The 15th century is not short of villains, but the interpretation of the word depends on whose side you were on. The Lancastrians looked on Richard, duke of York and his sons as villains; the Yorkists considered the weak king Henry VI, and especially his wife Margaret of Anjou as villains. Richard Neville, earl of Warwick, changed sides. So did Lord Hastings and the Duke of Buckingham. Then there was Margaret Beaufort and her son, Henry Tudor.
My top vote, however, goes to the Stanleys.
My top vote, however, goes to the Stanleys.
His father held important roles at the court of Henry VI and Stanley’s early loyalty was to the Lancastrian king. However, his marriage to Eleanor Neville, sister of Richard Neville, Earl ofWarwick, brought him into alliance with the Yorkists. In 1459,when his father-in-law, the Earl of Salisbury, was mobilising his forces against the royal forces, Stanley was ordered by the Queen to intercept him, but when the two forces met at Blore Heath in Staffordshire, Stanley kept his 2,000 forces out of the battle.
The following year, Stanley openly cooperated with the Yorkists, and joined with his brother-in-law, the Earl of Warwick in his campaigns with the Lancastrians. When Warwick rebelled against Edward IV, Stanley lent him armed support. However, on Edward IV’s defeat of Warwick in 1471, Stanley became a member of the royal council.
The death of his wife around this time ended his connection with the Nevilles. His second marriage was to have far greater consequences, as his new wife was Lady Margaret Beaufort, who had previously been married to Edmund Tudor. Her child by this marriage was, of course, Henry Tudor.
When Edward IV died unexpectedly in 1483, Stanley was one of the members of the royal council who tried to maintain a balance of power between Richard, Duke of Gloucester and the Woodville family. When Richard denounced the council, Stanley escaped the fate of Lord Hastings who was executed, but he was imprisoned for a time. However, when Richard became king, he found it more advisable to appease rather than alienate the Stanley family. Thus Stanley continued to act as steward of the royal household and bore the mace at Richard’s coronation.
He supported Richard in suppressing Buckingham’s revolt in the autumn of 1483, even though it is highly likely he was actually involved in the conspiracy. Certainly his wife was one of the co-conspirators in the plot to dethrone Richard and put Henry Tudor on the throne. Stanley only escaped attainder by promising Richard that he would keep his wife in custody and end her intrigues.
In early 1485, Stanley asked permission to leave the court to attend to his northern estates. Richard was clearly aware of the threat from the Stanley family, and insisted that his son, Lord Strange, remained at court as a token for his father’s loyalty.
When Henry Tudor’s forces advanced through Wales in the summer of 1495, Richard ordered Stanley to join him, but Stanley made an excuse, saying he had the sweating sickness. By this time Richard had evidence of Stanley’s treachery since Lord Strange had confessed that his father and uncle William Stanley had conspired with Henry Tudor. Richard sent a message to Stanley saying that Lord Strange’s life depended on Stanley’s loyalty in the coming conflict. Apparently, Stanley’s reply was, “Sire, I have other sons.” Nice father, huh?
Stanley and his brother William led their forces south to the Midlands, but they took up a position separate from both Richard’s and Henry Tudor’s forces at Bosworth Field. The general consensus of historians is that he was waiting to see who was the likely winner before showing his hand. Only when Richard led his magnificent charge towards Tudor did the Stanleys act. William led his forces to Henry’s aid, and Richard was surrounded and killed.
In the Derby chapel at Ormskirk Church in Lancashire there are effigies thought to be those of Thomas Stanley and his first wife, Eleanor Neville. He was actually buried in the family chapel at nearby Burscough Priory and it is thought the effigies were brought to Ormskirk Church when the priory was demolished when the monasteries were dissolved in 1536.
It’s worth considering for a moment that the treachery of the Stanleys at Bosworth changed the course of English history. Without their intervention, Richard would probably have killed Henry Tudor, thereby securing his throne. There would have been no Tudor dynasty, no Henry VIII, no break with Rome, no Elizabeth I – and maybe Shakespeare would have written a play about the despised Tudor would-be usurper and his traitorous Stanley acolytes!