Thomas, Lord Stanley, Earl of Derby (c.1435-1504), is the classic example of a nobleman who changed his allegiance repeatedly throughout the Wars of the Roses, and emerged at the end of the conflict far more powerful then at the start.
Stanley was born in around 1433, the first son of Thomas Stanley, first Lord Stanley. His father had risen through service in the Royal household, and had been on his way to St. Albans when the battle was fought in 1455. He was the wealthiest landowner in Lancashire and Cheshire and powerful enough to be courted by both sides. He served on the council during Richard of York's first protectorate, and became a knight of the garter in 1457. The first Lord Stanley died on 11 February 1459, leaving his son a difficult inheritance.
The new Lord Stanley had close connections to the court, but he was also linked to the Yorkist Nevilles, having married Eleanor, daughter of Richard Neville, earl of Salisbury, in the late 1450s. This helped secure the family's status in the north-west, where the Nevilles were powerful, but placed him in a difficult position when the second phase of the Wars of the Roses began in 1459.
1459 was one of the few occasions where the Lancastrians were well prepared for trouble. The Yorkists responded to a probable threat by mobilising their resources. Richard of York was based at Ludlow, while Salisbury was in the north. Queen Margaret was based at Lichfield, from where she ordered Stanley to raise an army and intercept Salisbury.
On 23 September 1459 Salisbury's men defeated a Lancastrian force at Blore Hill. Stanley's younger brother Sir William was present in Salisbury's armies, but Lord Stanley, with around 2,000 men, kept out of the fighting. Salisbury was able to split past the Lancastrians and join with York. Lord Stanley was accussed of having deliberately let him past, and he did indeed send a letter of congratulations to his father-in-law as well as a letter of apology to the Queen. He was accused of treason at the Coventry Parliament later in the year, but Queen Margaret decided that he was too powerful to antagonise and pardoned him.
By then the Yorkist cause appeared to be in tatters. The combined Yorkist army was badly outnumbered by the Lancastrians, and the Yorkist leaders decided to abandon their men at Ludford Bridge (12-13 October 1459) and flee into exile.
In 1460 the Yorkists made a dramatic comeback. Salisbury, his son Richard Neville, earl of Warwick and York's son Edward, earl of March, invaded from Calais and captured Henry VI at the battle of Northampton (10 July 1460). Lord Stanley may have been with the Royal army at Northampton, but if so he quickly sided with the Yorkists. In October he supported the Act of Accord, in which Henry VI agreed to accept York as his heir, and by November he was on the royal council. Despite his family connection to the Nevilles, Stanley would prove to be more loyal to Edward IV than to the Nevilles.
Stanley doesn't appear to have played any significant role in the dramatic fighting of late 1460 and early 1461. He didn’t go north with York and thus wasn't involved in the crushing defeat at Wakefield (30 December 1460). There is also little evidence to suggest that he was present at Towton (29 March 1461), the decisive battle of this phase of the war.
Lord Stanley prospered under Edward's rule. He was confirmed in his fees and offices, and took part in the earl of Warwick's campaigns in the north of England in the early 1460s.
In 1469 the earl of Warwick turned against Edward IV and made the first of a series of attempts to seize power. His second revolt, early in 1470, ended in failure after his allies were defeated at Losecote Field (12 March 1470). After this defeat Warwick turned west and crossed the Pennines in the hope of gaining Lord Stanley's support, but he was rebuffed. Stanley was involved in a land dispute at the time and may not have had the spare resources to help.
Later in 1470 Warwick returned from exile and forced Edward IV to flee to Flanders. This time Lord Stanley did support his brother in law, and took part in the 'readeption' government. His support can’t have been entirely whole-hearted. In March 1471, when Edward IV returned from exile with a tiny army, Sir William Stanley was one of the first to rally to his cause, while Lord Stanley stayed neutral. He may have been in touch with Edward IV during this period, for late in 1471 he was made steward of the king's household. He would be a loyal and important member of Edward IV's court for the rest of his reign. He led a force of 40 lances and 300 archers during Edward's 1474 expedition to France, and in 1482 led a large contingent during Richard of Gloucester's invasion of Scotland.
By 1472 Stanley's wife had died, and in that year he married Margaret Beaufort, countess of Richmond, the mother of the exiled Henry Tudor. During Edward's reign the marriage caused no problems, but after his death it would become increasingly important.
In 1483 Edward IV died unexpectedly leaving his young son Edward V to inherit. There was immediately a power battle between the new king's Woodville relatives and his uncle, Richard duke of Gloucester. Gloucester won this battle and then went on to usurp the throne. Stanley was nearly amongst his victims at this stage. On 13 June Gloucester had Lord Hastings arrested and murdered at a council meeting. Stanley was arrested at the same meeting, but was only imprisoned and was soon released. He carried the mace at Richard's coronation and was given Hastings' place in the Order of the Garter, but the damage may well have been done.
Stanley was one of the main recipients of financial rewards, along with John Howard, duke of Norfolk and Henry Percy, fourth earl of Northumberland. Stanley was one of the northern supporters of the new king who received large land grants in the south-west, a move that did little to secure Stanley's loyalty but did alienate the existing nobility in that area.
Stanley's wife was heavily involved in the duke of Buckingham's revolt of October 1483, but was shielded was punishment by Richard's need for Stanley's support. In the aftermath of the revolt Stanley was given custody of his wife and her lands.
By the start of 1485 it was clear that Henry Tudor was planning an invasion. Lord Stanley and his brother had both been approached by Henry, and probably agreed to support him.
Just before Henry landed at Milford Haven Lord Stanley asked to leave court. Richard insisted that he left his son George Stanley, Lord Strange, at court. After the invasion Richard summoned Lord Stanley back to court, but he refused to attend, claiming to be sick. Strange made an attempt to escape from court, but was captured. Under questioning he admitted that his uncle Sir William and his cousin Sir John Savage were both with Henry, but claimed that his father was still loyal to Richard. Lord Strange was now held as a hostage, to be executed if his father sided with the invader.
As Henry Tudor advanced east into the Midlands, the Stanley brothers withdrew east. They probably met with Henry at Atherstone on 20 August, but on the day of battle at Bosworth (22 August 1485) they took up a position between the two armies. Most accounts of the battle have Lord Stanley stay entirely neutral throughout the fighting, although some, such as Hall's Chronicle, have him join the battle soon after the fighting began. In all accounts the decisive intervention was made by Sir William Stanley, whose men attacked and killed Richard as he in turn was attempted to kill Henry Tudor. Lord Strange survived the battle.
Lord Stanley was now the stepfather of the new king. He was aide to have placed Richard's crown on Henry's head at Bosworth, and on 27 October he was rewarded by being made earl of Derby. He retained his posts as constable of England and high steward of the royal household. In 1486 he was a godfather to Henry's first son, Prince Arthur.
In 1487 the Stanleys sent a powerful contingent to the army that Henry led to victory at the battle of Stoke, ending Lambert Simnel's revolt. Stanley's son Lord Strange was sent to command this contingent.
In 1495 Sir William Stanley became involved in Perkin Warbeck's revolt. He was arrested, tried and executed for treason, but the earl of Derby remained in favour and soon after the trial Edward stayed at his father in law's manors in the north-west. Stanley remained a powerful figure in the north-west and in the country as a whole until his death at Latham on 29 July 1504.