With this post, I am taking a break from discussing the women of The Protector to talk about Margaret Beaufort’s third husband, Thomas, Lord Stanley, and his younger brother Sir William. Both were major participants in the Wars of the Roses. Although they apparently were not twins, they were close in age and were perhaps even born in the same year (1435), ten or eleven months apart. Under the law of primogeniture, the oldest son, Thomas, inherited the titles and estates of their father, the first Baron Stanley, a powerful magnate in the northwest of England. As the second son, William could not inherit, but he did build up his own powerbase and worked with his brother to forward the family’s interests.
The two brothers appear to have had vastly different personalities. William was far more daring than Thomas, willing to choose a side in battle and risk the consequences to life, limb, and property if things went wrong. His more cautious older brother preferred to take a safer, neutral stance. This may have been a strategic calculation. No matter which side triumphed, one of the Stanleys could claim to have a foot in the victor’s camp, or at least not to have hindered him. But there could be another explanation. Even at the time, Thomas seems to have had a well-earned reputation for being unwilling to put himself in jeopardy.
Early on, the family were staunch Lancastrians, but in 1451 Thomas married Lady Eleanor Neville, a daughter of the Earl of Salisbury and sister to Richard Neville, Earl of Warwick. The union gave him strong ties to the House of York and possibly led to a career of indecision. This seems to have begun at the battle of Blore Heath in 1459, when the Lancastrian Queen Margaret ordered him and his army to ambush his father-in-law, the Earl of Salisbury. Instead, he held back and failed to engage on either side. Meanwhile in the same battle, William fought for York and was subsequently attainted by Margaret. He kept his life but lost his property and fled into exile. The following years found Thomas developing closer ties to York as well, campaigning with William to help Edward of York win the throne from Margaret’s incompetent husband, Henry VI, in 1461.
The victory of Edward IV worked out well for both Stanleys until 1470 when Thomas’s brother-in-law, the Earl of Warwick, rebelled against Edward and declared for Lancaster. Initially, Thomas found it prudent to remain neutral, but when it seemed Warwick had triumphed and Edward was forced to flee overseas, he was among the first to join with the earl to restore Henry VI to the throne. His Lancastrian reformation lasted only until the deposed Edward returned to England six months later and fought to reclaim his crown. Suddenly, Thomas found important business to attend to elsewhere and was not involved in either of the great battles (Barnet and Tewkesbury) that sealed Edward’s return to power. On the other hand, William fought on the side of York and further assured himself of the king’s gratitude by tracking down the fugitive Queen Margaret and bringing her to justice.
Both Stanley brothers prospered during the remainder of Edward’s reign despite Thomas’s remarriage in 1472 to the recently widowed Margaret Beaufort, mother of Henry Tudor, the Lancastrian heir. We can safely assume this was not a love match though it was quite advantageous for both parties. Margaret was gaining a powerful ally, while Thomas, whose first wife was not yet cold in her grave, was securing a valuable political asset in the person of his 15-year-old stepson.
Edward’s untimely passing in 1483 threw England into disarray, again pitting powerful factions against each other. Here Thomas did choose a side, but unfortunately for him, it was the losing side. As I depict in my novel, The Protector, he plotted with Lord Hastings, Bishop Morton and Archbishop Rotherham to keep Richard of Gloucester from taking the throne. When their attempted coup was revealed, Tom Stanley was slightly injured in the ensuing scuffle (perhaps his only “battle wound”), and was briefly arrested, but unlike Lord Hastings his life was spared. As Richard moved to make himself king, he found it necessary to propitiate both the powerful Lord Stanley and his equally dangerous wife, but he knew that neither of them could be trusted. Thereafter, he kept Thomas close at hand.
When Henry Tudor invaded two years later, Thomas begged leave to depart from court so he could raise an army, allegedly in support of Richard, but the suspicious king insisted he send his eldest son, Lord Strange, to court in his place as a hostage for his loyalty. Thomas retorted, rather chillingly, “Sire, I have other sons.” Nonetheless, as he had so many times before, he refrained from actively participating in the battle of Bosworth Field. William had no such reservations. Breaking from his long history of supporting York, he and his men intervened on the side of Henry Tudor and were instrumental in Richard’s death and Henry’s victory. According to tradition, it was Thomas who, despite having played no apparent role in the outcome, placed the dead king’s battle-crown on his stepson’s head. Both Stanleys were well rewarded by the new monarch, Henry VII. Thomas was made Earl of Derby and William became Lord Chamberlain and Chamberlain of the Exchequer.
The story of the Stanley brothers has a rather odd proscript. Despite his previous support of King Henry VII and his strong family connections, Sir William would be executed for treason in 1495 for backing the cause of Perkin Warbeck, a Yorkist pretender who claimed to be the younger of the two “Princes in the Tower.” His brother Thomas, Earl of Derby, would live on until 1504 and die from natural causes at the age of 69. Perhaps a life of caution has its advantages.