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Sir William Stanley

Born : 1548
Died : 3 March 1630 - Ghent

Sir William Stanley was probably born in Hooton. He was the eldest son of Sir Rowland Stanley of Hooton and Storeton, Cheshire, the head of the senior branch of the house of Stanley [1]. Sir Rowland died in 1612 at the age of 96, the oldest knight in England.

The young William was brought up a Catholic and at the age of 12 was married to Ann Dutton, a bride of ten, but the marriage was dissolved in 1565. After this marriage he was sent to school with a Dr Standish at Lathom, where he entered the service of his kinsman Edward Stanley, 3rd Earl of Derby. Soon afterwards, he crossed to the Spanish Netherlands and began his illustrious military career. Firstly he was a volunteer under the Spanish General Alva in 1567, but in 1570 he quit the Spanish forces and joined Elizabeth's forces in Ireland where he served with distinction for over 15 years.

In 1579 as one of Sir William Drury's captains in the campaign against the Earl of Desmond, he distinguished himself at Limerick and for his gallantry was knighted by Drury at Waterford. He again distinguished himself at the battles of Monasternenagh and Adare. In 1580 he returned briefly to England to enlist troops which he subsequently led to Munster, but was again recalled to assist in putting down the rebellion that had broken out in the Pale.

Once more he returned to Ireland. At Wicklow, Lismore, and Munster he was instrumental in hunting down rebels loyal to the Earl of Desmond, for which he was made Constable of Castlemain. In March 1584 he supplicated Burghley and Walsingham to make him president of Connaught. This was refused, but in August of the same year, he was made sheriff of Cork. Towards the end of 1584 he was sent north to campaign against the Ulster rebels, and for his troubles received several wounds, the severity of which necessitated his return to England.

His Irish career was effectively over, and although it had been a most brilliant one and had earned him a reputation as one of England's finest soldiers, Burghley noted that the war in Ireland was essentially a religious one, and Stanley was a Catholic. Nevertheless, he had served with honour and fidelity and never questioned his service to the Crown.

As the months passed, he became more and more dissillusioned. The great Desmond estates which he had been instrumental in securing had been divided up and he had received nothing, while others who had been merely on the fringe of the action were handsomely rewarded.

In late 1585 he was despatched to the Spanish Netherlands with the Earl of Leicester, after first recruiting soldiers from Ireland. On his way from Ireland to the United Provinces he was seen in the company of Jesuit priests, and was said to have known much of the Babington Plot, although he was not himself involved. He corresponded with Mendoza, and delayed his departure for the Spanish Netherlands in case the Queen was killed or that the Spanish fleet might arrive from Cadiz.

Stanley's forces eventually joined Leicester on 12 August 1586 where he assisted in the capture of Doesborg, and then later saw action at the battle of Zutphen where Sir Philip Sidney received his fatal wounds. At the same time he was instrumental in the seizure of Deventer, and was duly appointed Governor in charge of a garrison of 1200 men, most of whom were Irish Catholics.

Having acquired a full mastery of the city and given the commission to act independantly of Norris, he communicated with the Spanish Governor of Zutphen, Juan De Tassis, and surrendered the town on 29 January 1587.

Although many claim that during this part of his life he was totally under the control of the Jesuits (of which his brother John was a lay-brother), he received little commendation for his actions from either the Jesuit faction, or the Spanish court, although the Jesuits had the audacity to publish a book extolling the treachery of Stanley [3]. It was ironic that his actions were as a result of his passing over of reward for his Irish services, yet at the time of this treachery, Elizabeth was preparing to appoint him Viceroy of Ireland.

Over the next year, Stanley made several trips to the Spanish court and offered advice on a planned invasion of England, indicating that it would be better to use Ireland and its sympathetic Catholics as a platform from which to launch a naval attack. However the Spanish ignored his suggestions, and subsequently the Spanish Armada was defeated in 1588. Stanley immediately retired to Antwerp. By 1590 he was back in Madrid as the representative of a thousand strong legion of Irishmen and expatriate Englishmen known as the English Legion. Into the services of this regiment eventually came the likes of Guy Fawkes and Thomas Wintour. Stanley indicated his willingness to join any armed revolt or uprising against Elizabeth, and was now closely identified as a member of the Jesuit faction. In 1591 he consulted in Rome with other enemies of Elizabeth, and announced his support for Lady Arabella Stuart, or Lord Strange (Ferdinando Stanley, 5th Earl of Derby) as Elizabeth's successor. He made yearly visits to Spain, and was present with the Spanish in 1596 when they invaded France. He fought at Amiens, at Geldern against Maurice of Nassau, and at Newport.

On Elizabeth's death, Stanley, who had previously sent Thomas Wintour to Spain, despatched Guy Fawkes and Christopher Wright, an emissary of Robert Catesby, to warn Philip against James, and again recommend an invasion using Ireland as the stopping-off point.

Soon after the failure of this mission, it appears he began secret negotiations with the English government to secure his own pardon, and there is no direct evidence to connect him with complicity in the Gunpowder Plot, although he was placed under house arrest in Brussels on suspicion after being denounced by Fawkes [4]. However, on 30 January 1606, Sir Robert Cecil, the Secretary of State, exonerated him from the charge. This may have been due to the confession of Thomas Wintour who states " Sir William Stanley was not returned from Spain, so as he [Faukes] uttered the matter only to Owen, who seemed well pleased with the business, but told him that surely Sir William would not be acquainted with any plot, as having business now afoot in the Court of England, but he himself would be always ready to tell it him and send him away as soon as it were done" [2]. But the theory has been put forward that Stanley was prepared to offer information (in particular regarding the Spanish Treason and the movements of Fawkes, Wintour, and Wright) in order to secure his own pardon from the Crown. It is true that upon release he held a public thanksgiving in the cathedral of Malines [4].

After the discovery of the Gunpowder Plot, Stanley plainly recognized that the Catholic cause had become severely fragmented and completely discredited, and he no longer entertained plans with Spain with regard to an English invasion, even though peace had been declared between the two enemies. Therefore, the remainder of his life was spent in relative obscurity. He assisted in establishing a Jesuit novitiate in Liege in 1614, and appears to have been appointed governor of Mechlin. He spent much of his latter years with the English Carthusians in Ostend, having several times sought in vain to return to England. He died at Ghent on 3 March 1630 and was buried at Mechlin.

By his wife Elizabeth, daughter of John Egerton of Egerton he had two sons and three daughters. Eventually his grandson succeeded to the family estates at Hooton in Cheshire, and his great-grandson was created a Baronet in 1661. Philip Sidney comments that it is sad such a man of noble birth who received such high distinction and honors from England lived out his final days as a pensioner of Spain [3].

Sources

[1] Dictionary of National Biography
[2] The confession of Thomas Wintour - "Gunpowder Plot Book"
[3] Sidney, Philip, "A History of the Gunpowder Plot"
[4] Morey, Adrian, "The Catholic Subjects of Elizabeth I", 1978, Allen and Unwin
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