Thomas Stanley Became a Kingmaker in an Afternoon
Thomas Stanley, 1st Earl of Derby (1435 – 1504), pulled off one of history’s most momentous acts of kingmaking during the course of a single afternoon. He was a powerful peer who ran his extensive landholdings in northwest England as if they were an independent realm. His support was thus courted by both the Lancastrian and Yorkist branches of the Plantagenet dynasty during the Wars of Roses.
The Yorkist King Edward IV had died in 1483, having named his brother Richard guardian and regent during the minority of Edward’s 12 year old son and successor, and his younger brother. However, Richard declared Edward’s sons illegitimate, and imprisoned his nephews in the Tower of London, where they disappeared and were likely murdered. He then had himself crowned as king Richard III.
Richard was challenged for the crown by Henry Tudor, the last viable male descendant of the competing Lancastrian line, who landed in England in 1485, after years of exile. Richard gathered his forces, which included a large contingent commanded by Thomas Stanley, a major Yorkist loyalist and supporter, and marched out to meet his challenger.
Stanley was conflicted: his family had been Lancastrians, but he had defected to the Yorkists. He was handsomely rewarded for that betrayal with lands and estates, and appointments to powerful positions in the royal government. He was thus indebted to the Yorkists. However, he also happened to be married to Henry Tudor’s mother, so he was the challenger’s stepfather.
Stuck between the rock of loyalty and the hard place of peace and tranquility at home, Stanley decided to play both sides, and secretly contacted his stepson to explore defection. King Richard got wind of that, however, and seized Stanley’s son as a hostage for his father’s good behavior and insurance against treachery. He then ordered the Earl to join the Yorkist army with his contingent, which Stanley reluctantly did.
The rivals met at the Battle of Bosworth on August 22nd, 1485, but Stanley was still undecided. So he kept his contingent to one side of field, while waiting to see which side looked like a winner. A livid Richard III sent Stanley a message, threatening to execute his son unless he immediately attacked the Lancastrians. The Earl coolly replied: “Sire, I have other sons“.
Richard ordered Stanley’s son executed, but the order was not immediately carried out, and before long it was too late. As the afternoon wore on, Stanley made up his mind that king Richard was losing the battle, so he ordered an attack – against Richard and the Yorkist forces. That decisively tipped the scales in favor of Henry Tudor, and against Richard III, who launched a desperate attack seeking to reach and cut down his rival, only to get cut down himself.
Following Richard’s death, Stanley found his fallen crown in some shrubs, and personally placed it on the head of Henry Tudor, henceforth Henry VII. Stanley’s stepson and new king of England brought the Plantagenet dynasty to an end after centuries of rule, and replaced it with his own Tudor dynasty. As to Stanley, treachery paid well, and was generously rewarded for his betrayal of Richard.