley remarried. His wife was Margaret Beaufort, mother of Henry Tudor and an incredibly wealthy woman in her own right.
When Edward IV invaded France in 1475. Lord Stanley was one of the barons who advocated a peace settlement. He did participate in the brief campaign, contributing a retinue of 40 lances and 300 archers. He also joined Richard Duke of Gloucester’s campaign into Scotland in 1482.
Lord Stanley is most famously known for his actions connected to the Battle of Bosworth. King Richard III had ordered the Stanley’s to raise forces for the defence of the realm against a Tudor invasion. Stanley’s son, Lord Strange, confessed that the family were in league with Henry Tudor. King Richard III used Lord Strange as a hostage in order to try and ensure Stanley’s compliance with his commands.
After this for Stafford they go; thence to Lichfield and so to Atherstone, where he and his father-in-law, the Lord Stanley, met and consulted touching the ordering of their affairs, and how to give battle to King Richard, which done they departed each to his charge.
Life of Rice ap Thomas. (Cambrian Register, 1795)
The Stanley’s forces retreated out of Wales, followed by the Tudor force. It was unclear whether the Stanley’s were in cahoots with the invading army, or simply retreating in the face of a stronger foe. When the army of Richard III met that of the invaders, the Stanley’s retinue, one of a significant size, did not form up as part of either army. Instead, it arraigned itself away from the battle. From this position the battle was observed and Sir William Stanley led an intervention that ultimately led to the Tudor army being victorious. Sir Thomas Stanley did not himself engage in fighting for either side, though it is thought that it was he who presented his son in law with the crown once victory was assured.
Then to King Richard there came a knight,
And said, “I hold it time for to flee ;
For yonder Stanley’s dints they be so might.
Against them no man may dree.
Here is horse at thy hand ready ;
Another day thou may thy worship win,
And for to reign with royalty,
To wear the crown and be our king.”
“ Nay ! give me my battle-axe in my hand,
Set the crown of England on my head so high.
For by him that made both sea and land,
King of England this day will I die.
One foot will I never flee
Whilst the breath is my breast within.”
As he said, so did it be;
If he lost his life, he died a King.
Bosworth Field, a Ballad in Percy Folio MS., iii. 256, 257. (1868.)
Then came in an egle gleaming gay,
Of all faire birds well worth the best;
He took the branche of the rose away,
And bore itt to Latham to his nest
Bishop Percy’s collection of Ballads
In the aftermath of the Battle of Bosworth William Catesby made a plea to Lord Stanley. Catesby had been entrusted with Lord Strange during the battle, and could have executed him once Sir William Stanley committed to the Tudor cause. Having opted not to, he hoped that the Stanley’s would inject on his behalf as he faced his own execution.
‘My lords Stanley, Strange and all of that blood help and pray for my soul for you have not for my body as I trusted in you.’
The Will of William Catesby, written three days after the Battle of Bosworth.
Biography from the 1900 edition of the Dictionary of National Biography.
A more recent version of Sir Thomas, Lord Stanley’s biography can be found on the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography website.
STANLEY, THOMAS, first Earl of Derby (1435?–1504), was son of Thomas Stanley, first lord Stanley (1406?–1459), and his wife, Joan, daughter and coheiress of Sir Robert Goushill of Hoveringham, Nottinghamshire, by Elizabeth Fitzalan, dowager duchess of Norfolk (d. 1425).
Sir John Stanley, K.G. (1350?–1414), the founder of the family fortunes, was his great-grandfather. He came of a younger branch of a famous Staffordshire house, the Audleys of Healey, near Newcastle-under-Lyme; the cadet line took its name from the manor of Stanlegh, close to Cheddleton, but settled in Cheshire under Edward II on acquiring, by marriage, the manor of Storeton and the hereditary forestership of Wirral. The nephew of Sir John (who was a younger son) removed the chief seat of the elder line of Stanley to Hooton in Wirral by marriage with its heiress (Dugdale ii. 247; Ormerod ii. 411). A still more fortunate alliance (before October 1385) with Isabel, daughter of Sir Thomas Latham, made Sir John Stanley himself lord of great part of the hundred of West Derby in south-west Lancashire, including Knowsley and Lathom (Rot. Parl. iii. 205; cf. Wylie, ii. 290). The famous Stanley crest of the eagle and child, which gave rise to a family legend, no doubt came from the Lathams (Baines, i. 49, iv. 248; Seacome, p. 22; Gregson, pp. 244, 250). Their badge in the fifteenth century was an eagle’s (or griffin’s) leg (Doyle, Official Baronage, i. 553; Gairdner, p. 412; Ormerod, iii. 641). Sir John, who in his youth had served in Aquitaine, went to Ireland as deputy for Richard II’s favourite, De Vere, in 1386, and subsequently held important posts both there (lieutenant, 1389–91) and on the Welsh and Scottish borders. Henry IV rewarded his speedy adhesion with Hope and Mold castles and a regrant (10 Dec. 1399) of his old office in Ireland. But he became officially bankrupt, and in 1401 was superseded. Steward of the household to Henry, prince of Wales, from 1403, he entered the order of the Garter in 1405. The king rewarded his services during the northern revolt of that year by a grant, first for life and then in perpetuity, by the service of a cast of falcons at coronations, of the Isle of Man, which had been forfeited by the rebellion of the Earl of Northumberland (Fœdera, viii. 419; Baines, i. 370). In 1409 Stanley was made constable of Windsor. Henry V once more sent him to govern Ireland, and it was at Ardee, in that island, that he died on 18 Jan. 1414 (Dugdale, ii. 248; Seacome, p. 20). The Irish writers ascribed his death to irritation caused by the virulent lampoons of the plundered bard Niall O’Higgin (Gilbert, Viceroys, p. 301). Stanley built the tower in Water Street, Liverpool, which survived till 1821 (Gregson, p. 172). His third son, Thomas, was the ancestor of the Stanleys of Aldford and Elford. The eldest, John, the Manx legislator, married Isabel, sister of Sir William and daughter of Sir John Harrington of Hornby Castle, Lancashire, and died in 1437 (Ormerod, ii. 412; cf. Collins, ed. Brydges, iii, 54).
Their eldest son, Thomas Stanley (1406?–1459), born about 1406, first appears in 1424, when an armed affray between ‘Thomas Stanley, the younger of the Tower, esquire,’ and Sir Richard Molyneux (d. 1439) [see under Molyneux, Sir Richard, (d. 1459)], constable of Liverpool Castle, at the opposite end of the town, was prevented only by the arrest of both (Gregson, p. 171). He was knighted before 1431, when Henry VI made him lieutenant-governor of Ireland for six years. In 1446 Eleanor Cobham [see under Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester] was entrusted to his keeping in the Isle of Man. From that year to 1455 Stanley represented Lancashire in parliament; he took part in more than one negotiation with Scotland, and by March 1447 became comptroller of the royal household (Fœdera, xi. 169). The parliament of 1450–1 demanded his dismissal from court with others of Suffolk’s party (Rot. Parl. v. 216), but on the triumph of the Yorkists in 1455 he was made, or remained, lord-chamberlain and a privy councillor, and 15 Jan. 1456 received a summons to the house of peers as Lord Stanley. He became K.G. before May 1457, and died on 20 Feb. 1459 (Complete Peerage, iii. 68; cf. Ormerod, iii. 337). By his wife, Joan Goushill, he had four sons and three daughters; the second son, Sir William Stanley of Holt (d. 1495), is separately noticed; the third, John, was the ancestor of the Stanleys of Alderley; the fourth, James, was archdeacon of Carlisle [see under Stanley, James, (1465?–1515)].
The eldest, Thomas, who succeeded as second Baron Stanley, was born about 1435, and in 1454 had been one of Henry VI’s esquires (Ord. Privy Council, vi. 223). His political attitude was from the first ambiguous. When Richard Neville, earl of Salisbury [q. v.], who was perhaps already his father-in-law, encountered the royal forces at Blore Heath in August 1459, Stanley, though not more than six miles away, kept the two thousand men he had raised at the queen’s call out of the fight. His brother William fought openly on the Yorkist side, and was attainted in the subsequent parliament. Stanley himself, though he came in and took the oath of allegiance, was impeached as a traitor by the commons, who alleged that he had given Salisbury a conditional promise of support. The queen, however, thought it better to overlook his suspicious conduct (Rot. Parl. v. 348, 369). He was with Henry at the battle of Northampton in the following summer, but the triumphant Yorkists made him (January 1461) chief justice of Chester and Flint (Doyle). Edward IV’s accession was the signal for the reassertion of the Scrope claim to the lordship of Man, which William le Scrope, earl of Wiltshire [q. v.], had held under Richard II, and Stanley’s title was still disputed in 1475. When his brother-in-law, Warwick, fleeing before Edward IV in 1470, made his way to Manchester in the hope of support from him, Stanley cautiously held aloof, but on the king-maker’s succeeding in restoring Henry VI, he turned to the rising sun, and in March 1471 we find him besieging Hornby Castle on behalf of the Lancastrian government (Paston Letters, ii. 396; Fœdera, xi. 699). Nevertheless, after Warwick’s defeat and death, Edward made Stanley lord steward of his household and privy councillor. He took part in the king’s French expedition of 1475, when he characteristically seized a private opportunity of recommending himself to the favour of Louis XI (Comines, i. 340, 347), and held a high command in Gloucester’s invasion of Scotland seven years later. His services there were specially brought to the attention of parliament (Rot. Parl. vi. 197). Polydore Vergil credits him, perhaps rather partially, with the capture of Berwick. Not long after he married Margaret Beaufort, countess of Richmond, whose second husband, Henry Stafford, younger son of the second Duke of Buckingham, died in the same year.
After Edward’s death Stanley remained loyal to his son, but though wounded in the head with a halbert during the scuffle in the council chamber (13 June 1483), when Gloucester arrested Hastings, his good fortune did not desert him, and he escaped with a short imprisonment. Gloucester is said to have feared that Stanley’s son would raise Lancashire and Cheshire (Fabyan, p. 668; More, pp. 45–8; Polydore Vergil, p. 689). With his accustomed pliancy he carried the mace at Richard’s coronation, his wife bearing the queen’s train (Excerpta Historica, pp. 380, 384). He remained steward of the household, and succeeded Hastings as knight of the Garter. His wife was deeply engaged in Buckingham’s rising [see Stafford, Henry, second Duke of Buckingham] on behalf of her son, Henry Tudor, earl of Richmond; but the wary Stanley avoided committing himself, and actually improved his position by the collapse of the revolt. Richard must have known him well enough to feel sure that he would not turn traitor until he could do so with the minimum of risk. He accepted his assurances of loyalty, and appointed him (16 Dec. 1483) constable of England in Buckingham’s place. Stanley undertook to put a stop to his wife’s intrigues, ‘keeping her in some secret place at home, without having any servant or company,’ and her estates were transferred to him for life (Hall, p. 398; Rot. Parl. vi. 250). In 1484 Richard employed him in a Scottish mission. No one except the Dukes of Norfolk and Northumberland profited more by Richard’s bounty (Ramsay, ii. 534). But Stanley could not but feel that Richard’s throne was insecure, and that in any case his own position would be much safer with his stepson wearing the crown. Not long before Richmond’s landing, the ‘wily fox’ (Hall) asked and obtained leave to go home to Lancashire on private affairs. Richard apparently suspected nothing at first, for on hearing that Richmond was likely to land in Wales, he ordered Stanley and his brother to be prepared to take the field against the rebels (Gairdner, p. 287). But his prolonged absence at last roused suspicion, and he received peremptory orders either to come to the king at Nottingham himself or send his son, Lord Strange. He sent his son, but when news reached Richard that Richmond was marching unhindered through North Wales, of which Sir William Stanley (d. 1495) [q. v.] was justiciar, he ordered the father imperatively to join him at once. Stanley excused himself, however, on the plea that he was ill of the sweating sickness. Strange’s futile attempt to escape from court, and his admission that he and his uncle were in league with Richmond, made Stanley’s position still more delicate, though his son offered to guarantee his fidelity if his own life were spared (Cont. Croyl. Chron. p. 573). Richmond reckoned on the support of both Stanleys, but the elder was obliged to temporise, if only to save his son. The two brothers were playing much the same game as they had done at Blore Heath a quarter of a century before. Richmond was pretty sure of Sir William, who had been proclaimed a traitor. But Lord Stanley, who had thrown himself with five thousand men between the two approaching armies, evacuated Lichfield before Henry, and after a secret interview with him at Atherstone (20 Aug.) he marched on ahead to Bosworth. He selected an ambiguous position and returned an evasive answer when Richmond begged him to join forces before the battle began. He took no part in the action, hanging between the two armies, and it was his brother’s intervention which gave Henry the victory. It was he, however, who placed the crown, taken from Richard’s corpse, upon the victor’s head. Richard had given orders for his son’s execution, but they had been ignored (Polydore Vergil, p. 563; cf. Baines, i. 436).
Stanley’s services were duly rewarded. The forfeited estates of the Pilkingtons (between Manchester and Bury) and several other Lancashire families swelled his possessions, and on 27 Oct. following he was created Earl of Derby; the title was taken from the county in which he had no lands, and not from the hundred of West Derby, in which the bulk of his estates lay (Complete Peerage, iii. 69). He purchased the Yorkshire and Axholme estates of the Mowbrays from William, marquis of Berkeley, for whose soul he provided for prayers at Burscough Priory in his will (Stonehouse, Isle of Axholme, p. 140; Dugdale, ii. 249).
Stanley figured in the coronations of Henry and Elizabeth of York as one of the commissioners for executing the office of lord high steward (Leland, Collectanea, iv. 225). Henry confirmed him in his posts of constable of England (5 March 1486), high steward of the duchy of Lancaster, and high forester north of Trent, adding the constableship of Halton Castle, Cheshire, the receivership of the county palatine of Lancaster, and other lucrative positions (Rot. Parl. vi. 373). He was godfather to Prince Arthur, and in July 1495 the king and queen paid him a visit of nearly a month’s duration at Knowsley and Lathom (Excerpta Historica, p. 104). He enlarged Knowsley House and built a bridge at Warrington for the occasion (Gregson, p. 230). Henry probably intended the honour as an assurance that he dissociated Derby from the treason of his brother, who had perished on the scaffold in the previous February. He died at Lathom on 29 July 1504, and was buried with his ancestors in the neighbouring priory of Burscough.
His portrait at Knowsley, engraved in Baines’s ‘History of Lancashire,’ shows a long thin face, with a full beard.
Derby married twice: his first wife was Eleanor Neville, daughter of Richard Neville, earl of Salisbury [q. v.]; they were married before 1460, and she died between 1464 and 1473 (Rot. Parl. v. 545, vi. 46). By her he had six sons, several of whom died young, and four daughters. George, the eldest surviving son, married Joan, only child of Lord Strange (d. 1477) of Knockin in the march of Wales, and in her right was summoned to the House of Lords under that title from 1482; Henry VII made him a knight of the Garter (1487) and a privy councillor. He died on 5 Dec. 1497 (‘at an ungodly banquet, alas! he was poisoned,’ Seacome, p. 36) at Derby House, St. Paul’s Wharf, London, whose site is now occupied by the Heralds’ College, and was buried with his mother at St. James’s, Garlickhithe. His widow died on 20 March 1514. Thomas, eldest of four sons, became second earl of Derby [see under Stanley, Edward, third Earl of Derby]. Two younger sons of Derby—Edward, lord Monteagle [q. v.], and James, bishop of Ely [q. v.]—are separately noticed.
Derby’s second wife (c. 1482) was Margaret Beaufort, countess of Richmond [q. v.], then widow of Sir Henry Stafford (d. 1481).
Derby was a benefactor of Burscough priory, in which he erected a tomb with effigies of himself and his two wives, and placed images of his ancestors up to his great-grandfather in the arches of the chancel (Dugdale, ii. 249).[The early history of the Stanleys received a romantic colouring in the ‘Song of the Lady Bessy’ by Humphrey Brereton, a retainer of the first Earl of Derby, and the metrical family chronicle said to have been written about 1562 by Thomas Stanley, bishop of Sodor and Man [see under Stanley, Edward, (1460?–1523)]. The metrical history supplied Seacome (Memoirs of the House of Stanley, 1741; 7th ed. 1840) with the romantic details in the early life of the first Sir John Stanley which passed into the short histories of the family by Ross (1848), Draper (1864), and others. See also Rotuli Parliamentorum; Ordinances of the Privy Council, ed. Nicolas; Rymer’s Fœdera, orig. edit.; Polydore Vergil’s Anglica Historia; More’s Richard III, ed. Lumby; Fabyan and Hall’s Chronicles, ed. Ellis; Continuation of the Croyland Chronicle, ed. Gale, 1691; Paston Letters, ed. Gairdner; Comines’s Memoirs, ed. Dupont; Dugdale’s Baronage; G. E. C[okayne]’s Complete Peerage; Ormerod’s History of Cheshire, ed. Helsby; Baines’s History of Lancashire; Gregson’s Portfolio of Fragments relating to the History of Lancashire, 1817; Leland’s Collectanea, ed. Hearne; Bentley’s Excerpta Historica, 1831; Gairdner’s Richard III; Ramsay’s Lancaster and York; Wylie’s History of Henry IV; Palatine Note Book, iii. 161; Stanley Papers (Chetham Soc.); Hutton’s Bosworth Field, 1813.]
Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900, Volume 54
Stanley, Thomas (1435?-1504) by James Tait
Thomas Stanley, Earl of Derby by Henry Richard Cook, after Silvester (Sylvester) Harding. Stipple engraving, early 19th century. 5 7/8 in. x 4 1/2 in. (148 mm x 114 mm) paper size. Given by the daughter of compiler William Fleming MD, Mary Elizabeth Stopford (née Fleming), 1931. Reference Collection NPG D23921
Quartered Arms of Thomas Stanley, Earl of Derby. CC BY-SA 4.0