Stanley, Sir William (1548–1630), soldier and adventurer, was the eldest son of Sir Rowland Stanley (d. 1612) of Hooton and Storeton, Cheshire, and Margaret Aldersey. His family was catholic and two of his brothers became Jesuits, although both William and his father conformed in public to protestantism, which was the official religion in England from 1558. William was educated privately and then entered the service of his kinsman, Edward Stanley, 3rd earl of Derby. In 1560 and aged only twelve, he married Ann Dutton of Hatton who was two years his junior. The marriage was dissolved in 1565. Later, he married Elizabeth, the daughter of John Egerton of Egerton. They had two sons and three daughters.
During the late 1560s, he gained his first military experience in the Netherlands serving as a volunteer in the Spanish army before leaving about 1570 and joining the royal army in Ireland. At some point prior to 1580, he became a client of the queen's chief favourite Robert Dudley, earl of Leicester. In July 1579, he was made captain of a troop of 50 horse. That autumn, he accompanied the lord justice Sir William Drury (qv) on his campaign in Munster where the second Desmond rebellion had recently broken out. Drury knighted him at Waterford in September and gave him command of 100 foot. He fought at the battle of Monasternenagh in county Limerick on 3 October and then led a dangerous but successful raid into rebel-held Kerry from his base at Adare, county Limerick, in late November. In February 1580 he led royal forces towards Stancally castle prompting the rebels there to burn the castle and flee. That March, he participated in the devastating campaign of lord justice Sir William Pelham (qv) in Kerry and was wounded in the assault on Carrigafoyle castle.
In April, he left for England, where he was involved in levying reinforcements for service in Ireland, returning to Dublin in August. At first, he was intended for service in Connaught where the governor, Sir Nicholas Malby (qv), groomed Stanley as his eventual successor. However, the outbreak of another rebellion in the Pale necessitated his presence in Leinster. The new lord deputy Sir Arthur Grey (qv) pursued the rebels into the heart of the Wicklow mountains and on 25 August ordered a detachment of his army into the valley of Glenmalure to flush them out. Stanley's company lay in the rear of this disastrous advance, which culminated in a rout of the royal forces. According to his report, his company made some semblance of a fighting retreat although others present said his men broke and ran. He called it the hottest piece of service he ever saw and was fortunate to escape.
By the start of 1581, he was stationed in Wicklow and played a key role in suppressing the rebel O'Byrnes and Kavanaghs, beating off an attempted O'Byrne ambush in January and burning the house of the rebel leader Fiach MacHugh O'Byrne (qv) in April. In September, he returned to England, and his company was disbanded that autumn as part of a general reduction of the royal military establishment in Ireland. During 1581–2, he became involved in a syndicate that intended colonising the New World with catholics, but lost interest in this scheme and requested further military employment. He returned to Ireland in January 1583 where he was stationed at Lismore and appointed constable of Castlemaine. He played an important role in the pursuit across Kerry of the rebel leader Gerald Fitzgerald (qv), 15th earl of Desmond, leading to Desmond's killing in November.
After the final suppression of the second Desmond rebellion in late 1583, Stanley remained in Munster hoping to be granted land in the proposed plantation of Munster. His suit was unsuccessful; further disappointment followed in 1584 when he failed to succeed Malby as president of Connaught. But during 1583 he received a 21-year lease of the property of the suppressed abbey of Killala, the custodiam of the manor of Lismore and a reversion to the office of master of the ordnance in Ireland. Although his suit for plantation land failed, his father's was successful and Stanley would inherit this land in due course. Further, he was commissioner of Munster for a period in 1583, sheriff of Cork in 1584 and was briefly made acting governor of Munster when the governor Sir John Norris (qv) was called away in autumn 1584. During his three-month period as acting governor of Munster, he executed 300 suspected rebels. He did not get on with Norris and this may have been an attempt to upstage him. Throughout his time in Ireland, he advocated repressive measures in order to maintain the crown's tenuous grip on the country.
In late 1584, he was dispatched to north east Ulster to resist an invasion of Scottish mercenaries bidding, on behalf of Sorley Boy MacDonnell (qv), to drive the English out of Antrim. On 30 December Stanley advanced with his forces into the territory of the McDonnells of Antrim meeting with relatively little resistance and camping near Ballycastle. On 5 January 1585 his force of about 500 men was attacked at night by perhaps as many as 2,000 Scots and Irish. Stanley dashed out of his tent without his armour to rally his men and was wounded by arrows in the arm, thigh and back. The English suffered many casualties and much of their provisions were destroyed, but beat off the assault. He was furious at the conduct of Sir Henry Bagenal (qv), who had commanded another English force operating in the area and retreated on realising the Scots had landed, leaving Stanley dangerously isolated. In the event, the Scots withdrew in early March, allowing the crown forces to renew their grip on the area although Stanley does not appear to have participated actively in these campaigns due to his injuries.
He returned to Lismore for a time before heading home in October on private business. In December, he joined the English forces commanded by Leicester sent to the Low Countries in support of the Dutch rebels in their war with Spain and was appointed provost marshal of the English forces. As more troops were needed, Stanley landed at Dublin in May 1586 to recruit up to 1,500 soldiers in Ireland for service in the war. He was ideally suited to this role having previously expressed admiration for the fighting spirit of the Irish rebels he had encountered, claiming that the only advantage held by the English forces over them was their superior discipline. During May–July 1586, he levied about 1,100 soldiers in Ireland. About 500 of these were kerne, light infantry that predominated within Gaelic armies, with the rest coming from disbanded royal companies. The rank and file were largely Irish and catholic, the officers predominantly English and catholic.
It is often claimed that he became disaffected due to the crown's failure to reward adequately his years of service, presumably because of his increasingly well-known catholicism. His religious views did become an issue during 1585 as his rivals Bagenal and Norris sought to use his catholicism against him, forcing Stanley to write a justificatory letter to the secretary of state in London, Francis Walsingham. However, he continued to enjoy the confidence of Leicester and the queen. In May 1586 he was entrusted with secret instructions from the queen to the lord deputy Sir John Perrot (qv), who also had the highest regard for Stanley. Enjoying the support of such powerful patrons and boasting an outstanding record of military service, he could reasonably expect further and plentiful royal preferment to add to the not inconsiderable bounty that he had already received. His discreet and hitherto apolitical adherence to the catholic faith need not have undermined his career.
There is some evidence suggesting that during summer 1586, he became embroiled in a conspiracy whereby a group of disaffected English catholics led by Anthony Babington plotted to assassinate the queen, rescue Mary Queen of Scots and establish catholic rule in England with military assistance from Spain. Apparently, Stanley pledged either to assist the planned coup with his catholic regiment or, if that was not feasible, to defect to Spain with his men once he arrived in the Low Countries. However, the source for this claim, a renegade catholic priest formerly in the pay of the government, is highly unreliable. Moreover, Walsingham had penetrated Babington's group with his agents and was kept fully abreast of the developing plot, eventually arresting the conspirators in August. Had Stanley been more than tenuously involved, Walsingham would have uncovered his role and would never have allowed him to depart to the Low Countries on 12 July. It is possible Stanley was aware of the plot, but declined to participate.
By the start of August, his regiment was in action against the Spanish forces, playing a distinguished role in the battle of Zutphen. On 23 October, his men slipped into the town of Deventer by night, seizing it for the English. Leicester appointed him governor of Deventer in November, specifically exempting him from the jurisdiction of his rival Norris. Despite these successes, all was not well. He clashed bitterly with Norris and with the locals who regarded his Irish troops with profound mistrust due to their religion and alleged barbarity. Worse still, rumours abounded that his former lieutenant in Ireland, one Jacomo di Francesqui, was implicated in the Babington conspiracy. Stanley was clearly alarmed and fearful. The Spanish were aware of this and may have misinformed him that Babington and his cohorts had named him as an accomplice before their execution. On 18 January 1587 he handed the town over to the Spanish and brought over about 730 men to join the Spanish army. He continued to serve as governor of Deventer for a year and was given command of a regiment comprising the men he brought with him as well as other English and Scottish catholic soldiers in the Spanish army.
His defection shocked the English court and accentuated the damage done to the catholic cause by the papal bull Regnans in excelsis and the Babington plot. Stanley was vilified and feared for years to come; royal officials were alarmed at the prospect of his leading a Spanish invasion force into either Ireland or England. After some hesitation, he did become engaged in various projects initiated by the English catholic community on the continent to overthrow the Elizabethan regime, taking up the claim to the English throne of his cousin Ferdinando Stanley, earl of Derby. However, the Spanish regarded him warily, declined to countenance any of his projects, and pointedly excluded him from the Armada in 1588 and the expedition to Kinsale in 1601.
Meanwhile, from 1587–96 his regiment, widely known as the Irish regiment, represented the first organised Irish presence within the Spanish army. That said, from 1588 onwards it went into decline suffering from defections, low morale and inadequate financial support. In 1594, many of his Irish troops joined a wider mutiny over arrears of pay within the Spanish army, lasting two years. The Irish mutineers also complained at being put under the command of English officers. As a result, in 1596 two independent Irish companies were formed separate from Stanley's regiment under two Irish captains. In 1597, his regiment had become so small that it was disbanded.
In 1602, he was appointed to the council of war of Archduke Albert of the Spanish Netherlands. Two years later, when peace was finally agreed between Spain and England, his efforts to negotiate a pardon and return to England were rebuffed. In 1605, the English authorities accused him rather spuriously of involvement in the Gunpowder Plot at which the Spanish, in a placatory mood, arrested him. He was freed within a year and later became governor of Malines. During this time, his wife, along with his son and grandson, received permission to live with him in Flanders. English reports that he spent his last years in a miserable exile pining for his homeland should be approached with some scepticism. There is no doubt that he was a sincere catholic, playing a very active role in the English catholic community in Flanders, and was a patron of the Jesuits. He died 3 March 1630 at Ghent and was honoured with a public funeral at the church of Notre Dame at Mechelen.