The medieval Monarchs of England did not have it all their own way; throughout this period of history they suffered many challenges to their rule and authority. Some of these were more successful than others, and changed the course of English history as a result.
Such is the story of King Richard III, and of Lord Thomas Stanley (1435?–1504), the man who was to become one of the Lords of Liverpool and founder of a dynasty that continues today.
In 1483, Richard, Duke of York (1452–1485), became the 13th English monarch after King John, and this unlucky number reflects the nature of his short reign. He was the last of the great Plantagenet ancestral line but, like his predecessor, has gone down in history with a very bad reputation.
When King Edward IV died, in 1483, Richard, who was his brother, had been named as Lord Protector of his 12-year-old nephew; the new King, Edward V. But, as the boy-King was making his way to London, Richard met him and escorted him to the Capital, where he placed him in apartments in the Tower. He was soon to be joined by his younger brother, also named Richard, but the two young boys were never seen again.
Rumours were rife then, and suspicions persist to this day, that Richard of York had the children murdered in the Tower. To this was added the fact that he declared that the Princes’ mother, Elizabeth Woodville, had been illegally married to Edward IV. This made the boy-King’s right to the throne invalid, so Richard claimed the Crown for himself.
Because the new throne of King Richard the III was set on very unstable foundations, opportunist rivals to his title saw their chance and mounted rebellions. The last, and most fateful of these, took place in August 1485. Henry Tudor (1457–1509), 2nd Earl of Richmond, landed unopposed at Mill Bay in Pembrokeshire, close to his Welsh birthplace. A direct descendant of the Welsh King, Rhys ap Gruffydd (1132–1197), Henry had brought with him an army of 5,000 soldiers, mostly mercenaries, and he now marched inland. Richard, with an army of between 8,000 and 10,000 men, was waiting for him near the small town of Market Bosworth, in Leicestershire, where he had taken a commanding position on a hilltop.
As battle was joined, the King was confident of victory – he had a superior force in numbers and armour – so his tactic was to separate his army into three phalanxes. One of these he commanded himself; the second, was led by the Earl of Northumberland; and the third, by the Duke of Norfolk. Henry Tudor kept all his men together, determined to defeat ‘the Yorkist usurper’. But Norfolk’s battle group immediately launched themselves against Tudor’s troops and, on foot and on horse, the conflict was bloody and without quarter.
Salvos of canon-fire criss-crossed the battlefield, wounding and killing hundreds. Then, wave after wave of deadly arrows rained down, on men inadequately protected against this merciless hail. Horses ran down foot soldiers, but were themselves impaled on spears and hacked by swords. Knights in full armour clashed together, slicing and slashing at all around them, as the ordinary soldiers fought more for their own lives than for the victory of their leaders. Bodies began to form mounds on the battlefield, which began to turn from verdant green to bloody crimson, as the noise and stench of death swept across the scene.
Richard’s army may have had the numbers, but they did not all have the will, or the courage, and some of Norfolk’s men deserted the battlefield. The King’s position was now extremely vulnerable and the battle could have gone either way. But Richard felt that to charge directly at Henry Tudor was now a risk worth taking. This was because he had seen that there were troops ranged under his banner who had not yet fully engaged in the battle, and whom he expected would rally to his call.
These soldiers belonged to Lord Thomas Stanley, and his brother, William, and numbered around 5,000 men. Richard also expected Stanley’s support, because he was holding Lord Thomas’s son hostage. But Thomas was married to the widowed mother of Henry Tudor, so his loyalty actually lay with his wife’s family, and therefore with Henry, who was his stepson.
The Stanley’s, who were wealthy and powerful landowners around South Lancashire, particularly in and around medieval Liverpool, had been deliberately waiting to see which way the battle was going before committing themselves to the fight: they had no intention of coming out on the losing side. But then, William Stanley saw King Richard battling his way towards Henry Tudor - pulling ahead of his own knights as he did so, and exposing himself to unprotected attack.
Whatever subsequent chroniclers may have written about Richard III, his reckless courage in the battle was beyond doubt. He charged ahead with his sword poised, ready to slay Henry. Richard decimated the pretender’s bodyguard in the process and killed Henry’s standard bearer with a single sword thrust. But, seeing the King now alone and separated from the rest of his army, the Stanleys made a decision that would seal the King’s fate, and their own, and they finally made their move: but it wasn’t to support Richard.
Seeing where the King’s troops were most vulnerable William Stanley led his men to attack them from the rear. Thomas Stanley led his men forward too, but directly at the King. As Lord Thomas closed in on Richard, the King now realised his position and turned to face his new attacker. But Richard, and his few remaining knights, were surrounded and massively outnumbered by Stanley’s men, who now pressed them towards a nearby marsh. Tradition has it that Richard was unhorsed, crying out, “Treachery! Treachery! Treachery!”, when he realised how the Stanleys had betrayed him.
There was indeed treachery at the Battle of Bosworth Field, but there was courage also. In this final skirmish the King’s banner man, Sir Percival Thirwell, had both his legs hacked off. Even so, he remained in the saddle, holding the King’s standard firmly aloft. But all was lost for Richard because his own men now deserted him, and William Shakespeare has the King, now on foot and desperately calling out in his last moments,
“A horse, a horse; my kingdom for a horse!”
Completely surrounded and defeated, King Richard III was finally slain with a poleaxe, wielded by Tudor’s man, Sir Wyllyam Gardynyr.
Tragically, the only mount that Richard was given was the horse over which his now naked and mutilated corpse was then unceremoniously slung - the last English king to die in battle, and the only king to do so on English soil, since Harold II, at the Battle of Hastings, in 1066.
Tradition tells of Lord Thomas Stanley finding the crown of England, lying in a thorn bush after the battle, and dramatically placing it on Henry Tudor's head. This may only be a legend, but ‘Crown Hill’ still exists near the site. Also, from this time Thomas Stanley was known as the ‘Kingmaker’, and a thorn bush became part of Henry Tudor’s heraldic symbolism. Meanwhile, Richard’s still naked body was brought to Leicester, where it was publicly displayed to prove his death. A few days later it was buried in an unmarked tomb.
In 1485, upon his accession to the throne, the new King Henry VII rewarded Lord Thomas Stanley by granting him the hereditary Earldom of Derby; a title that the family still hold today.
The many descendants of Thomas and William Stanley have done much to redeem their reputation. Rising to regional supremacy and national significance, over the centuries they have made significant contributions to political, social, and cultural life. They continue to do so, especially in and around Liverpool and Merseyside, where the current Earl, the 19th, is held in great respect and affection.