The Real Blackadders

Blackadder Back and Forth begins with a claim that the Blackadder dynasty have ‘forever been at the centre of British history and society.’ Then, over the opening credits, we see a montage of various images depicting the Blackadder we all know being involved with events such as the Battle of Hastings, Thatcherism and the desert campaign of the Second World War. The montage is meant to reinforce the idea that they have always been there, always been a powerful influence on the course of history. It is nonsense, of course. It is only a comedy. But what if I were to tell you that there is a dynasty who have been a powerful influence on the course of British history, who have helped to shape its course and even change its direction? They have helped to crown and depose kings and statesmen, influenced our language and they have, at times, been just as opportunistic, treacherous, slimy and power hungry as their fictional counterparts. There is in fact a real Blackadder dynasty: The House of Stanley.

There is a claim that the family originates from Adam de Aldithly, who attended William the Conqueror during his invasion of 1066. This is almost certainly a later fabrication as there is, nor ever has been, a place in Normandy or France called Aldithly. There was, however, an Aldithley (modern Audley) on the Staffordshire/Cheshire border. It is likely that this is where the family actually originates, with a Ligulf of Aldithley who obtained the manor (I assume) from a thegn named Gamel shortly after 1086. Who Gamel was is unknown. He is one of those figures from history for which we have only a name and nothing else. He may have been a relation of Ligulf, but then again he may not have been. We simply do not know.

But why, if the family were of Anglo-Saxon/English stock, claim descent from the Norman conquerors? The answer, simply, was for the prestige, for the influence which such a descent brought. In the medieval period (and still to a large extent today) England was controlled by the descendants of those who had come over with William the Conqueror and who had been granted land and favours in return for their service. Descent from a Norman noble was a sign that you were somebody, that you were two steps above the common Anglo-Saxon riff-raff. Being descended from a Saxon like Ligulf, the Stanley family would have undoubtedly been looked down on and their influence would certainly have been less than otherwise. Therefore, by claiming they were of Norman stock rather than Anglo-Saxon, they were regaining some of that influence. This was, I am sure you will agree, a very Blackadder thing to do.

One of the ‘fictional’ Blackadders (Courtesy of the BBC)

It would also have been useful in reinforcing their claim on the manors and lands which they held. The Normans believed that their right to rule (and not just over England but over Normandy, Wales, France, Sicily and most of Europe) was God given. They believed themselves superior and they weren’t afraid to let the ‘lower types’ such as the Anglo-Saxons know about it. By claiming Norman descent, the Stanley family were tapping into that God given right to rule, to the lands which they held. It was a way of asserting themselves and securing their claims and making sure people knew they were in charge. And make sure people knew they were in charge they certainly did.

Ligulf’s great grandson, William, married and inherited the lands of Joan of Stoneleigh and thus became William de Stoneleigh, which eventually mutated into the Stanley name we know today. Within two hundred years, by the late 1200s, through various marriages, the family had amassed a considerable amount of influence, power and wealth. Today we would call their use of that power an abuse, though then it was simply known as tyranny. By a marriage that is rumoured to have been an elopement, another William inherited the title of Master Forrester of The Wirral. William and his descendants used this position, which also came with the manor of Storeton and the Horn of the Wirral, to subjugate and terrorise the occupants of medieval Cheshire. Taking advantage of the remote location, they acted as a law unto themselves, kings in all but name, and their behaviour was much the same as you might expect from a gangland mafia.

Most of their tyrannies involved high and extortionate taxes as well as harsh punishments for minor offences. The reign of terror reached its apex in 1376 with the murder of forester Thomas Clotton by John, son of the then Lord William, and an associate by the name of Henry Harper. For the murder, about which little appears to be known, John was outlawed but soon granted a pardon thanks to his service in the French wars. It is John who secured the family’s position at the centre of English society and he is the first Stanley we know any significant detail about. This is also where those Blackadder traits of opportunism and treachery begin to come to the fore.

Following his acquittal for the murder of Clotton, John Stanley served Richard II and eventually served as Lord Lieutenant of Ireland. Later, Stanley accompanied the King to Ireland but when Bolingbroke returned from exile he switched sides and deserted. For his loyalty to Bolingbroke, and after the rebellion of the Percys, he was given the lordship of Mann. He served as household steward to the future Henry V and was wounded at the battle of Salisbury.

His death is equally interesting for he is said to have been cursed by the Irish poets during his third term as Lord Lieutenant. The Annals of Connacht mention that in 1414 he ‘came to destroy the Gaels of Ireland’ and ‘he plundered every one of its clerics any men of skill, every  art  on  whom  he  laid   hands  and  expose  them  to  cold  and  beggary.’ After plundering Niall O hUicinn Stanley was ‘viciously lampooned in verse’ and ‘lived only five weeks till he died from the venoms of the lampoons.’ It is no doubt a flight of fancy that it was the verse which killed Stanley, but the source does hint that he was as tyrannical in his behaviours towards the Irish as he had been in his youth towards the people of the Wirral, as his father had been.

We know little of his personality, alas, but we can see from the details of his life that there are some of those same strokes that make up Edmund Blackadder. Both are duplicitous, opportunistic. It is not difficult to see how Blackadder, accompanying Richard II, might in the same way as Stanley throw his lot in with Bolingbroke when he saw which way the wind was blowing. It is not hard to imagine Blackadder cravenly scheming his way free from outlawry by running away to France, though he would definitely be much more of a coward about it than I assume Stanley was.

But despite his certainly interesting life and death, his waltzes in royal circles and his scramble towards a powerful position, the history books make no mention of John. He is just simply not important enough for their narrative, not a significant enough player in the grand scheme of things. On his own he becomes just another late medieval noble, a robber baron scheming for glory at the expense of the peasantry. Indeed, he would be just another robber baron, were it not for the fact that power seeking and treachery were to become dynastic traits, were his family not to later become key figures in the shaping of British history.

John’s son, also called John, is again almost absent from the narrative of history. He was sheriff of Anglesey and constable of Caernarvon but he does not appear to have committed any devious or treacherous acts. He seems, in fact, to have been especially loyal to Henry VI, whom he served in numerous positions. He was also notable for being the first to write down and arrange the laws and jurisdictions of Mann. It is in this guise that some Manx historians (the only histories in which he appears to be mentioned) label him as the greatest of men and a ‘genius.’

An image purported to be of Thomas, the 1st Earl Derby (Public domain, courtesy of Wikimedia)

His son, Thomas, later became Baron Stanley and was again highly influential, yet he also makes little mark on the historical narrative. His only appearance in the wider tapestry is a minor cameo at best. When Eleanor of Gloucester was convicted for treasonable necromancy in 1441 Stanley was tasked with keeping her imprisoned. By this he made his ways into Shakespeare’s Henry VI, though unfortunately under the name of his father, John.

Also like his father, Thomas did not appear, from the records, to possess the traits of treachery and opportunism. Instead they would reappear with his sons, Thomas and William. Through their actions they were able to influence national politics at the highest level and thereby alter the course of national history. Both were duplicitous and scheming and it is rumoured that one of them (perhaps Thomas) murdered his brother in law. The records of this deed, however, contain many inaccuracies so it is safe to say that the story is probably a later invention.

Thomas is renowned for his involvement in the later stages of the Wars of The Roses, being the step father of Henry Tudor and a wily political maneuverer in his own right, keeping up with whoever happened to be on top at the time. He was later proclaimed the Earl of Derby, although it is fair to say that it was his brother William who had the bigger impact during this period. It was William, a prominent Yorkist, who at the battle of Bosworth changed sides at the last minute, deciding the outcome of the battle. Though it was his brother who actually placed the crown on Tudor’s head, it was William who did so metaphorically.

As though it were not enough for William to have turned against Richard III, ten years later he turned on Henry Tudor by supporting Perkin Warbeck. Whether this was because he genuinely believed Warbeck was the real Richard Plantagenet or because he saw an opportunity to reclaim the Yorkist line is unknown, but were it the latter it would be no surprise given how often the family, before and since, have turned against those in charge.

James Stanley, 7th Earl of Derby, was executed in 1651 for supporting Charles II and fighting against the Cromwellian regime. The 7th Earl’s son, Charles, was attainted for being involved in an uprising in 1659.

Much of these Blackadderesque traits, tendencies towards rebellion and treachery, appear to have mostly diminished when the main Derby line became extinct with the 10th Earl in 1723, the earldom passing to descendants of the second earl’s second son. This may, however, be more to do with the fact that times were considerably more peaceful than during the late medieval to Stuart periods. That is not to say that the traits were no longer there, they merely existed under the surface.

14th Earl of Derby (Public Domain, Courtesy of

It can be seen most clearly with the 14th Earl, Edward Smith Stanley, a politician who spent much of his early career acting against the interests of his own party. Initially this was the Whigs but later it was the Tories as well. Under the premiership of Earl Grey Stanley’s opposition to Irish reform proposals caused division within the government and it was the resignation of Stanley, along with others, which ended Grey’s tenure. He was to do similar to Robert Peel over the repeal of the Corn Laws in 1845, again ending the premiership. Stanley’s political career, especially the early years, can be viewed as being very Blackadderesque. His moves are very like those that you might expect from a Blackadder, who would certainly bring down successive governments so as to gain power (though, sadly, there is no evidence to suggest that Stanley did what he did to gain power. Nevertheless, by the second deposition he did become leader of the Conservative party and subsequently Prime minister.)

The Stanley’s, however, were not merely machiavells revolving around the circles of power, as the Blackadders were. They also had a strong influence on culture and society. Whilst the 6th Earl is reckoned by some to be the true author of William Shakespeare’s plays, the real Shakespeare was given his start by the patronage of the 6th Earl’s brother, the 5th Earl, Ferdinando. Shakespeare was a prominent member of Ferdinando’s theatre troupe, Lord Strange’s Men and may have written Richard III, Henry VI and The Taming Of The Shrew whilst a member. Derby as a sporting term, meanwhile was named for the 12th Earl. The 14th Earl, as well as being a prominent politician, produced one of the many translations of Homer’s Iliad. Alice, wife of the 5th Earl, lived near to John Milton, writer of Paradise Lost, in her later years. Milton even wrote the words to an entertainment performed at her home in 1632.

Along with the rest of the nobility, the influence of the Stanley family declined during the twentieth century and today they are best known for Knowsley Safari Park, one of Liverpool’s most popular visitor attractions. However, for at least five hundred years they stood at the centre of British power and politics, influencing the course of national history. That alone makes them very similar to the Blackadders but their tendency towards scheming, treachery and underhand deeds makes them even more so. Few families, even noble ones, can be said to have had as much prestige as the Stanley’s for so long. Only the Cavendishes (Devonshire) and Cecils (Salisbury) have been as powerful, and then only since the reign of Elizabeth I. Except for maybe Robert Cecil, the first Salisbury, neither family can be said to be as Machiavellian as the Stanley’s and neither so much painted with the colours of Judas. If any real life dynasty can lay a claim to be the real Blackadders, then it is surely the Stanleys.


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