The Earl Who Held the Balance of Power in the War of the Roses
Thomas Stanley, 1st Earl of Derby (1435 – 1504), effectively ended one dynasty and placed another on the throne in 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, after he named his brother Richard guardian and regent during the minority of Edward’s twelve-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 rival Lancastrian line, Henry landed in England in 1485, after years of exile. Richard gathered his forces, which included a large contingent commanded by Thomas Stanley, 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 positions of power 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.