William Stanley - A Convenient Villain

The traditional account regarding the intervention of Sir William Stanley at the Battle of Bosworth is that at the critical moment, he ordered his men to attack the army of King Richard in support of Henry Tudor. On the face of it this version is apparently confirmed by Sir William’s declaration to the Tudor after the battle that this was his true intent. Thus it has been convenient to continue in this belief. It satisfies those who reckon King Richard to have been a villain who had his just desserts, while conversely, those who think he was the victim of treachery have an alternative villain to despise. Historical truth is often obscured behind a dramatic fiction, particularly where a despicable villain provides us with what appears to be material evidence. Perhaps we should look more closely at the actual role Sir William played out at Bosworth and consider more appropriately the implausibility of the traditional story?

There is the obvious fact that King Richard lost the battle, we can believe accounts of his last charge seeing that Henry Tudor was in a vulnerable spot, that Lord Thomas Stanley kept carefully out of the battle along with the earl of Northumberland, John Chaney was unhorsed by King Richard and the king’s men managed to break through the pikes that surrounded Tudor. We can believe the Tudor standard went down and that King Richard got to within a few feet of his rival until Sir William Stanley brought his men into the fray, thus winning the day for the Tudor invader.

The action of William Stanley at what is now familiarly known as the Battle of Bosworth has always been assumed to be treason against King Richard. Contrary to this conventional opinion, it is arguable he actually intended to come to the aid of King Richard, not Henry Tudor! After all, his whole life had been in support of the House of York, not that of Lancaster. What occurred was no act of treason; it was more likely a blunder that had it occurred at a later age, might have been reported more accurately and thus comparable in the annals of desperate derring-do to the Charge of the Light Brigade. 

The problem is that William Stanley’s traditionally described action makes no sense either logically or militarily; but there is something else that historians seem to take little cognisance of – the attitude of his men. We are asked to assume they were apolitical simpletons, men who would engage in bloody battle irrespective of what cause. England was still feudal in 1485 and while the system demanded absolute loyalty from the people under an overlord, there were boundaries beyond which it was not wise to push them. Just four years after Bosworth the Earl of Northumberland was killed by his own people ostensibly because of his inability to get their taxes reduced, but with the suspicion of residual disgust at his refusal to enter the battle of Bosworth on King Richard’s side. Much earlier, King Richard’s father in 1469 came up with his army against the Lancastrians at Ludford Bridge. It happened that King Henry the Sixth was with them and when Richard of York’s men saw the royal standard, refused to fight against him. York had no choice but to flee into exile. The common people of England certainly had ideas of their own.

The situation was even more clear-cut in August 1485. Those Englishmen who marched to Bosworth were going there to combat a foreign invader, not take part in a civil war. Some were retainers of the commanding lord of the lands where they lived, but all were there as the result of Commissions of Array, that is by command of King Richard. It mattered not whether they were in the armies of Stanley, Norfolk or Northumberland, all were under one collective banner including the commanding lords themselves, that of their king. Their anointed and rightful king had called them to defend their realm of England and they were clear that is what they would do. The supposed leader of the invaders, Henry Tudor (whoever he was) had no legitimate claim to the Throne of England - French, Breton and Welsh, traditional enemies of England, along with a few rebel Englishmen accompanied him. None in the English army would have a problem in engaging with such an invader. The idea they might be expected at a moment to turn traitor and attack their own king is implausible to say the least.

We have no idea how the various armies were arranged at Bosworth, only that Lord Stanley kept his army back, that the earl of Northumberland failed to engage the enemy and that the duke of Norfolk attacked first, the enemy centre being commanded by the Lancastrian earl of Oxford. The actual location of the battlefield is disputed, but that hardly matters. All accounts agree that the army of Sir William Stanley was arrayed somewhere to one side, conveniently positioned to join battle when he gave the order. Whatever the order of battle, it is clear William Stanley had a good view of the field.

It was suspected that William had been in conference with the Tudor at some secret location, but if this were true, whatever was said there, or decided, hardly filled Henry Tudor with confidence and he had to be (forcibly?) persuaded to continue with his bid for the throne. What it did engender was an atmosphere of suspicion that was to have fatal consequences for King Richard. In this climate, King Richard accused William Stanley of treason. Everyone in the king’s immediate household would know this and thus the possibility of Sir William entering battle on the side of the Tudor was at the back of the mind of them all, irrespective of the opinions of Stanley’s own men, which nobody seemed to consider then or now. Every man, excepting perhaps William’s (and Thomas’) closest advisors, was there to fight for his anointed king. Men one minute there to repel a foreign invader comprising mostly their traditional enemies, would not treasonably attack their own side.

It has been this problem with the accusation of treason hanging over Sir William Stanley that encourages the idea he entered the fray on the side of the Tudor and it has suppressed dissenting enquiry. If King Richard were to be defeated then the treason charge was expunged. Ricardians find the idea of Stanley treachery seductive, along with the satisfaction of having a real villain to lay the blame on. Reluctance to question the Stanley strategy is encouraged by William Stanley’s own declaration after the battle, that he was coming to the Tudor’s aid. What do we expect him to admit: that he considered the Tudor cause lost and wanted to be in at the finish to ingratiate himself with a victorious King Richard?  

All accounts seem to agree that Henry Tudor appeared in a vulnerable position at the rear of his army, which was identified by King Richard. The king immediately decided to charge upon him with the intent of bringing the battle to a close. To do this he had to ride along the front of William Stanley’s army. What is reasonable to declare is that as soon as King Richard charged with his men, there was not one, but two vulnerable groups in the field: those with Henry Tudor and those with King Richard.

Sir William Stanley was an experienced soldier and the significance of what was happening could not have been lost on him. He would have observed the vulnerability of the Tudor and realised what King Richard was attempting. If he had decided to side with the Tudor this would be the time to go in, while King Richard was away from his main army and vulnerable. However, unless he had implausibly managed to convert them to the Tudor cause overnight, how could he order his men to attack their king? Of course, this was impossible and he could only watch as the king galloped past to engage the Tudor. He would have seen the attack against the defensive pikes, perhaps he saw John Cheney fall; he would certainly have seen the Tudor banner go down. Here was his opportunity – he could not rescue the Tudor now, but he could order his men to support their king! In doing so he had every chance of redeeming himself and lifting the charge of treason while his vacillating brother would fall seriously out-of-favour. A cold calculation on William’s part it might have been, but it was a clear military decision taken for all the right reasons. He ordered a charge and his men would have had no hesitation in speeding off to support King Richard. There would be no confusion or reticence in their ranks and none would have hesitated to obey the order.

At the fight around the Tudor someone would have seen the Stanley banners as they closed and, with Stanley duplicity uppermost in their minds, assumed they were being attacked. As the two forces crashed together the King’s knights turned to confront Sir William’s men, having been disconcerted by stories of Stanley treachery. There was no time to enter a discussion. The new threat must be met and they turned to meet it just as the king was in striking distance of his enemy. At this critical moment, King Richard was deprived of his best knights and so was overwhelmed by his enemies. Afterwards, when the debacle was realised, William, duplicitous to the last, naturally informed the Tudor he had actually been coming to his aid. Did Henry believe him? Unlikely, but he had little choice then but believe and later, in the calm after the battle he would think more upon it.

Lord Thomas Stanley had remained out of the battle altogether and he had a greater army than William under his command. What possible reason could he give for not coming in on the side of his son-in-law? If Henry Tudor believed what William Stanley had told him, then this left brother Thomas out on a limb. The answer is obvious and is, in fact, the only credible one he could give – he was unable to order his English soldiers, there under Commission of Array of King Richard, to commit treason by attacking their countrymen who were desperately and faithfully fighting for their anointed king. On the face of it this argument was incontrovertible. Thomas’ personal loyalty was not in question, but his men had assembled by command of King Richard and ordering them to change sides would have led to mass desertions and a great deal of confusion. No commander could be expected to control his men in those circumstances. Of course this argument applied to William, too, so how did he manage to get his men to change sides in an instant? The implausibility of him being able to do so would not be lost upon Henry Tudor.

What followed was a controversial diktat that offended the whole country and was the subject of much disquiet amongst the people and parliament. Henry Tudor dated the start of his reign to the day before the battle, 21st August thus declaring traitors all those who fought for King Richard. This was not merely spiteful, it was retribution and it was a direct consequence of the problems the Stanley’s had with their soldiers. In the circumstances Henry Tudor could not reasonably apportion blame to their commanders, whom he needed to help him establish his rule, but he could vent his spleen upon the lesser men in their armies. This was invidious. It meant that the common soldiers were traitors even though they were fighting for their anointed king, or more pertinently refusing to attack him. Henry Tudor’s declaration can only be explained as a consequence of what had happened in the Stanley armies; it otherwise makes no sense.

It is too simplistic to think that because common medieval Englishmen were bound to follow the cause of their liege lord that it was mandatory for them to attack whoever they were pointed at. This is only broadly true and it is not pertinent to what happened at Bosworth. For one thing, though men may fight for one side today and another tomorrow, they must know who they are expected to fight well before battle is joined. All through what we now term the Wars of the Roses, Englishmen fought one another depending on the politics of their liege lord. It was not unusual for them to change sides and the soldiers at Bosworth would have been conditioned to accept this. George, duke of Clarence, for example, was in 1471 at first on the side of the earl of Warwick before changing sides to support his brother, Edward IV. His men hardly cared which of the two they would be fighting.

It was this unsettling propensity among the nobility for political vacillation between one loyalty and another that was responsible for the psychological condition of the men in King Richard’s army. King Richard’s men-at-arms were too ready to assume Sir William Stanley was attacking when logic might have told them he was coming to their aid. There was no way in which Sir William could communicate his real intent in time and so the king’s knights, cognisant of the Stanley penchant for self interest, could hardly be blamed for thinking they were the ones he was attacking. Sir William himself, in the expectation of King Richard’s imminent victory and under the threat of a charge of treason, took a decision based on his own self-interest. It was the sensible thing for him to do from what he had observed of the battle and Henry Tudor’s obvious vulnerability, but his logical intention, and the requirement for alacrity, caused him to overlook the interpretation the king’s men would put on his action.

His decision was a blunder of which there are many examples in the annals of warfare. Afterwards, his quick-witted response in claiming he was coming to Tudor’s aid when he discovered his king had been killed was typical of the man. His manouvre, whatever the motive, had still resulted in his being on the winning side and in that he was true to his reputation.

A codicil to this is that some years later, when William was complaining to Henry Tudor that he was insufficiently rewarded, seeing as he had saved him at Bosworth, Henry responded “yes, but you were rather late in coming." Later still, caught up in Yorkist plotting around Perkin Warbeck and his attempt to remove Henry Tudor from the throne of England, Sir William Stanley was implicated and beheaded. Thus the unsteady truce between the two was resolved and perhaps, for Henry, a final revenge exacted for what he knew to be the real story behind Sir William Stanley’s actions at Bosworth.

If we choose to believe William Stanley really did mean to attack King Richard at Bosworth, we must accuse too those thousands of Englishmen in his army as being equally treacherous, a verdict that completes the tragedy and is, perhaps, as unfair as the death of the king in whose cause they had gone there to fight.

Here is a link to the Amazon site and my book that features the Battle of Bosworth and the aftermath.
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