Sir William Stanley crowning Henry Tudor with the fallen King Richard’s crown in the aftermath of the Battle of Bosworth.  Unknown artist..

It is well documented how, through the treasonable and treacherous actions of Sir William Stanley at Bosworth, Richard III lost his crown and his life. He was hacked to death after Sir William, who it is said, brought 3000 men with him, intervened at the crucial point when Richard, with his household cavalry in a heroic charge, came within a hair’s breadth of reaching Henry Tudor and despatching him.  According to the Great Chronicle of London after the  coronet Richard wore on his sallet was found under a hawthorn bush, it was Sir William who used it to crown Henry Tudor.    There may be an element of truth in this story as a hawthorn bush and crown was one of Henry Tudor’ s badges.


19th century engraving of King Richard hacking his way through the enemy ranks in an attempt to reach Henry Tudor.  Artist unknown

Sir William came from a high status family being the second son of Thomas Stanley, first Baron Stanley (1406-1459) and Joan Gousill,  daughter of Sir Robert Goushill and his wife, Elizabeth Fitzalan, dowager duchess of Norfolk.  He seems to have been one of those people who can run with the hounds and play with the foxes, doing well under both the Yorkist kings as well as Henry Tudor.   Edward IV made him Chamberlain of Chester,  Constable of Flint Castle, Sheriff of Flintshire and, interestingly,  Steward of the Prince of Wales’ Household while Richard III made him Chief Justice of North Wales and finally Henry VII  made him Lord Chamberlain and Knight of the Garter (1).   It is said that Sir William – step-uncle to Henry and brother-in-law to Margaret Beaufort – was one of the richest men in England.  Bacon estimated his income at £3000 a year and when his castle at Holt was searched after his arrest,  money and jewels to the value of £9000 were found.     Sir William seemed to have been on a never ending  roll until it all went pear shaped, his chickens finally  came home to roost and disaster overcame him. But we have galloped too far ahead and should  backtrack a little.   Sir William had done well in the marriage market and made advantageous matches.    In 1465 he married his first wife Joan, Lady Lovell nee Beaumont, daughter of John, Viscount Beaumont, and widow of John,  Lord Lovell which made him of course step-father to Francis Lovell,  at that time a ‘very valuable 12 year old heir’.   Francis was  said to have been Richard III’s closest friend since they spent time together during their youth (2)  This marriage was of short duration Joan dying in August 1466 although an article in the usually reliable Ricardian Bulletin  states August 1469 as her death date (3).  This confusion in the date of Joan’s death has led to some confusion as to which wife had which children.  Sir William’s second marriage in 1471 was to  Elizabeth Hopton (d.1498) countess of Worcester,  widow of John Tiptoft,  earl of Worcester and Constable of England who,  having earned himself the sobriquet of The Butcher of England,  had been  executed October 1470.   This lady was either very brave or very unlucky to have a predilection for choosing husbands that were to end their lives on the chopping block – maybe a combination of both –  but I digress.  As mentioned above it’s difficult to be definitive about Sir Williams’s children and by which wife had he had them by depending upon which account you prefer to go with.    However the consensus seems to be that Sir William had his children with Elizabeth.  Indeed it’s difficult to see how he could have had children by Joan whom he married in 1465 if she was indeed  dead by August 1466 although it’s possible she could have had one child which survived infancy.  Could this have been William Jnr?     Some accounts say that Elizabeth was the mother of all of William’s three children including William Jnr and two daughters, Joan and Catherine.  Yet another article in the Ricardian Bulletin states that William Jnr (born c.1471)  would succeed his father in several offices but  days before William Snrs execution Henry VII  appointed a commission, on 8 February 1495, under Arthur, Prince of Wales, to enquire of the lands and possessions in North Wales and the marches thereof, and the counties of Chester, Flint and Salop of William Stanley, knight and to take charge of the same and these were kept in the king’s hands.  If this account is accurate although the glory days were over and this branch of the Stanley family seemingly destined to wither and die  – his son William Jnr ‘relegated to the status of a minor country gentleman’ –  all three children made marriages with local gentry so all was not entirely lost (4).   Other accounts do not mention any children at all.   

Fast forward and  10 years after the betrayal of King Richard,  the bitch  that is karma paid Sir William a visit.   It all ended ignominiously at Tower Hill, where William was beheaded on 16 February 1495 for the treasonable act of communicating with Perkin Warbeck. He had been found guilty of treason in a trial which had taken place on the 6-7 February at which his brother, Thomas Lord Stanley,  earl of Derby,  had presided as Constable of England.   He pleaded guilty but his behaviour was said to be arrogant (5).   Oh dear. … at the precise moment he should have  been eating humble pie! Annoyingly Thomas’ thoughts have not come down to us regarding the part he played in the downfall of his brother nor those of his wife – but I would have thought that Margaret would not have been feeling exactly  warm and fuzzy towards Sir William after his betrayal of her man cub.  However Henry VII’s accounts show he coughed up £10 for William, thought to have been used towards ‘tipping’ the executioner possibly in the hope he wouldn’t mess things up,  as well as the not inconsiderable  amount of £31.0s.1d to William’s servaunts for ther houshold wages and ther horse mete.  William’s buryall at Syon set back Henry a further £15.19s. (6).    

What led to Sir William’s downfall?  In  what has been  described by historian Michael Bennett as ‘a most spectacular fall from grace‘  which shocked his contemporaries,  Stanley was accused of telling Sir  Robert Clifford,  who may have been acting as  an agent provocateur, and who would go on to  inform on him , that if he was sure Perkin Warbeck was indeed Edward IV’s son ‘he would never take  arms against him‘ (7). W E Hampton suggests Clifford may also have held a  personal grudge against William, who since 1464  had been in possession of lands and the lordship of Skipton, Yorkshire,  which had been forfeited by Sir John Clifford in 1461.   Clifford’s betrayal  also caused the ruination of his own  father-in-law William Barley/Barlee who had the misfortune to be  present when Sir William uttered those fatal words.  What is certain is that Clifford was inexplicably arrested and rewarded practically simultaneously  – the immense sum of £500 being handed to him by Reginald Bray for his services.    Those few catastrophic  words, spoken by a man who, his brother being the step-father of Henry Tudor,  one  would have thought would have  been in a position to know the truth, even if only partially,  opened up a massive can of worms for Henry.  They made it clear that someone who should have been in the position to know the truth admitted the possibility that at least one of the sons of Edward IV had survived.  This  would have  proven both awkward  and irksome for Henry Tudor at a time when it was important that it was believed that  Richard III  was responsible for the heinous murder of his  nephews and indeed up until this present day it is a point often raised to demonstrate the strong possibility that at least one of the sons of Edward IV had survived.   From then on William was a dead man walking in much the same way as Catesby had been ten years previously in the aftermath of Bosworth.   Those whom Henry could not trust had to be gone…


Brass rubbing of Sir Robert Clifford c.1508. – the man who betrayed Sir William Stanley.   Aspenden Church Hertfordshire.  Inscribed   “knight for the body to ye most excellent prince & king Henry ye VII and maister of hys ordynaunce also”.  There appears to have been some attempt at a true likeness here.  Photo thanks to jmc4 Church Explorer @ Flkr.     

The question I am raising here is not so much about Sir William’s  penchant for interminable fence-sitting  – a family trait he shared with his brother Thomas – but rather, did he, an apparent dyed-in-the-wool turncoat, capable of the greatest treachery , actually possess a latent streak of honour, perhaps dating from the time when he was Steward to the Princes of Wales’ Household?  Did his time there give birth to a fierce loyalty to Edward’s sons that later emerged with such a passion that he risked all, absolutely all,  when he joined the Perkin Warbeck plot?  Did he grow fond of young Edward, later focusing this affection on Edward’s brother, Richard of Shrewsbury, whom Warbeck purported to be?  OR, was he, as the historian Gairdner suggested, merely attempting to secure his position with both sides in the event of an invasion? (8).  I will leave that to you dear reader to make your own mind up. 

(1)  Ramsay, Lancaster and York, ii 482

(2) The Wives and Children of Sir William Stanley of Holt Jean M Gidman.  Ricardian article March 1992

3) For Joan’s  death date being 5 August 1466 see Cokayne The Complete Peerage Volume 2 p.65

4) The Wives and Children of Sir William Stanley of Holt Jean M Gidman.  Ricardian article March 1992.  Referencing Michael K. Jones, Sir William Stanley of Holt: politics and family allegiance in the late fifteenth century, We‘lshHistory Review, vol. 14(1988), p.7, n.2L

5)  Stanley, Sir William (c. 1435–1495Michael J Bennett 3rd January 2008

6) Excerpta Historica; or Illustrations of English History p. 101.  Edited by Samuel Bentley 1833

7)  Stanley, Sir William (c. 1435–1495Michael J Bennett 3rd January 2008

8)   W A J Archbold ‘Sir William Stanley and Perkin Warbeck’ English Historical Review 14 (1899) pp 529-534. ‘On 14 March (year unknown) Gairdner suggested in a note to Archbold that Stanley may simply have wanted to secure his position with both sides in case of an invasion‘.  I am grateful for this information which I have gleaned from Helen Maurer’s ‘Whodunit – The Suspects in the Case’.

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