‘Though he were a dark prince, and infinitely suspicious, and his times full of secret conspiracies and troubles; yet in twenty-four years’ reign, he never put down or discomposed counsellor or near servant save only Stanley the Lord Chamberlain.’
Sir Francis Bacon, The History of the Reign of King Henry VII1
A chronicler sets the scene for a confrontation that, he wrongly assumed, took Henry VII by surprise:
The king kept his Christmas at Greenwich and after he came to the Tower of London where was attached Sir William Stanley, called the Lord Chamberlain. And at the same season Sir Robert Clifford, which beforetime had fled the land and was in Flanders with the king’s enemies’, came again and was taken to grace.2
Embroidering on Vergil, Edward Hall recalls the impact on public opinion made by the Duke of York’s supposed survival. It was ‘received for an infallible verity and most sure truth, and that not only of the common people, but also of divers noble and worshipful men of no small estimation’.3 Among these men was Stanley who, by any reckoning, was among the most powerful figures in England. Brother of the king’s stepfather, the Earl of Derby, he had led the decisive charge at Bosworth that saved Henry Tudor and won the battle. As Lord Chamberlain he ran the royal household, besides arranging ‘audiences’ – deciding who should or should not meet the king.
As has been seen, according to Polydore Vergil, at the end of 1494 Henry had sent a new team of agents to Flanders, to discover what the Yorkists were planning and persuade Robert Clifford and William Barley to return by offering them a full pardon. They were wholly successful in Clifford’s case. By now he knew that Perkin was not the Duke of York, while he had learned the names of the Yorkist leaders in England. Following the agents’ advice, he waited for a few weeks before suddenly fleeing to Calais, from where he was brought home. Barley stayed on with the ‘false duke’ for another two years however, possibly as a spy.
To avoid suspicion, after he had left the agents involved left Flanders one at a time. What they had found out, presumably in large part from Clifford, who possessed Warbeck’s confidence, must have shaken King Henry badly. An attempt on his life was being planned, accompanied by a Yorkist invasion and an armed rising. The amount of support for the scheme among highly placed, influential Englishmen was especially alarming. The seventeen arrested and tried for treason at the end of November included Lord FitzWalter, Sir Simon Mountford of Coleshill, a big landowner in Warwickshire, Sir Thomas Thwaites of Barnes in Surrey who, under Richard III, had been Treasurer of Calais, Robert Ratcliffe, a former gentleman-porter of Calais, and William Daubeney, once keeper of the jewel house to King Richard, together with other gentlemen of standing.
Four leading churchmen were also taken into custody: William Worsley, Dean of St Paul’s, and Dr William Sutton, who was parson of St Steven’s, Walbrook and a well known preacher, along with two Dominicans – Friar William Richford, his order’s Provincial in England, and Friar Thomas Powys, Prior of Kings Langley in Hertfordshire. Later, it was discovered that other senior clergymen had also been implicated. As clerics, they would not have benefited all that much from a Yorkist restoration so their involvement stemmed from conscience rather than any hope of gain; they genuinely believed that Warbeck was the son of Edward IV.
On 27 January 1495 Mountford, Ratcliffe and Daubeney were beheaded on Tower Hill, while there were further executions on 29 and 30 January. Two of the conspirators, Thomas Cressyner (FitzWalter’s steward) and Thomas Astwood (steward of Marton Abbey in Yorkshire), were reprieved on the scaffold at the last moment, ‘which gladded much people for they were both young men’.4 Lord FitzWalter was imprisoned at Calais, only to be beheaded after trying to bribe his gaolers into letting him escape. Thwaites was pardoned, while the clerics pleaded benefit of clergy.
What appeared to be the most dramatic revelation came after most of the plotters had been arrested and found guilty. On the day after Twelfth Night, 7 January, King Henry moved from Greenwich to the palace at the Tower of London. His reason for the move was that the Tower’s smaller rooms enabled him to receive in secrecy Sir Robert Clifford who had returned to England a few days earlier. Only a few trusted counsellors were present at the audience. After falling at Henry’s feet and begging for forgiveness, Clifford revealed that in March 1493 he had made a bond with Sir William Stanley to go to Malines and establish communications with Warbeck.
But the king already knew of Sir William’s guilt. Long before, he had ordered the interrogation of Stanley’s servants and Cheshire retainers, some of whom accepted bonds although none were later accused of treason, suggesting they had perhaps informed against their employer. The chamberlain’s bastard son Thomas had been in the Tower for over a year and presumably he, too, had been closely questioned. Someone, either one of the Cheshire men or Thomas, reported that there were thousands of pounds in coin at Sir William’s main residence, enough to finance a large-scale rising.
Despite having kept Sir William under surveillance, Henry made a show of being reluctant to believe the charge, ordering Sir Robert to repeat it over and over again. Finally, he gave orders for Stanley to be arrested and confined to his room, before questioning him – perhaps he hoped to trick Sir William into thinking every detail of his plans was known. But Stanley kept his nerve, pretending to make a full confession, while admitting no more than being in touch with Warbeck and disliking the prospect of fighting the House of York. Bacon comments that ‘thinking to make his offence less by confession, he made it enough for condemnation’.5 Yet the king must have known for some time that Stanley was planning his overthrow and death.
Stanley had been well rewarded by Henry. Besides being made a Knight of the Garter, he had become England’s wealthiest commoner with estates all over the country, as well as a house in London, near Charing Cross. Manors and official posts brought him an income of £3,000 a year, while the money for the rising found at his castle of Holt in Denbighshire amounted to ‘40,000’ marks (nearly £27,000), including £10,000 of gold coin in bags. Even so, according to Polydore Vergil, Stanley felt he had been insufficiently recompensed. Most of his lands were in Lancashire, Cheshire and the Welsh Marches, so he had asked for the earldom of Chester, an impossible request as it belonged to the Prince of Wales. The refusal rankled: as Hall puts it, Stanley’s ‘stomach began to canker and wax rusty’.6 Aware of his dissatisfaction, the king had guessed he was planning mischief, but in his cold-blooded way allowed him to stay on as Lord Chamberlain, hoping to discover the names of his supporters. It was a calculated risk since Sir William possessed the resources to turn a Yorkist rising into a serious challenge to the monarchy.
He has gone down in history as a great traitor, but in a sense he acted out of loyalty – loyalty to York. Unlike his elder brother, he had always been faithful to Edward IV, possibly one of the reasons why he turned against King Richard at Bosworth. Besides asking Clifford to contact Warbeck, he had told Sir Robert that if he were sure the young man was Edward’s son, he would never bear arms against him.7
It looks as if Sir William had refrained from telling Clifford about his own preparations for a rising and, unaware that he had been under surveillance, hoped to save his life. At his trial in the King’s Bench in Westminster Hall on 30–31 January he denied the charges. Found guilty, none the less, by a jury of ‘divers knights and worshipful gentlemen’, he was condemned to be hanged, drawn and quartered.8 But a chronicler tells us that, ‘the xvj day of February, Monday, was Sir William Stanley, Lord Chamberlain, pardoned of the king of hanging and drawing, and the said day between xj and xij at noon was he led from the Tower of London to the Tower Hill, and there his head [was] smitten off and is buried at St Dunstan’s’.9 Henry gave the executioner £10 to behead him as painlessly as possible – he cannot have forgotten Sir William’s charge at Bosworth Field.
It was widely rumoured that the Lord Chamberlain had been condemned solely for admitting that if he could be sure that Warbeck really was King Edward’s son, then he could not fight against him; that he had been condemned for thinking a Yorkist claim to the throne better than the Tudor one. (This is what many other people thought, too, in private.) But Sir William went to the scaffold for planning a revolt. The rumour suited King Henry, however, since after Stanley’s fall everyone was terrified of being denounced as a Yorkist, not daring to mention the ‘duke’.
Although Robert Clifford did not destroy Stanley as many thought, his information averted an extremely dangerous conspiracy that might have ended the Tudor dynasty. On 20 January 1495 he was paid £500, which was an astronomical sum for the period – over five times the income of a modest squire for an entire year. Yet his services were worth every penny. Because of Clifford’s report the Yorkists lost their leaders in England. For good measure, he claimed that the so-called ‘duke’ was a lovechild of Margaret of Burgundy by her confessor, the Bishop of Cambrai, a smear story the implications of which cannot have been wholly to the king’s liking. They implied that not only did Clifford think that the young man bore a family resemblance to the House of York – and he had seen many of its members – but that he did not accept the official story of his real name being Perkin Warbeck.
Bacon says that after his return Clifford received no more favours from the king, which is not surprising. He had rebelled against Richard III and Henry VII, in each case turning his coat and betraying his fellow conspirators, and was scarcely a man who inspired trust. Even so, he was left unmolested, dying in 1508. The church at his village of Aspenden contains a contemporary stained-glass window which is clearly a portrait, if a rough one, and shows a proud, almost pompous face. A poorquality brass below informs us he had been ‘Knight for the Body to Henry VII and Master of his Ordnance’.
We shall never know what conclusions Henry VII drew from the revelations of the winter of 1494–5, but we can guess that they were uncomfortable ones. He could not rely on his most trusted courtiers, while devout priests opposed his reign. Although he had eliminated many leading Yorkists, Margaret of Burgundy and King Maximilian continued to encourage the ‘Duke of York’ who was still threatening to invade England. When his rival landed, would he find widespread support? The recent plot had shown that many influential Englishmen believed he was King Edward’s son. It was a reminder, too, that most of those who fought for Henry Tudor at Bosworth had done so because they opposed Richard III, not because they had ceased to be Yorkists.
7. January 1495: The Lord Chamberlain is a Traitor
1. Bacon, op. cit., p. 202.
2. G.L. Kingsford (ed.), Chronicles of London, Oxford, 1905, p. 203.
3. Hall, op. cit., p. 463.
4. Chronicles of London, op. cit., p. 203.
5. Bacon, op. cit., p. 122.
6. Hall, op. cit., p. 470.
7. Vergil, op. cit., p. 74; T.B.Howell, State Trials, London, 1816, p. 282.
8. W.A.J. Archbold, ‘Sir William Stanley and Perkin Warbeck’, English Historical Review, 14 (1899).
9. R. Flenley, Six Town Chronicles, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1911, p. 166.