Richard: What says Lord Stanley? Will he bring his power?

Messenger: My lord, he doth deny to come.

- Shakespeare, Richard III, V.iii

Thomas Stanley, First Earl of Derby

Thomas Stanley (1435?-1504) was a major figure in England's War of the Roses, betraying three kings and crowning a fourth.

Stanley began his political career in 1454 as a squire to Lancastrian king Henry VI. But having married the sister of Yorkist lord Richard Neville, Earl of Warwick, Stanley secretly held Yorkist sympathies, and at the Battle of Blore Heath in 1459, declined to enter the fray on his King's behalf, despite having a large force close at hand.

When the Yorkists finally came to power under Edward VI, Stanley was rewarded with the office of Chief Justice of Cheshire. But when Warwick switched sides and supported a brief Lancastrian restoration in 1471, Stanley once again followed his brother-in-law and switched sides to support the Lancastrian claim. Then, after Warwick's fall, he came back over to the Yorkists, and was rewarded with the office of Steward of the Royal Household.

In 1482 Stanley married his second wife Margaret Beaufort, mother of exiled Lancastrian claimant Henry Tudor. But despite this marital alliance with the Lancastrian faction, Stanley remained in favor with the Yorkist court, advancing up the ranks under Edward and then Richard III by becoming a privy councilor and then Constable of England.

Stanley declined to choose sides in the 1483 rebellion on Henry Tudor's behalf, despite his wife's deep involvement with the Lancastrian cause, but when his step-son faced Richard at the Battle of Bosworth Field in 1485, Stanley declined to take the field on Richard's behalf, and Henry won the day. Stanley's refusal to fight was decisive, and to him fell the honor of placing Richard's crown on the new king's head, as Henry Tudor became King Henry VII. Stanley's real reward was even greater power, as Henry confirmed all his offices and created him first Earl of Derby.

In the final analysis, Stanley emerges as a shrewd student of the shifting winds of political fortune, always switching sides at exactly the right moment. Surviving the downfall of several kings from both of the competing houses, Stanley managed to hold office continuously from 1461 until his death in 1504. Kings triumphed and kings fell, but Stanley always came out a winner.

1st Earl of Derby (1485-1504)
2nd Baron Stanley (1459-1504)
Born c.1435 Died 1504

Thomas Stanley, 1st Earl of Derby, was the son of Thomas Stanley, who was created Baron Stanley in 1456 and died in 1459. His grandfather, Sir John Stanley (d. 1414), had founded the fortunes of his family by marrying Isabel Lathom, the heiress of a great estate in the hundred of West Derby in Lancashire; he was Lieutenant of Ireland in 1389-1391, and again in 1399-1401, and in 1405 received a grant of the lordship of Man from Henry IV.

The future Earl of Derby was a squire to Henry VI in 1454, but not long afterwards married Eleanor, daughter of the Yorkist leader, Richard Neville, Earl of Salisbury. At the battle of Blore Heath in August 1459 Stanley, though close at hand with a large force, did not join the royal army, whilst his brother William fought openly for York. In 1461 Stanley was made chief justice of Cheshire by Edward IV, but ten years later he sided with his brother-in-law Warwick in the Lancastrian restoration. Nevertheless, after Warwick's fall, Edward made Stanley steward of his household. Stanley served with the king in the French expedition of 1475, and with Richard of Gloucester in Scotland in 1482. About the latter date he married, as his second wife, Margaret Beaufort, mother of the exiled Henry Tudor.

Stanley was one of the executors of Edward IV, and was at first loyal to the young king Edward V. But he acquiesced in Richard's usurpation, and retaining his office as steward avoided any entanglement through his wife's share in Buckingham's rebellion. He was made Constable of England in succession to Buckingham, and granted possession of his wife's estates with a charge to keep her in some secret place at home. Richard could not well afford to quarrel with so powerful a noble, but early in 1485 Stanley asked leave to retire to his estates in Lancashire. In the summer Richard, suspicious of his continued absence, required him to send his eldest son, Lord Strange, to court as a hostage. After Henry of Richmond had landed, Stanley made excuses for not joining the king; for his son's sake he was obliged to temporise, even when his brother William had been publicly proclaimed a traitor. Both the Stanleys took the field; but whilst William was in treaty with Richmond, Thomas professedly supported Richard. On the morning of Bosworth (22nd August), Richard summoned Stanley to join him, and when he received an evasive reply ordered Strange to be executed.

In the battle it was William Stanley who turned the scale in Henry's favour, but Thomas, who had taken no part in the fighting, was the first to salute the new king. Henry VII confirmed Stanley in all his offices, and on the 27th of October created him Earl of Derby. As husband of the king's mother Derby held a great position, which was not affected by the treason of his brother William in February 1495. In the following July the earl entertained the king and queen with much state at Knowsley. Derby died on the 29th of July 1504. Strange had escaped execution in 1485, through neglect to obey Richard's orders; but he died before his father in 1497, and his son Thomas succeeded as second earl. An old poem called The Song of the Lady Bessy, which was written by a retainer of the Stanleys, gives a romantic story of how Derby was enlisted by Elizabeth of York in the cause of his wife's son.

For fuller narratives see J. Gairdner's Richard III and J. H. Ramsay's Lancaster and York; also Seacome's Memoirs of the House of Stanley (1741). (C.L.K.)

Extracted from the entry for DERBY, EARLS OF in the 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica, the text of which lies within the public domain.

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