King Richard III lost his crown and his life at the Battle of Bosworth Field on 22nd August 1485. He was the last English king to die on the battlefield and the last Plantagenet king. Treachery has long been cried as Richard was not supported by men he legitimately expected to fight for him. Foremost amongst this shadowy clique was Thomas, Lord Stanley, a name guaranteed to bring boos and hisses from any Ricardian.
The reason for Lord Stanley’s betrayal of his king is not hard to fathom; he was step-father to Henry Tudor and so had a right to expect a great deal of power in compensation for his actions, or rather, lack of action.
Yet there is more to this story. Stretching back over two decades lies a dispute in which Richard, as Duke of Gloucester and then as king, took sides. I suspect that perhaps even more than becoming step-father to a king, this matter may have played on Lord Stanley’s mind as he watched from the sidelines as the two armies prepared to fight to the death for the crown of England. No doubt he also enjoyed being courted by both parties.
The dispute in question was between the Stanley family and the Harrington family. Both were gentry families in the north west, with the Stanley’s increasing their wealth and influence under Thomas’s grandfather, Sir John, and father, Sir Thomas, the first Baron Stanley. By the mid 15th century they owned great swathes of north west England and held many offices of power in the region. During the Wars of the Roses, Lord Stanley developed a reputation for staying out of battles until the result was clear and then joining, usually by sending his younger brother Sir William’s forces into the fray, on the winning side, thus reaping the rewards of seeming to decide the battle. He fought variously for Lancaster and York and just as often failed to arrive at battles. Thus the Stanley’s position had been won carefully, by ensuring that whether York or Lancaster might prevail, the Stanleys always stood to gain. For these reasons Lord Stanley is often seen as a fickle, conniving, self-serving man. If one were to seek to give him the benefit of the doubt, we may allow that he headed a family on the cusp of real greatness after several generations of hard work. One wrong move at this time could cost the entire family everything that they had. Perhaps he did not feel willing or able to take that risk.
The Harrington family are perhaps the very antithesis of the Stanleys. James Harrington was a friend and supporter of Richard as Lord of the North. His grandfather had carried Henry V’s banner at the battle of Agincourt where Richard’s own grandfather had been slain. The two men were soaked in the chivalric memories of English glory on French soil. Throughout the Wars of the Roses, the Harringtons fought for York and never wavered. Not once. Sir James is one of the candidates for having carried Richard’s banner at Bosworth, a fitting repeat of Agincourt as the king led a charge of his cavalry across the shuddering field. Certainly, Sir James died at the king’s side that day.
The beginnings of the Stanley feud with the Harringtons was the Battle of Wakefield on 30th December 1460. Not because they fought on opposing sides; Stanley managed to miss this battle. Richard’s father, the Duke of York and brother Edmund, Earl of Rutland were killed at the battle when the Yorkist army was destroyed. Also killed was James’s father Thomas and James’s eldest brother John. Initial reports stated that Thomas died in the fighting and John of his wounds shortly after the battle. This meant that Thomas Harrington’s possessions passed on his death to John and on John’s death to his heirs. Anne and Elizabeth Harrington were about four and five years old and the law stated that the inheritance would pass to whoever they married.
James Harrington and his brother Robert argued that John had in fact died before Thomas, making James the rightful heir. Lord Stanley immediately set about making the two girls his wards and marrying them to his son and nephew. The jewel in the Harrington family crown was Hornby Castle. A stunning property, it sat above the valley of the River Lune, firmly in Stanley country. Obtaining it would allow them to join territories together and thoroughly dominate the area.
Edward IV, measuring Stanley’s might, feared upsetting him and granted him control of the Harrington girls and therefore possession of Hornby. James Harrington, who had been amongst those who captured Henry VI in 1465 and delivered him to Edward, must have felt somewhat betrayed after his loyal service. Anyway, he and his brother refused to surrender their nieces or the castle and dug their heels in behind the mighty walls of Hornby.
When the Earl of Warwick rebelled and Henry VI was temporarily reinstated as king, Stanley seized the opportunity to try and drive the Harringtons out for good. He brought up a giant cannon named ‘Mile Ende’ from Bristol with the intention of blasting the troublesome Harringtons out of Hornby. Not a shot was fired however, and it is intriguing to find a warrant issued by Richard on 26th March 1470, signed ‘at Hornby’. The seventeen year old Duke had chosen his side, and it was the loyal Harringtons that he backed, perhaps perceiving an injustice they suffered at his brother’s hands that their service did not merit, in contrast to Stanley. In Richard, the north found ‘good lordship’ to check the advance of Stanley power. Lord Stanley found himself blocked by the king’s own brother.
In 1483, when Richard became king, evidence suggests that he intended to re-open the issue of ownership of Hornby, no doubt to the joy of the loyal Sir James, but to the dismay and disgust of Lord Stanley, whose son and daughter in law now lived at the castle. Add to this the appointments of Richard Ratcliffe, the new king’s friend and uncle of Robert Harrington’s wife, as king’s deputy in the West Marches and Sherriff of Westmorland, Robert’s brother-in-law John Pilkington as Steward of Rochdale and Richard III’s chamberlain and another Harrington family member, John Huddlestone, as Warden of the West Marches, Sheriff of Cumberland and Steward of Penrith and we see Stanley influence being strangled in the region.
No doubt this restriction of Lord Stanley’s expansionism was intentional on Richard’s part, but as Thomas Stanley surveyed Bosworth Field, this must have been playing on his mind. Should he maintain upon the throne the man who was seeking to destroy him, or replace him with a step-son full of gratitude with power to dispense accordingly? Richard III had appointed Stanley Steward of his Household and made him a Knight of the Garter, perhaps not entirely able to escape his brother’s recognition of Stanley as a necessary evil given the huge force of armed men that he was able to call upon. But was this enough to compensate Stanley for the dismantling of his north western empire, or did he see an opportunity for more? Henry VII made him Earl of Derby, a title his family still hold today. Measured dispassionately, it was a good decision that has made the family in a way Thomas’s father and grandfather could only have dreamed of. The Harringtons, for all of their unswerving loyalty, were wiped out, destroyed, along with the House of York they had fought alongside for so long.
I cannot help but wonder whether in this respect, Lord Stanley’s betrayal of his king at Bosworth was foreseeable and even understandable. Hornby Castle, he must have mused, was finally his. The mighty Richard had stood against him, but Stanley had won in the end.
Was Richard the architect of his own demise? He failed to play the game of thrones well and his commitment to loyalty and chivalric values left him open to opportunism and betrayal, even making them appealing to some.
Then again, I am a card carrying Ricardian, so boo, hiss!
Matt can also be found on Twitter @mattlewisauthor.