By John Callow
When does an interest in an historical figure begin? In my own case, it started as a boy with a rain storm that drummed against the windows of Turton Tower, blotted out the pale spring sunshine and threw shadows against the portrait of James Stanley, which was on-loan to a visiting exhibition about the English Civil Wars. Wrapped in the folds of his cloak, here was the 7th Earl of Derby and Lord of Man in all his doomed, Cavalier grandeur, set among flickering lights, oak panels and armour, waiting for ‘the King to Enjoy his Own Again’.
I’d seen his face before and knew something of his story – thanks to a book on the Royalist army by Brigadier Peter Young and my Dad’s willingness to encourage my interest in history. But this was very different and far more immediate. There was the keen intelligence of his eye, captured by the rapid strokes of Van Dyck’s brush; a melancholy born out of hindsight rather than from historical reality, as the knowledge of a tragic end on the scaffold – deserted and reviled – contrasted with the essential optimism of the image that displayed the handsome, young, pre-war nobleman under blue skies; swathed in silken opulence and framed by his long chestnut curls. Dangerous, chivalric and counter-cultural, his image seemed to defy the stultifying conformism and growing materialism of the 1980s. That afternoon, James Stanley seemed to live again in the fabric of the old Lancashire hall and in every fold and furrow of the surrounding countryside.
This sense of place, of a link to the land, and of the 7th Earl as the ‘Great Stanley’ who created a glittering court society – of arts, letters and of theatre – about himself at his castle on the Isle of Man, and looked upon the farms and fields of Lancashire as his own particular patrimony, has remained with me through a writing career that has come full circle to focus upon the disjunctures of the Civil Wars, the quest for a lasting settlement, and the lordship of the Isle of Man under the House of Stanley. This has been made possible by a research and travel grant from Culture Vannin (the charity tasked with supporting the culture heritage of the Isle of Man) and the support of Helion Publisher’s who, through the ‘Century of the Soldier’, have commissioned the biography of the Earl to commemorate the 370th anniversary of his leading an invasion army into England, in 1651, in support of Charles II.
My own study seeks to explore the Earl’s harnessing and direction of the Royalist war record in the North West; his record as a highly capable peacetime administrator; and role as a religious visionary and extremely gifted writer. His tragedy was that while, as a regional magnate, his dealings had been marked by tolerance and compromise; his record as a soldier saw him branded as a war criminal on account of his part in the Bolton massacre of 1644 and his presiding over the unprecedented militarisation and brutalisation of Manx society, from 1643-51.
Curiously, until now, there has never been a biography devoted to the 7th Earl. Cumming’s ‘The Great Stanley’ (published in 1867) is, in essence, a novel – though one crammed full of useful appendices and antiquarian discoveries. In the literature of the Civil War, he suffers from the ingratitude of the very kings he gave everything to serve and from the spite of Clarendon’s pen; while his reputation for military prowess was eclipsed – in the eyes of both his Parliamentarian detractors, in his own day, and by Romantic novelists in a Victorian age of steel and steam – by that of his wife during the siege of Lathom House. However, James Stanley deserved better than the suspicion of Stuart sovereigns and the condescension of later historians who celebrated him as martyr rather than as a man of bravery, intelligence and principle. With any luck, my own book might just put that right!