On 22 August 1485, the Battle of Bosworth saw the end of 331 years of the Plantagenet dynasty and the dawn of the Tudor age. King Richard III was the last King of England to die in battle, having taken part in a thunderous cavalry charge of his household knights, and Henry Tudor became King Henry VII.
Bosworth was unusual in that there were really three armies in the field that day. Forming a triangle with Richard and Henry’s armies was that of the Stanley brothers. Thomas, Lord Stanley, the head of the acquisitive Lancashire family, was probably not present, and was instead represented by his younger brother Sir William. They would eventually engage on Henry Tudor’s side to decide the outcome of the battle. Why they chose this side is a complex story.
Thomas, Lord Stanley had compelling reasons to betray Richard III. He had sworn fealty to the Yorkist king and had carried the Constable’s mace at his coronation on 6 July 1483. However, Thomas was well known for arriving late to battles during the Wars of the Roses, or not arriving at all. If he appeared, it was always on the side that won.
Stanley developed a reputation as a trimmer, one who would act in the way that would best suit his aims and best improve his position. It’s an aspect of his behaviour during the Wars of the Roses that attracts criticism, but his family was one of the few to emerge from those fraught decades with their position enhanced.
Sir William Stanley was a much more ardent Yorkist. He appeared for the Yorkist army at the Battle of Blore Heath in 1459 and, unlike his older brother, he regularly appeared allied to the Yorkist faction. It is this that makes William’s intervention at Bosworth for Henry Tudor somewhat surprising. It has often been linked to ideas of Richard III’s part in the deaths of the Princes in the Tower, but there are other imperatives that might have been driving Stanley’s actions at Bosworth.
A family connection
One of the reasons Thomas Stanley was keen to support the Tudor faction is that he had a family connection which, if they were victorious, would propel his family’s fortunes to new heights. There is evidence that Thomas and William met Henry on the way to Bosworth and at that meeting assured him of their support when battle came. For Stanley, it was never quite that simple, and his military assistance would always depend on its deployment being in Stanley’s best interests.
Thomas Stanley was married to Lady Margaret Beaufort, who was the mother of Henry Tudor. Margaret was convicted of treason in parliament in early 1484 for her part in a rebellion that broke out in October 1483. She became involved in what was probably a plan to put Henry Stafford, Duke of Buckingham on the throne as a way to get her son home from the exile he had then languished in for 12 years.
Her bitter opposition to Richard III seems to have been a result of coming very close to getting Henry home. Edward IV had drafted a pardon that would allow Henry to return to England, but died before he signed it. In all the upheaval after Edward’s death, there was no appetite to allow an exile to return and potentially destabilise the kingdom.
For Thomas Stanley, then, a Tudor victory at Bosworth offered the tempting possibility of becoming step-father to the new King of England.
There was another factor at the centre of Stanley’s reasoning in August 1485, too. There had been tension between the Stanley family and Richard since 1470. It all stemmed from when Richard, as the young Duke of Gloucester, was sent by Edward IV to step on the over-confident toes of the expansionist Stanley family. Richard was granted some lands and offices in the Duchy of Lancaster which meant curtailing Stanley power there a little. Richard would take this confrontation even further, though.
Richard, aged 17 in the summer of 1470, was close to several young noblemen. Amongst his friends was Sir James Harrington. The Harrington family were, in many ways, the antithesis of Thomas Stanley. They had joined the Yorkist cause at the outset and never wavered. Sir James’s father and older brother had died alongside Richard’s father and older brother at the Battle of Wakefield in 1460.
The death of James’s father and brother in service to the House of York had caused a problem with the family’s inheritance. The order of the deaths meant that the family’s lands, centred on the beautiful Hornby Castle, fell to James’s nieces. Thomas Stanley had swiftly applied for their custody, and having got it, married them into his family, one of the girls to his son. He had then claimed Hornby Castle and their other lands on their behalf. The Harringtons had refused to hand over the girls or the lands and had dug in at Hornby Castle.
In harm’s way
In 1470, Edward IV was losing his grip on England. Before the end of the year, he would be an exile from his own kingdom. Caister Castle in Norfolk was under attack from the Duke of Norfolk and local feuds were erupting into conflict everywhere. Thomas Stanley took the opportunity to lay siege to Hornby Castle to wrestle it from the Harringtons, who held on in defiance of court rulings against them.
A huge cannon named Mile Ende was hauled from Bristol to Hornby with the intention of blasting the Harringtons out. The reason it was never fired at the castle is made clear from a warrant issued by Richard on 26 March 1470. It is signed ‘Given under our signet, at the castle of Hornby’. Richard had placed himself inside Hornby Castle in support of his friend and dared Lord Stanley to fire a cannon at the king’s brother. It was a bold step for a 17-year-old, and showed where Richard’s favour lay despite the decision of his brother’s court.
The price of power?
There is a Stanley family legend. In fact, there are many. This one appears in The Stanley Poem, but is not supported by any other source. It claims there was an armed encounter between Stanley forces and those of Richard named the Battle of Ribble Bridge. It claims Stanley won, and captured Richard’s battle standard, which was put on display at a church in Wigan.
Sir James Harrington was still a close friend of Richard’s in 1483, and would die at his side during the Battle of Bosworth. It is possible Richard planned to reopen the question of the ownership of Hornby Castle as king. That was a direct threat to Stanley hegemony.
As the Stanley faction planned for, and then watched, the Battle of Bosworth in 22 August 1485, the chance to be the step-father to a new king must have featured in Thomas’s decision making. A long running feud with the man who was now king, one the family characterised as confrontational and bitter, and which might have been reopened, must also have played on the mind of Thomas, Lord Stanley.