History has painted the Stanley brothers as the greatest fence sitters of all time, only joining the fray after the battle was over. Much of this interpretation comes from a single line in Polydor Virgil’s account of the battle of Bosworth which said “withall to Thomas Stanley, who was now approchyd the place of fight, as in the mydde way betwixt the two battaylles, that he wold coom to with his forces, to sett the soldiers in aray.” In much the same way, another line which says that Richard was on Ambion Hill, was for several hundred years, taken to mean that the battle was fought on the hill itself. Painstaking archaeology, proved the latter to be wrong in 2010, and that the battle was fought nearly two miles away. By finding the battlefield, it is now possible to re-examine the sources and the role the Stanley’s played not only in the battle, but the reign of King Richard III. And they show that they were not as neutral as they appear in many modern retellings of the story.
Thomas Stanley was introduced to court by his father, and by the age of nineteen was listed as a squire to Henry VI. Around 1451, he married Eleanor, daughter of Richard Neville, 5th Earl of Salisbury and sister of Richard Neville, Earl of Warwick. When his father died in 1459, Thomas, aged 24, inherited not only extensive lands in Cheshire and Lancashire centred on Lathom, but also the titles of Baron Stanley and King of Mann.
When war erupted between the Lancastrians and the Yorkists the following year, despite his Yorkist connections, Thomas seems to have supported the King. On 23 September, a Lancastrian army under Lord Audley intercepted the Earl of Salisbury and his men en-route to Ludlow at Blore Heath near Market Drayton. Thomas was close by, but did not take part in the ensuing battle. Whether he simply did not reach the battle in time, or held back so as to avoid the likelihood of having to fight his father-in-law and his own brother William, who was with the Earl of Salisbury, is not known. Whatever the reason, it seemed to have not affected Thomas’ career much, as the following year he was fighting with the Lancastrians at the Battle of Northampton, after first being knighted by Henry VI. It is not clear where his brother was at this time, who despite one account saying that he robbed Queen Margaret of Anjou’s baggage after the battle, was more likely with Salisbury laying siege to the Tower of London. After Edward IV was crowned King on 28 June 1461, Thomas joined his brother-in-law, the earl of Warwick, in mopping up Lancastrian resistance in the North. For some time, the Stanleys had been involved in a vicious feud with the Harrington family from Hornby for dominance over North Lancashire. After Thomas and his eldest son John were killed at the battle of Wakefield in 1460, the inheritance was passed to John’s two young daughters. The Stanley’s quickly gained their wardships, effectively taking control of all the Harrington lands. William Stanley then locked both girls up in his fortress at Holt. When Warwick rebelled against the King, Stanley found his loyalties divided. In May 1470, fleeing Edward, Warwick made his way to Manchester looking to Thomas for support, however he seems to have declined, and Warwick fled to France. But, when Warwick returned four months later, he joined Warwick in the restoration of Henry VI forcing Edward to flee England. Shortly before Edward’s return in the spring of 1471, Thomas had the Harrington girls married to members of his own family; Anne to his son Edward Stanley, later Lord Mounteagle, Elizabeth, to John Stanley, thus securing title over their lands. However, James and Robert Harrington, John’s younger brothers, refused to give up Hornby. Thomas promptly laid siege to the castle, bombarding it with a cannon called Mile-end which he hired from King Henry VI.
Around the same time, Thomas’ wife died severing the link with the Nevilles. When Edward returned, it is noted that Sir William Stanley was among the first to rally to his cause. Thomas was preoccupied, possibly still laying siege to Hornby and did not take part in the Battles of Barnet or Tewkesbury that followed. With Warwick and the remaining Lancastrian nobility dead, Edward gave all of Warwick’s lands north of the Trent to his brother Richard. He also removed Thomas as Chief Steward of the county palatine of Lancashire and gave that to Richard as well. It was one of Stanley’s most lucrative and prestigious posts and it must have hurt. According to Michael K. Jones in his book Bosworth 1485, Psychology of Battle Richard joined the Harrington’s and fought against the Stanleys in a number of skirmishes. It was around this time that according to the Stanley legend, Richard assembled an army at Preston intending to attack and burn Lathom, but was put to flight by the Stanleys at Ribble Bridge. Richard seems to have come of worse in this occasion as his banner was taken by a Jack Morris of Wigan and was kept as a trophy at Wigan church for some forty years. Thomas seems to have been back in favour with Edward by the end of the year as he was appointed Steward of the king’s household, and became a regular member of the royal council. Early in 1472, Thomas married again and it would have far reaching effects and seemed to have the blessing of Edward. His new wife was Margaret Beaufort, countess of Richmond and mother of Henry Tudor. At least on the surface, Stanley seems to have had a new found loyalty to Edward and his brother and when Edward led an expedition to France in 1475, he took a retinue of 40 lances and 300 archers. However, he might have had ulterior motives, as he also commend himself to the favour of the French King, Louis XI. There was also some level of reconciliation with Richard, as Thomas served with a large company in his campaign in Scotland in 1482, and playing a key role in the capture of Berwick. When Edward IV died, Richard seized control of the new King. On 13 June 1483, Lord Hastings was arrested, during a council meeting and summarily executed. At the same time, Thomas, his wife Margaret and Bishop Morton were also arrested and Thomas was wounded in the scuffle. Thomas and Margaret were freed soon after but Morton was given into the custody of the Duke of Buckingham. Why any of them were arrested is not known, but it was almost certainly involved a plot against Richard. Before the end of the month Richard was proclaimed King. Thomas Stanley bore the great mace at his coronation, and Margaret waited on the new queen. He was also elected to the Order of the Garter, taking the stall vacated by Lord Hastings. To all appearances, Stanley was a pillar of the Ricardian regime. A number of plots and rebellions against Richard soon followed, the largest of which was led by the Duke of Buckingham, who had been Richard’s closest ally up to that point. All the rebellions had one thing in common: they were in one way or another all connected to Stanley’s wife, Margaret Beaufort. At Margaret’s side throughout most of the unrest was John Morton, probably one of the most brilliant minds of his age, if somewhat Machiavellian in character. Historians frequently excuse Stanley on the grounds that he did not know what his wife was doing. However, as a senior member of the court how could he have not known?
Between 1483 and 1485, whilst in exile first in Brittany, then in France, Henry Tudor plotted to seize the throne with the help of his mother and Morton. Not only was Thomas aware, chronicles of the time suggest he was actively involved. The Tudor chronicler, Polydore Virgil wrote that “…for that soon men of name passyd over dayly unto Henry, others favoryd secretly the parteners of the conspyracy. Amongest these principally was Thomas Stanley, William his brother, Gylbert Talbot, and others” and that Henry “sent unto Margaret his mother, to the Stanleys, to the lord Talbot, and others, certane of his most faythfull servants with secrete messages…” The French chronicler Jean Molinet also suggests that when Hammes Castle near Calais went over to Henry in November 1484, Stanley had been corresponding with its commander James Blount. As the date of Henry’s invasion drew near Thomas took leave to return to Lathom. It is probable that by this time Richard suspected something, as he asked that his son, George Stanley, Lord Strange, take his place at court. Henry Tudor landed unopposed at Milford Haven on 7 August 1485. Richard was at Nottingham when he was told of the invasion an ordered Lord Stanley to join him at once. According to the Croyland chronicle, Stanley excused himself on the grounds of illness. Any doubts as to the Stanleys intentions evaporated when Lord Strange tried to escape, and according to the Croyland chronicle, when he was questioned, he admitted that his Uncle William had gone over to Henry. Richard proclaimed them traitors, and let it be known that Strange’s life was hostage for his father’s loyalty in the coming conflict.
In the meantime, Henry was marching through Wales towards England, gathering supporters on the way. Around the time he crossed the River Severn, Henry wrote to his mother and Thomas that he intended to go to London. When Henry reached Shrewsbury on 17 August, he found the gates shut to him. We are told that it was one of William Stanley’s men who negotiated their opening, to allow Henry to continue on his march. Two days later, Henry reached Stafford, where according to both the Ballad of Bosworth Field and the Croyland chronicle, he met with William Stanley who was camped at Stone, 12km (8 miles) away, for the first time. Then on 20 August, as Henry reached Litchfield, according to Virgil, he discovered that Thomas Stanley had been there three days earlier with up to 5,000 men and had marched “without delay, to a village caulyd Aderstone, meaning ther to tary till Henry showld draw nere” The contemporary Ballad of Bosworth Field, probably written by an anonymous Stanley supporter says that William was with him, and that Lord Stanley had the vanguard, whilst Sir William was the rearguard. This is in keeping with the general narrative, if William had followed behind after Stone, and Thomas had gone ahead to Atherstone. Intriguingly, the same account says that William had to leave quickly as Thomas was about to be attacked by the King. There is certainly some evidence that some sort of engagement took place at Atherstone. This evidence was enough for Michael K. Jones to suggest in his book (before the actual site was found), this might have been where Bosworth was fought. But in reality was probably a skirmish between the Stanley’s and the local levy or Richard’s scouts.
Virgil then tells us that Henry met with the Stanleys at Atherstone on 20 August, where they took one another by the hand and, “…all ther myndes wer movyd to great joy”. Here, the three seemed to have stopped and waited. Considering up to this point they had been moving quickly across the country, why has never been satisfactorily explained. Somehow, Henry needed a tactical advantage over Richard’s vastly superior army. It is therefore likely that as Thomas was in the area sometime before, he had found a site that would give them that advantage. The site was a marsh which would restrict the movement of Richard’s cavalry and limit the use of his cannons, as their shot would simply bury itself in the ground, rather than bounce across the landscape. Behind the marsh was rising ground which would also give them a height advantage. They had created a trap for Richard, and all they had to do was wait.
Richard, alerted to their location after the earlier skirmish, left Leicester on 21 August, spending the night on Ambion Hill, less than two miles from the battlefield. The next morning, Henry and the two Stanleys prepared for battle. It is at this point in the narrative that Virgil wrote the line “withall to Thomas Stanley, who was now approchyd the place of fight, as in the mydde way betwixt the two battaylles, that he wold coom to with his forces, to sett the soldiers in aray.”. The discovery of the real site of the battle in 2010, shows that the site they had chosen for the battle was actually half way between Atherstone and Ambion Hill. Therefore, it is much more likely that Virgil was telling us that Thomas was leading the way and he would get the army into position, ready to spring the trap. Henry, according to Virgil, was worried by this remark. This has also been taken as more evidence that the Stanley’s were sitting on the fence. However, as it can be seen above, this simply was not the case, and a more plausible explanation is that Henry, not being a warrior, did not understand what they were doing and concerned that the plan might not work. The Ballad says that because of Henry’s small numbers, Thomas then lent him four of his best knights, and no doubt their retinues. Would he have done this if he was sitting on the fence?
Why Richard left his unassailable position on Ambion Hill is not known, but sometime late that morning he marched his army towards the battlefield. The Ballad says that as Richard approached the site, he saw Thomas on the high ground in front of him and ordered Lord Strange’s execution (another clear indication that Richard knew which side the Stanley’s were on). With the Stanley’s directly in front of him, whichever direction Richard now turned, he risked being attacked in his rear or flank, forcing him to deploy for battle, in the marsh. The trap had been sprung.