Thomas Stanley, 1st Earl of Derby

Born: c. 1433

Died: July 29, 1504

Lathom, Lancashire, England (Age c. 71)

Derby in History

Over the centuries, the Stanley family has gained a reputation of remaining neutral and not supporting any particular side in a battle until they were absolutely positive that side would win. Even then, their chances of involving themselves were, to an extant, unlikely. Though this strategy does not seem to have been an honorable one, it gained the Stanley family more friends than enemies in the long run and showed that they were masters of taking advantage of any sort of situation. Thomas Stanley's father, the elder Thomas, was a loyal servant to Henry VI and the house of Lancaster, and the younger Thomas began his career in the same way. However, Thomas formed an alliance with the Neville family by marrying Eleanor Neville, daughter of the Earl of Salisbury, the leading member of the Nevilles and a supporter of the house of York, who were rivals to the house of Lancaster. Stanley did not participate in the Battle of St. Albans (the first official battle in the Wars of the Roses between the houses of Lancaster and York) in 1455 and did not seem to have any involvement in the conflict until the Battle of Blore Heath in 1459, where he supplied troops for his father-in-law Salisbury; none of Stanley's men ever participated in the battle.

In addition, Stanley was supposed to have supplied an army to fight for the Lancastrians, under orders from Queen Margaret. This is the first instance of Stanley showing that he was not willing to commit to any side until he was positive who the victor would be. At this point, it was by no means clear whether the house of Lancaster or York would be in power. Stanley, however, would show that his support was with the house of York after Henry VI was captured after the Battle of Northampton the following year. He then made sure to stay away from the particularly bloody battles of Wakefield (where both Salisbury and the Duke of York were killed) and Towton (where York's eldest son defeated the Lancastrians and had himself crowned as Edward IV). Although Stanley got no credit for his lack of participation in these battles, he would prove himself to the new king by aiding his brother-in-law, the Earl of Warwick, in chasing away the remaining Lancastrians and playing a part in the capture of Henry VI (1465) in the Stanley stronghold of Lancashire.

Events took an interesting turn, though, when the Earl of Warwick turned against Edward IV, the man he had placed on the throne. Stanley, as he did best, remained neutral in the situation. After Warwick had left England for France and returned with an army to chase away the king, Stanley provided troops for his brother-in-law. However, when Edward IV returned to reclaim his throne, Stanley was careful not to involve himself in the Battles of Barnet and Tewksbury, which saw the death of Warwick and the annihilation of the house of Lancaster. After the battles, Stanley was forgiven and returned to royal favor. Stanley then made another key political move that would ultimately be crucial for his survival when the Yorkist regime would fall. After the death of his first wife, Stanley married Margaret Beaufort (a member of the house of Lancaster) in 1472. Margaret was the mother of Henry Tudor (who was living in exile in Brittany), the most obvious heir apparent to the house of Lancaster. The marriage, of course, did nothing to increase Stanley's fortunes during Yorkist reign, but it did not seem to effect his position at court, and he participated in Edward IV's French campaign (1475) and the king's brother, the Duke of Gloucester's, Scottish invasion (1482).

After Edward IV's death in 1483, Gloucester would go on to bastardize (and soon murder, most likely) both of the late king's sons, execute several of their maternal relatives and have himself crowned as Richard III. Stanley seems to have been in trouble at first, but stood by the new king after the Duke of Buckingham's rebellion early in the reign, most likely because he had no choice in the matter. Stanley, however, was secretly plotting with his stepson, Henry Tudor, who was soon to invade England and seize the crown. Richard III found out about these plans and kept Stanley's son George as his hostage, saying that he would be killed if Stanley did not put his support behind him after Tudor's invasion.

Tudor did invade England in the summer of 1485 and met the royal army at Bosworth, where a decisive battle erupted. Once again, Thomas and his brother William did what they did best: remained neutral until they knew who the winner would be. When it became clear that Tudor's forces would come out on top, William, but not Thomas, sent his troops in to finish off the forces of Richard III, who was subsequently killed after an attempt to attack Tudor himself. Many chronicles will state that it was Stanley himself who placed the crown on Tudor's head after the battle. Stanley's services, which consisted mainly of not supporting Richard III's army were rewarded by his creation of Earl of Derby by the new King Henry VII. The new earl was a leading figure in his stepson's regime and participated in the Battle of Stoke (1487) and the suppression of the Yorkshire rebellion (1489). In 1495, the Stanley family suffered a setback when Derby's brother William was executed for supposedly supporting the rebellion of the Yorkist pretender Perkin Warbeck, a man who claimed to be Richard, Duke of York, the younger of Edward IV's two sons who were imprisoned in the tower by Richard III. His brother's execution did not seem to affect Derby's standing at court, and he seems to have been almost understanding of the event. The earl continued to loyally serve Henry VII until his death in 1504 as a man in his early seventies. Thomas Stanley made a career out of remaining neutral until knowing exactly what would happen. Again, these actions do not strike one as honorable, but they ultimately earned Stanley an earldom and continuous royal favor. Unfortunately, his brother did not follow in his footsteps.

Derby in Shakespeare

Appears in: Richard III

Lord Stanley plays a prominent role in Richard III. He claims to be a loyal supporter of the house of York but is, in reality, secretly plotting with his stepson, Henry Tudor, despite Richard III's threats that he will murder Stanley's son George if he does not cooperate. In the end, Stanley supports his stepson at Bosworth and places the crown on the head of the new King Henry VII. Throughout the play, Stanley is referred to as the Earl of Derby. In reality, he was not created earl until after Henry's victory over Richard III.


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