The Tudor Society

16 February – Sir William Stanley is executed

On this day in Tudor history, 16th February 1495, Sir William Stanley, administrator and landowner, was executed for treason on Tower Hill.

Stanley is, of course, remembered for his key role at the Battle of Bosworth Field in August 1485, when he and his brother chose to support Henry Tudor and brought their troops onto the battlefield at a critical stage. So how did Sir William Stanley go from being a loyal supporter of Henry VII to being executed for treason? Find out in today's talk.

Also on this day in Tudor history, 16th February 1547, the remains of King Henry VIII were buried at St George’s Chapel, Windsor Castle. Find out more in last year’s video:

Also on this day in history:


On this day in Tudor history, 16th February 1495, Sir William Stanley, administrator and landowner, was executed for treason on Tower Hill.
William was born in around 1435 and was the second son of Thomas Stanley, 1st Baron Stanley, and his wife, Joan. During the Wars of the Roses, the Stanley’s supported the Yorkists and William ended up being attainted as a traitor following the Battle of Bloreheath in 1459. William’s support of the Nevilles and Yorkists led to King Edward IV appointing him as chamberlain of Chester, constable of Flint Castle, and sheriff of Flintshire, and knighting him, following his accession in 1461. He served Edward IV loyally even when Richard Neville, Earl of Warwick, rebelled against the king and deposed him, forcing Edward to flee into exile. William also supported Edward when he returned from exile to claim the throne once again.
William’s biographer, Michael J Bennett, writes of how William and his younger brother, Thomas Stanley, who’d later become Earl of Derby, “reluctantly acquiesced in the usurpation of Richard III” in 1483 and that they helped put down the rebellion of the Duke of Buckingham. However, it seems that they were in contact with Henry Tudor regarding his return from exile and his plan to claim the throne. Following Henry’s landing in Wales, William set off with 3,000 men from his property of Holt Castle, a few miles from Wrexham in North Wales, while his brother, Thomas, set off with his men from Lancashire.

The Stanley brothers are, of course, known for helping Henry Tudor at the Battle of Bosworth Field on 22nd August 1485 by committing their troops to Henry’s side, against King Richard III, at a critical stage of the battle, and saving the day. The new king, Henry VII, rewarded William for his support by appointing him as Chamberlain of the King’s Household. In 1487, William sided with his king during the Lambert Simnel rebellion and in 1489 helped him put down the Yorkshire Rebellion.

So how did William go from being a loyal supporter of the king to being executed as a traitor?

Well, it was alleged that he supported the pretender Perkin Warbeck, who claimed to be Richard, Duke of York, son of Edward IV and one of the Princes in the Tower. According to the charges against him, William had discussed Warbeck with Robert Clifford and had sent Clifford to Brabant to assure Warbeck of his support. Contemporary historian Polydore Vergil recorded that William had told Clifford that “if he were sure that the man was Edward’s son, he would never take up arms against him.”

Now, William HAD been a loyal supporter of King Edward IV, as you have heard, and had served his eldest son, Edward, as steward of his household, but as Vergil notes, what he said to Clifford about Warbeck “would indicate lukewarmness towards King Henry rather than treason”.

On 6th and 7th February 1495, William was tried for treason. His brother, Thomas, presided over the trial as Constable of England. William confessed to treason, hoping, perhaps, as Vergil states, “that by ready confession he would obtain his life from the king.” If that was the plan, it didn’t work. Even though William had previously been loyal to Henry VII and was the brother of the king’s stepfather, the king had to act. Vergil writes that “Henry feared such leniency to be dangerous to himself – others would be encouraged by William’s avoidance of punishment and would undertake similar acts of folly.”

Sir William Stanley was found guilty of treason and condemned to a full traitor’s death, to be hanged, drawn and quartered. The sentence was, however, commuted to the more merciful method of beheading. William was beheaded on Tower Hill on this day in history, 16th February 1495. He was about sixty years old. He was laid to rest at Syon Abbey.

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