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Richard III and The Stanleys

LORD THOMAS STANLEY    1435-1504.jpeg

Lord Thomas Stanley  1435 - 1504

Sandra Worth

From The Ricardian Register 2003


When Lord Thomas Stanley came to Richard requesting permission to retire to his estates that fateful summer of 1485, Richard could have refused. With a motion of the hand he could have sent the ‘Wily Fox’ into custody and eliminated the threat Stanley posed to the security of his throne and to his life. Yet he chose to grant permission, knowing full well the danger inherent in that decision and what it might cost him. Why?

Since the solution facing Richard was both simple and obvious, the answer to this question could not be more complex. It embraces both the character of Lord Stanley and his brother Sir William and the very essence of who Richard really was, his life’s experience and how he saw himself, his view of his kingship and his relationship not only with the Stanleys, but with all his nobles, his people, and with God. Like rivers pouring into a sea, these all fed into Richard’s psyche to culminate in that last, ultimately fatal, decision before Bosworth.

Richard had to be as aware as everyone else how Thomas Stanley had earned his nickname ‘Wily Fox’. The Stanleys were survivors. They deserted their allies time and again, yet always managed to wiggle back into favor in time to ride at the winner’s side. Marguerite D’Anjou, the Duke of York, the Earl of Warwick, King Edward and even Richard himself had all shared the dubious honor of having been betrayed by the Stanleys, not once, but several times. Each time, the Stanleys were not only forgiven, but rewarded. About the Stanleys, Paul Murray Kendall writes:


In a century of civil strife, fierce partisanship, broken causes, in which many of the lords and gentry had been brought to ruin and extinction, Lord Stanley and his brother Sir William had thrived. They thrived by daring to make politics their trade, by sloughing off the encumbrances of loyalty and honor, by developing an ambiguity of attitude which enabled them to join the winning side, and by exploiting the relative ease with which treason in this age might be lived down, provided it were neither too passionate, too overt, nor too damaging. [i]


Richard’s first personal encounter with Thomas Stanley’s treason came during the troubles with Warwick in the early spring of 1469, when he was seventeen. On his way north from Wales to Edward’s side during the Robin of Redesdale rebellion, he had a confrontation with Lord Stanley’s men who blocked his path. Unknown to him, Lord Stanley, who was married to Warwick’s sister, had sent Warwick assurances of his support. After Warwick lost the Battle of Lose-Coat Field, he fled west to Stanley for the succor he had been promised, but Stanley, as a result of the skirmish with Richard, had lost his nerve and “hastily deciding that the Earl’s chances were dim”, changed his mind. [ii] Warwick was forced to flee England. On Warwick’s triumph against Edward the following October, however, Stanley rode into London at his side, somehow managing to excuse his previous desertion, a testimony to his glib tongue and powers of persuasion.

Lord Stanley’s artful way with words and the success of his unique ‘divide and conquer’ strategy whereby each member of the family would, on cue, take a different side, had saved their lives and their fortunes many a time and would do so again on at least three other occasions: Tewkesbury; Hasting’s conspiracy; and Buckingham’s revolt. One can imagine Lord Stanley’s explanation after the destruction of the Lancastrian cause at Tewkesbury: … He had been forced into taking King Henry’s side… His heart had always been Yorkist… He had avoided the battle, hadn’t he? …And his brother had remained true to Edward.

Not only did Edward forgive Stanley the betrayal of his oath—canceled by the betrayal of his oath to Henry—but he drew him into his intimate circle and made him Steward of his Household. [iii]

Despite Lord Stanley’s slippery tongue, one cannot imagine how he managed to extricate himself from Hastings’ plot in which he was caught red-handed. But manage, he did, and when his new wife, Henry Tudor’s mother, became the prime mover of Buckingham’s revolt and lost her estates, Richard gave them to him, along with additional grants of lands and an appointment as Constable of England. Paul Murray Kendall observes:


“Granted his smooth pliancy, his shrewd and wary maneuvering, his wonderful capacity to inspire confidence, still, at a remove of five centuries, it remains puzzling that he so often escaped the consequences of his betrayals.” [iv]


Indeed it does, and it also remains baffling why a man who had proved himself a traitor at  every opportunity would then be heaped with honors that would augment his powers so dangerously. If Richard had been a fool or stupid, one could understand, but that was certainly not the case. At this point we must examine Richard, the man.

It was as obvious to Richard as to everyone else that if Henry Tudor triumphed, Lord Stanley would be step-father to a King; that if Buckingham’s rebellion had prospered, Stanley would have betrayed him; that he had, indeed, betrayed him with Hastings. Richard lost no time executing Hastings, a man with whom he had shared Edward’s love and many perils, yet he pardoned Stanley and then permitted him to carry the mace at his coronation, an ancestral honor belonging to the dukes of Norfolk. Kendall, a scholar of Shakespeare and human nature, affords us the clearest explanation of these seemingly incomprehensible actions:


“To forgive Stanley was a kind of twisted expiation for the execution of a better and a dearer man. Besides, Stanley was a timeserver. With Stanley Richard felt no competition in loyalties.” [v]


Loyalty, Richard’s strongest trait, is reflected in his motto Loyaulte Me Lie. When faced with the critical choice between his love for Anne and loyalty to his king, unlike Lancelot, he chose loyalty. No doubt the decision cost him dear since from that point on, when faced with disloyalty in those he loved and had trusted implicitly—Hastings, St. Leger, Buckingham—his reaction was swift, violent, deadly. He could pardon Stanley because Stanley meant nothing to him and, therefore, he expected nothing from him. Hastings, however, had been friend, kin, and ally. His sin was too great to be borne.

Perhaps it was during the break with Warwick that Richard chose his motto of loyalty. Seventeen years old, alone among the Woodvilles he hated, bereft of the girl he loved and the family who had meant home and hearth to him, he must have suffered greatly before reaching his agonizing decision that loyalty bound him to his King. This loyalty to his brother the King continued to define him, not only in the eyes of the world, but in his own eyes—until the very moment when he assumed the throne.

In taking that throne, Richard was forced to set aside Edward’s sons. The fact that he did so to save the realm from civil war and his own family from destruction by the machinations of an evil queen could have brought little comfort to a man in conflict with himself. For Richard, a pious and gallant knight who placed loyalty above all else and saw himself as one who had betrayed his brother, there could be but one path of atonement. That path lay in good works for his people and in resting his crown not on force, but on loyalty. Only then could he expiate himself from what he saw as his great sin. Just as he had once “kept himself within his own lands and set out to acquire the loyalty of his people through favors and justice”, he now set out to do the same with his realm: [vi]


“He had to rule by merit because such rule was good in the judgment of Heaven and because it might even be good enough to mitigate his transgressions.” [vii]


Richard’s first and only parliament which gave us bail, the presumption of innocence, the statue of limitations, and the protections against tainted jury verdicts and corrupt jurors is unprecedented and unparalleled. During Richard’s progress through the realm in 1484 he was offered money to defray his expenses by the various town he visited, but he declined all their offers, “affirming that he would rather have their hearts than their treasure”. [viii] An observer, Dr. Thomas Langton, Bishop of St. David’s and later of Salisbury, records this verdict: “He contents the people wherever he goes best that ever did prince; for many a poor man that hath suffered wrong many days have been relieved and helped by him…God hath sent him to us for the weal of us all.” [ix]

Clearly, by the justice and goodness of his rule Richard sought to satisfy himself, his subjects, and God. As Kendall notes:


“Seldom has a rule so brief been so impregnated by the character of the ruler; seldom has a ruler spoken with so personal an accent. Both the government and those it governed he conceived in intimate terms. He wore the function of the Crown like a coat of his own making: it contained and represented him. Thus, he was unusually sensitive of his self-imposed duties to his subjects, but he was also unusually vulnerable to the attacks of his conscience.” [x]


Richard’s efforts met with great initial success; his subjects were content. Buckingham’s revolt collapsed almost before it began; relative peace and order wrapped the kingdom; and his enemies had difficulty finding charges to bring against him. [xi] Philipe de Commynes, a French statesman and friend to Louis XI and Henry Tudor, noted that the beneficence of Richard’s rule was acknowledged by the mass of the people. Then, in April, 1484, Fate intervened and everything changed.

Before Richard and Anne could reach Middleham, their only child, ten-year old Edward, died. His death at Easter came almost exactly a year to the date of King Edward’s own death. This tragedy was followed within the year by the death of Richard’s queen, Anne.

It is impossible to comprehend the magnitude of Richard’s loss. Anne was bound to him by blood as well as by marriage. She had been his companion since the tender years of their childhood. She was his helpmate and the grand passion of his life. Her father had been his own surrogate father, and she had shared his greatest joys, and the burden of his greatest sorrows. Now Anne, whom Richard had loved as long as he could remember, was dead. All were dead: his Neville family; his brothers; his son; his daughter, Katherine; and now his beloved wife. He stood alone; the last of his line.

If his nephews had been murdered—by Buckingham or Margaret Beaufort or John Morton—he must have held himself responsible and wondered whether the Hand of God had dealt him divine retribution. What else could explain these tragedies, the coincidental timing of young Edward’s death with King Edward’s [xii], and the darkening of the sun at the hour of Anne’s death—the sun, which had been his brother’s proud symbol?

As Richard left for Nottingham to await Henry Tudor that summer he had to have been filled with an agony of doubt over the righteousness of his course. He had taken the crown, and the crown had cost him all whom he’d held dear:


“He had recreated Clarence in Buckingham, and Buckingham had promptly fulfilled the recreation by betraying him. He had taken the throne from Edward’s son, and Heaven had soon after taken his own son from him. The woman to whom he had given the life of his heart had sunk into the grave, stricken by despair as much as by disease. His efforts to rule well had been mocked by rumor; the quiet of the realm and his own peace poisoned by conspiracy. His courage had not diminished; his will to pursue the path he had marked out did not falter. But he could not sink the man in the King.” [xiii]


Assailed by these doubts, facing a bleak future [xiv], no longer able to trust himself to make the right choices, shattered by grief and brooding on his losses, Richard no doubt turned to a higher authority for guidance. Let God decide his destiny; he would do nothing to help himself.

In this state of mind, as he waited at the “Castle of His Care” in Nottingham on the eve of  invasion, came the Wily Fox to request permission to retire to Cheshire to tend the business of his estates. [xv]  Kendall notes that from the day Richard took Lord Stanley into his favor after the execution of Hastings, there is no record that Lord Stanley had ever left his side. Stanley’s excuse was transparent and Richard knew it. Yet he allowed Lord Stanley to ride away because his allegiance had to be freely given, or in the critical hour Richard would be evading the test he had set for himself and his rule. Commander and captain though he was, Richard listened to another language than strategy and he was moved by a deeper compulsion than reason. [xvi]

Richard’s councilors must have been stunned. In the end, aware of his duty to his men whose lives he was risking—and perhaps, caring more for theirs than for his own—Richard set a condition, though it meant blunting the edge of his test: Lord Stanley was to be replaced by his son, Lord Strange. Stanley complied, knowing full well that his son’s life was surety for his own good behavior:


“Like his father before him, who had groped for the throne so awkwardly because he was playing a role alien to his nature, Richard had persuaded himself to assume the scepter; but he could not wield it comfortably because he could not assume with it the double conviction that he had done what he ought and that his one object must be to keep what he had got.” [xvii]


Stanley’s betrayal could have held no surprise for Richard. Yet there was one last surprise in store for him. At Bosworth, in response to his demand that Lord Stanley join the royal army or his son would die, Stanley sent back the reply—perhaps because he knew Richard would never take an innocent life—“I have other sons.” To a devoted and loving father in the depths of emotional despair over the loss of his boy, this had to have come as a bewildering, shattering revelation. The ‘Wily Fox’ had proven himself more repulsive and reprehensible than Richard could ever have imagined. At that moment the world that was inhabited by creatures such as Stanley—and Henry Tudor—must have seemed to Richard an unbearably hideous place. Moments after he received Stanley’s reply, he made his suicidal decision to charge behind enemy lines—and pass directly in front of  Stanley’s position.

After Richard’s death, Sir William Stanley crowned Henry Tudor with Richard’s battered crown which he retrieved from a thorn bush. Despite this grand gesture, he was later executed by Tudor for treason. At least, for one Stanley, luck had finally run out.



i Richard The Third, New York, 1954, pp. 403-404

ii Paul Murray Kendall, Ibid, p.404

iii Ibid, p.405

iv Ibid, p.405

v Ibid, p.250

vi Anthony Cheetham, The Life and Times of Richard III , Shooting Star Press, New York, 1995; p. 91

vii Kendall, op.cit., p. 379

viii Harl. 433, f. 110; John Rous, Historia Regum Angliae. Rous, a Warwickshire monk, compiled the history of the Earls of Warwick in the Rous Rolls. After Richard’s death he attempted to win Henry Tudor’s favor by inventing the tale that Richard was born after two years in the womb with talons and a full set of gnashing teeth.

ix Anthony Cheetham, op.cit.; pp. 215-216

x Kendall op.cit., p. 370

xi Kendall, op. cit. p. 385

xii Poison was rumored at the time and may indeed have been a possibility. If so, Prince Edward’s death came as a direct result of Henry Tudor’s thirst for Richard’s crown. This horrific possibility no doubt occurred to Richard, further fracturing his fragile emotional health.

xiii Kendall, op.cit., p. 403

xiv The prospect of a marriage with Johanna of Portugal—who wished to be a nun and was nothing like Anne—  could have offered little hope of personal happiness for Richard. Moreover, he had evidently come to recognize the need to rest his rule on  force instead of loyalty in the future and could not have relished this notion. Witness his address to his men just before the Battle of Bosworth where, according to the Croyland chonicler, the king, in rather weary fashion, told his men that whichever side won the victory, it would prove the utter destruction of England, for he was determined to crush his opponents once and for all, while his  enemies doubtless planned to wreak vengeance on his own men. 

xv Richard called Nottingham Castle the “Castle of his Care” from a poem by Piers Plowman, since it was at Nottingham that he received the news of his son’s death.

xvi Kendall, op.cit., p. 407

xvii Ibid, p. 419

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