Sir Thomas Stanley (c.1534-1576), his biography

Helen Moorwood 2013

Sir Thomas is important inasmuch as there are two Verse Epitaphs by Shakespeare on his family tomb in Tong, Shropshire. He himself never knew about these, because they were written for his only son Sir Edward in c.1603, long after Sir Thomas’s death, at a time when his son had belatedly commissioned the family tomb for his parents and himself. Sir Thomas’s first-ever biography appeared in a shorter version by HM, together with that of his son Sir Edward, published in Synesis-Magazin 2/2011 in German under the title Die Shakespeare-Stanley-Epitaphe in Tong, Shropshire, with an introduction ‘Wer war Shakespeare?’ by Wilfried Augustin, the editor. This appears on this website under Publications, followed by the English version: Who was Shakespeare? Shakespeare’s Stanley Epitaphs in Tong Shropshire. In the meantime the book with the same title has appeared, in which Sir Thomas’s somewhat longer biography is in ‘Chapter XXIX. Conclusion’. A slightly modified version of this longer version follows here. Few references are given in this narrative. I am afraid that for these, the only possibility at the moment is to refer to the book, where Sir Thomas and Sir Edward appear on virtually every page (c.450 of them!), with full references all the way. To understand more readily his place in the family of Stanley, Earls of Derby, and identify more easily various other people mentioned below, the reader might find it useful to have at their side a printed-out copy of Stanley Family Tree 2. STANLEYS contemporary with Sir Thomas (b. c.1534) & Sir Edward (d. 1632).

Childhood in the 1530s & 1540s

Knighthood in the 1550s

Marriage in 1558 and career in the 1560s

Disaster and death in the 1570s

Widow Lady Margaret


Childhood in the 1530s & 1540s

He was born in c.1534, second son of Edward Stanley, 3rd Earl of Derby (1509-1572) and his second wife Dorothy Howard, daughter of Thomas Howard, 2nd Duke of Norfolk, the victor at Flodden in 1513, with vital support by Sir Edward Stanley, 1st Lord Monteagle, providing a previous martial family link. The Norfolk-Derby relationship is slightly complicated because Edward had first married Katherine, daughter of Thomas, 3rd Duke of Norfolk, son of the 2nd Duke, in 1529, but she died three months later in an outbreak of the plague. To keep the link with this family, Earl Edward married soon afterwards in 1530 Dorothy, who, although of a similar age, was in fact the young aunt of Katherine. Dorothy was the mother of Earl Edward’s three sons and his first five daughters.

Thomas’s elder brother Henry (born 1531) was named after Henry VIII, and Thomas after both his grandfathers, Thomas Howard and Thomas Stanley, 2nd Earl of Derby. No records survive of the place of birth of himself or his younger brother Edward in 1535-40, but they were probably born at Lathom House, the main family seat of the Earls of Derby, and brought up there, educated to play a future role suitable for their rank, with the three brothers Henry, Thomas and Edward dividing responsibilities until ready to take over duties in Lancashire and elsewhere from their father Edward, 3rd Earl of Derby. After a childhood as a ward of Henry VIII, their father had held various high positions at the courts of Henry VIII, Edward VI, Mary and Elizabeth. One report in 1530 from the Spanish ambassador in London to the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V gave Norfolk’s opinion of Earl Edward that ‘there is no other in the kingdom through which he could more strengthen himself’. It was thus in the shadow of his eminent father that Sir Thomas grew up.

Eldest son and heir Henry, Lord Strange, was destined to become the 4th Earl of Derby, which was not to happen, however, until 1572. The three boys were educated at a ‘school’ in Lathom, probably within Lathom House itself, by local clerics, one of whom was Dr Henry Standish of Standish, known as ‘a passionate Catholic preacher’. This was during the reign of Henry VIII. The further education of all three boys during the reign of Protestant Edward VI (1547-53) remains unknown, but there is no record of any of them attending university and one presumes that they mainly stayed at Lathom in the bosom of their Catholic household, with perhaps occasional forays to London with their father. Their four sisters Anne, Jane, Mary and Dorothy (with a possible, but dubious fifth sister Isabel) were born between 1531 and c.1547, by which year their mother Dorothy had died. Soon afterwards father Edward married a local young woman, Margaret Barlow, daughter of Ellis Barlow, who produced two more daughters, Margaret and Catherine, before herself dying in 1559. His fourth wife was Mary Cotton, daughter of Sir George Cotton and Mary Onley, the marriage in 1561 producing no children. She outlived Earl Edward, who died in 1572, and as a widow married Henry Grey, 6th Earl of Kent, Mary dying in 1580. No records have survived of the influence on young Thomas of his mother and two later stepmothers.

Knighthood in the 1550s

It was presumably with great relief for the family when Catholic Mary, the daughter of Henry VIII and Catherine of Aragon, came to the throne in 1553, and at last Sir Thomas’s life started to become public. He was knighted in London on 2 October 1553 in the presence of Queen Mary on the day after her coronation by Lord Arundel, Lord Steward of the Household. At the same time two other Stanleys were knighted: Sir Rowland Stanley (c.1516-1612) of Hooton (the senior branch of the family) and Sir George, grandson of Sir James Stanley of Cross Hall in Lathom, Marshal of Ireland, Sir George being a second cousin of Sir Thomas. Also knighted at the same time were two other Sir Thomases: Sir Thomas Gerard of Bryn near Wigan, a Catholic close friend of the family, who was to play an important role in Sir Thomas Stanley’s life, and Sir Thomas Hesketh of Rufford, also Catholic, who, although it was of course unpredictable at this time, was destined to become the host for a short time of young William Shakespeare before he joined Derby’s Men in 1582.

The recently knighted Sir Thomas Stanley was presumably at court again on 7 February 1554 when his brother Henry, Lord Strange married Lady Margaret Clifford (born 1540). She was the only surviving child of Henry Clifford, 2nd Earl of Cumberland and Lady Eleanor Brandon, a niece of Henry VIII. Because of her mother’s Tudor ancestry, Margaret was in the line of succession to the English throne. The marriage took place in a chapel of the Palace of Whitehall and was attended by Queen Mary and her husband King Philip II of Spain, son of Holy Roman Emperor Charles V. Henry and Margaret’s (eldest surviving) son Ferdinando (born c.1559) was presumably named after one of the several Spanish Ferdinand(o)s or Habsburg relatives of King Philip. Because of his royal blood through his mother, Ferdinando was also in the line of succession to the English throne.

Sir Thomas’s activities as a young knight remain unknown. Presumably he followed with interest the lives of his sisters, the eldest of whom, Anne had married in 1548/9 Charles Stourton, 8th Baron Stourton. His sister Jane did not marry until 1567, Edward Sutton, 4th Baron Dudley. His sister Mary later married Edward, 3rd Baron Stafford and the youngest sister Dorothy never married. His two younger half-sisters married, Margaret first to John Jermin and secondly to Sir Nicholas Poyntz, and Catherine to Thomas Knivet.


Marriage in 1558 and career in the 1560s

Between January and May 1558 Sir Thomas married Margaret Vernon (b. c.1535), daughter and co-heiress of Sir George Vernon of Haddon Hall, Derbyshire, ‘the King of the Peak’, who brought Tong Castle to the marriage as part of her inheritance on the death of her father in 1565. They did not move there immediately, however, but only in the 1570s. Margaret was one of two heiresses, her five-year-younger sister being Dorothy, around whom the romantic legend of an elopement has been woven. This was with John Manners, second son of the 1st Earl of Rutland. Dorothy inherited Haddon Hall on the death of Sir George Vernon in 1565, and their family was to play an important role later in the life of Sir Thomas’s son Edward.

Sir Thomas’s marriage to Lady Margaret Vernon had been arranged by their parents and the wedding celebrations, according to tradition, took place at Haddon Hall with a great feast. They had just two sons: Henry and Edward, the latter born mid-late 1562. It is not known whether Henry was the first or second, but he died an infant, with the place unknown. Nor is it known where he was buried, but a small coffin with a body disintegrated in lime found during the opening of the Stanley tomb in Tong in 1891 might have contained his body. This could, however, have been transported there from anywhere else, just to be in the new family vault.

Sir Thomas and his brothers Henry, Lord Strange and Sir Edward were in attendance on their father Earl Edward at Preston Guild in August/September 1562, and from 1562-66 Sir Thomas was Governor of the Isle of Man. This was a hereditary family position ever since their ancestor Sir John Stanley had been created Lord of Man in 1405. As son Edward was born in mid-late 1562, this was most likely when his parents were living fairly permanently in the North West or on the Isle of Man. It is not known how seriously Sir Thomas undertook his gubernatorial responsibilities, nor how long he spent on the island, but the very fact that he occupied this post for four years indicates an active period of service in situ rather than a passive period in absentia.

In 1563 he leased the rectory and glebe lands in Winwick near Warrington for 99 years (not too far from the Stanley family home of Lathom House). ‘On the 5th October, 1563, by an indenture in which he calls himself Thomas Stanley, Bishop of Man and rector of Winwick, he granted to Sir Thomas Stanley, knight, a lease of the rectory parish church and benefice, with the manor park and glebe lands for the term of 99 years, at the yearly rent of £120; which lease was confirmed by Edward Earl of Derby and William Bishop of Chester.’ From now on Sir Thomas was often called ‘of Winwick’ to distinguish him from other (Sir) Thomas Stanleys. One Thomas Stanley from whom he needs to be distinguished was a ‘cousin’ of the same name, the one in the quote immediately above, who was Bishop of Sodor and Man at the same time as Sir Thomas was Governor of the Isle of Man, as well as being Rector of Winwick, Wigan, and several other places, including holding a stall in Durham Cathedral. ‘We have a glimpse [of his reputation] in a letter written by Pilkington, Bishop of Durham, [James Pilkington, another Lancashire man, who had founded Rivington Grammar School in 1566] to the Archbishop of Canterbury about this time, in which he says, “The Bishop of Man, Thomas Stanley, liveth here at his ease as merry as Pope Joan.”’He was from the Stanley family, Lords Monteagle of Hornby Castle near Lancaster, an illegitimate son of Sir Edward Stanley, 1st Lord Monteagle, the hero at Flodden. Bishop Thomas Stanley might have had a dubious reputation during his life-time, but he earned the gratitude of later historians by writing a history of the Stanley family in the Rhyming Chronicles in 1562 or soon after, before dying in 1568. The Stanleys had long been patrons of the church at Winwick. ‘Bishop Stanley had been Rector of Winwick since before the fall of the chantries in 1553, and William Stanley [from a side-branch] was returned as being the priest then serving the rector’s, or perhaps more properly Lord Derby’s chantry, as being founded under his will with an endowment of £3 0s. 9d.’

Winwick Rectory was to remain the main residence of Sir Thomas in the North West, available for his use on frequent returns from the Isle of Man and London. Several local gentry families also had property and interests here, most relevantly Sir Peter Legh of Lyme, just over the border in Cheshire, and Sir Thomas Gerard of Bryn near Wigan, both of whom had family chapels in Winwick Church. This was the same Sir Thomas Gerard of Bryn who had been knighted at the same time as Sir Thomas Stanley at court. These two Sir Thomases were kinsmen because of at least one previous Stanley-Gerard marriage. (Peter/Sir Piers Gerard, d. 1494, married Margaret, daughter of Sir William Stanley of Hooton [Gen. 5]. His brass memorial is still in the Gerard Chapel). Winwick was just a few miles north of Warrington, the site of the main bridge over the Mersey and the route from much of the North West when travelling to Cheshire and North Wales, where there were several Stanley ‘cousins’. His elder brother Henry, Lord Strange, after he had separated from his wife Margaret née Clifford, installed his mistress Jane Halsall and his second family in Hawarden Castle in Flintshire. Their four children, all first cousins of Sir Thomas and fully acknowledged as Stanleys, were Ursula (b. c.1568), Dorothy, Thomas (later of Eccleston) and Henry (later of Broughton). One imagines that Sir Thomas might thus have had many visitors when he was in residence in Winwick, not least his elder brother Henry on his journeys between Lathom and Hawarden and his younger brother Sir Edward. The latter had been a soldier and knighted in Ireland in 1560, remained unmarried and seemed to spend most of his time travelling round the country, including frequent visits back to Lathom, where he later took on the role of Senior Figure in the family.  

Winwick would also have been a convenient base for Sir Thomas from which to visit his own extensive properties. These had been settled on him by his father Earl Edward in a grant of 1562/3 after the birth of Sir Thomas’s son Edward. The settlement included a large number of peripheral and far flung Stanley lands in Cheshire (Dunham Massey, Bowden, Rungey, Hale, Acton and Darfield), Warwickshire, Oxfordshire (Eynsham) and Devon. These had been granted to him by his father in reversion in tail-male, i.e. as long as there was a son and heir to inherit, and in the absence of such they would revert to the Earldom. In the case of Sir Thomas’s early death, they would pass to his widow Margaret and on her death to their son and heir Edward. Brother Sir Edward had similarly been granted lands in tail-male in at least Thirsk and Kirkby Malzeard in Yorkshire.

Sir Thomas’s whereabouts and activities for the two years after 1566, the end of his period as Governor of the Isle of Man, remain unknown, but it might be presumed that he stayed in the North West, because he was one of the two MPs returned for Liverpool in 1568-9. This was another virtual Stanley appointment, with the citizens of Liverpool usually happily accepting the nominees of the Earl of Derby, who owned the Stanley Tower on the waterfront. One assumes that during this period he needed to spend a considerable length of time in Liverpool and London, and might well have used the opportunity to visit some of his properties en route, although the only one that was to play a considerable role in the immediate family was Eynsham Abbey in Oxfordshire. When in London one presumes that he stayed in Derby House in Canon Row, the permanent residence of the Earls of Derby in London ever since they had granted away, via an exchange deal for lands, their previous house near St Paul’s, which became the home of the College of Arms (still on the same site today).

In 1569 he was presumably still using Liverpool and Winwick as his base when he was appointed as one of the Commissioners of Muster for Lancashire. This was a particularly dramatic year, which saw the Rising of the North/Northern Rebellion, when at any moment Earl Edward expected to be called upon by Elizabeth to quell the revolt. The Rising was led by a group of Northern Catholic noblemen, including Thomas Percy, 7th Earl of Northumberland, in protest at some of Queen Elizabeth’s policies and in support of the claim of Catholic Mary, Queen of Scots to the English throne. As it turned out, it was suppressed and more or less died out in the North East before it required the Stanley army from the North West. If the Stanley army produced in 1536 to quell the Pilgrimage of Grace is an accurate model (for which a complete list has survived), Earl Edward could easily have summoned up an army of 7,000+, with his son Sir Thomas as one of the Commissioners and presumably his soldier son Sir Edward as one of the commanders.

This period when Sir Thomas was in his twenties until 1569, in his mid-thirties, seems to be the most likely one when he had an illegitimate son, who was obviously acknowledged, because he bore the name of Gerard Stanley. In turn this leaves little doubt that his mother was from, or closely connected to the Gerards. These had meanwhile split into two major branches: the Gerards of Bryn, who remained staunchly Catholic, producing John Gerard the Jesuit Priest, and whose members were constantly under suspicion; and the Gerards of Ince, who were Protestant and produced several who achieved high rank under Elizabeth, the most eminent at this time being Sir Gilbert Gerard, Elizabeth’s Master of the Rolls. Gerard Stanley’s mother seems to have had Staffordshire links, which in itself does not identify her, because both branches of the Gerards had lands there. However, it does mean that Sir Thomas’s son and heir Edward grew up knowing that he had an illegitimate half-brother. What effect this had on Sir Thomas’s marriage to Lady Margaret remains unknown. The most relevant fact is that they had no more children after son and heir Edward in 1562.


Disaster and death in the 1570s

The next few years, after serving in his public positions, were to prove disastrous for Sir Thomas and presumably led to his early death. In 1570 his world was blown apart by his participation in a scheme to rescue Mary, Queen of Scots from Chatsworth House in Derbyshire and spirit her away to the Isle of Man, from where it would be easy for her to escape to France or Spain, and be in a much stronger position to negotiate with Queen Elizabeth. The three Lancashire knights involved were the brothers Sir Thomas and Sir Edward Stanley Sr, and their friend Sir Thomas Gerard of Bryn, a staunch Catholic. The Chatsworth Plan and the involvement of Sir Thomas Stanley were perhaps not unrelated to his wife Margaret née Vernon also coming from Derbyshire. Mary was at Chatsworth because Elizabeth had placed her under the ‘guardianship’ of George Talbot, 6th Earl of Shrewsbury (1528-90), one of the richest men in England, and his second wife Elizabeth, who has gone down in popular history as Bess of Hardwick (she owned Hardwick Hall in Derbyshire, her ancestral home). As magnates in Derbyshire, Staffordshire (Tutbury) and Yorkshire (Sheffield Castle), among other estates in the Midlands, they had been in regular contact with the Vernons of Haddon Hall, Lady Margaret Stanley’s ancestral home, where her married sister Dorothy was now living. Their father Sir George Vernon, the ‘King of the Peak’ had been godfather to Gilbert Talbot, son and heir of George, 6th Earl of Shrewsbury. Mary was reluctant to go along with the plan, however, as at that time, very soon after her flight from Scotland, she still had hopes that she could come to some sort of accommodation with Elizabeth. By August the plan was also abandoned as impractical for other reasons, but rumours reached government circles and in November the three Lancashire knights were ordered to appear in London. There they were arrested and imprisoned in the Tower of London. By July 1571 Sir Thomas Gerard’s and Sir Thomas Stanley’s principal roles had been established through inquisition, including being put on the rack. Brother Sir Edward Stanley seemed to get off rather more lightly. He claimed that at the time he had actually been in the North courting a Mrs Strickland. (Whether true or not, he never married.)

It was a time when Thomas Howard, 4th Duke of Norfolk was also imprisoned in the Tower because of his intentions to marry Mary, Queen of Scots and this was also at the height of investigations into the Ridolfi Plot. Sir Thomases Stanley and Gerard were suspected of also being involved in this plot. Sir Thomas was still detained in May 1572, or perhaps considerably longer, because neither he nor his brother Sir Edward were on the list of mourners at their father’s magnificent funeral at Ormskirk on 4 December 1572. Their retention for this length of time may or may not have been connected with the intrigues of the Duke of Norfolk, who had been executed in June 1572. This was Thomas Howard, the 4th Duke, grandson of the 3rd Duke, and gt-grandson of Sir Thomas’s grandfather, so a cousin of some degree. At the same time the main leaders of the Rising of the North were still being dealt with, which led to the execution in York on 22 August 1572 of Thomas Percy, 7th Earl of Northumberland, for high treason. Given that his daughter Lucy Percy later married Sir Thomas Stanley’s only son Edward, it almost seems as if this marriage might have been planned when both fathers were in prison. In the Tower with Sir Thomas Stanley was also Henry Percy, younger brother of Thomas Percy, 7th Earl. Henry managed to escape execution and was released in 1572 after paying a huge fine of 5000 marks, after which he was granted the title of 8th Earl, succeeding his brother. He then became the guardian of his nieces, including Lucy, who were brought up with his own children at Petworth House, Sussex.

The Stanleys, Earls of Derby were far too valuable to the Crown for the ‘Defence of the North’ against the Scots to risk alienating them by an execution in this family. Sir Thomas was released from the Tower (date unknown, but presumed 1573/4). Given that his fellow prisoners Henry Percy and Sir Thomas Gerard of Bryn are documented as being released on payment of a heavy fine, one might assume that this was also the case with Sir Thomas. Certainly he needed to raise a large sum of money around this time, for which he was helped by his tenants in Winwick, some of whom gave a year’s rent ‘of their benevolences when he was in trouble’. One implication is that he had been a popular landlord, with his Catholicism and championing of Mary, Queen of Scots producing great sympathy in his tenants. One suspects that he came out of the Tower with his health broken. It seems that he never returned to Lancashire and he held no further public offices. By 1575 he had moved to Tong Castle, his wife’s inheritance, when it was reported that ‘many papists gentilmen resorte unto hym’.

He wrote his will on 12 December 1576, leaving everything to his wife and son Edward, to be divided equally between them, and died there on 21 December 1576 in his early forties. He was buried in the newly created Stanley vault beneath the altar in St Bartholomew’s, Tong, above which his son was later to erect a tomb with effigies of his parents. If these were life-size, his height was 1.69 m (5’ 61/2”) and Lady Margaret’s 1.58 m (5’ 2”). His death left his widow Lady Margaret and their son Edward aged fourteen.


Widow Lady Margaret

Very little is known about the biography of his wife/widow from the day they married (1558) until the day he died (1576), other than through her husband’s biography. She had inherited Tong Castle when her father died in 1565 and had just two children, Henry dying as an infant and Edward surviving. One can imagine that she spent several years in distress whilst her husband was in the Tower. It is not known where she spent these years (although presumably with Tong Castle as her main base), nor what provision she made for the education of son Edward. She stayed in close contact with her younger sister Dorothy, married to John Manners at Haddon Hall, and knew their children as they were growing up.

By 1578 she had remarried, William Mather, Esquire. This is known because in this year both were involved in granting the lease of a property of hers at Stackpole, Pembrokeshire. There are hints in her will that she might have lived at Tong or fairly locally with her second husband. Indeed, there is no reason to believe that they lived anywhere other than at Tong Castle, although she had inherited all her husband Sir Thomas’s Derby lands in tail-male on his death.

She must have been in contact with her Stanley in-laws during this period, as well as meeting the Percy family, the latter resulting in the marriage in c.1581 of son Edward to Lucy Percy, who had been in the care of her uncle since her father had been executed in 1572. Her mother Countess Anne née Somerset had gone into exile with the English Catholic community in the Spanish Netherlands. Presumably Lady Margaret shared in her son and daughter-in-law’s joy at the birth of their daughters and their grief at the death of their only son Thomas as an infant. Edward and Lucy lived at Eynsham for at least a short period during the early years of marriage, but Edward was regularly in Lancashire, having continued his father’s lease of Winwick Rectory, from where he attended Preston Guild in 1582. He was frequently at Lathom with his uncle Henry, 4th Earl of Derby and cousins Ferdinando and William during the late 1580s.

As mentioned, on her husband’s death Lady Margaret had inherited all his lands under the terms of the 1562/3 settlement, but also all his debts. It seems that she was still suffering financially from her husband’s fine, because by 1584 (perhaps as early as 1577) she had sold half her interest in Eynsham to Sir Thomas Peniston. Her nephew William Stanley of Lathom was involved in a dispute with him over church pews in St Leonard’s, Eynsham in 1584. Nothing is known (yet) about her management of all the other properties in the settlement, nor indeed about any of the properties in addition to Tong that she had inherited from her father, apart from Harleston (in Staffordshire). A surviving letter from September 1594 shows her still in contact with her brother-in-law John Manners at Haddon Hall about her property at Harleston, in which she greeted her nephew George (b. 1569) and wife.

She wrote her will on the last day of August 1596, leaving many bequests to servants, the poor and friends. Among these were many sheep, several sums of money and also ‘all my best apparrel’, ‘my best hangings’, ‘old hangings’, ‘four featherbeds’, ‘the best featherbed but one not all clothes to it’, ‘two wrought tooles with silk’ and ‘four bowls of silver’. To her two executors she left: to ‘Mr Edward Gifforde’ ‘one ring with five diamonds and three rubies, and to Mrs Gifforde I give one ring with a diamond’; to her cousin Corbett ‘one piece of gold called a double sovereign’.

One presumes that all her own property went to son Edward, although the only ones on record are those mentioned above, plus Marple and Wybersley in Cheshire. Probate was granted in London on 4 December 1596. She stated in her will that she wished to be buried next to her first husband at Tong, with the consent of her second husband. This was understandable, given that she owned Tong Castle and there was a family vault available in Tong Church. This was also the resting place of so many of her Vernon ancestors.

The only image of her that has survived is her effigy, which her son later commissioned for the family tomb in Tong Church. When the vault was opened in 1891 only the coffin of Sir Thomas was found, although with no body. It was speculated at the time that a small box might have held Lady Margaret’s heart. What happened to her coffin remains a mystery.

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