Turtle Bunbury

Writer and Historian

Old map of Ireland



Ireland’s First Bunbury Connection?- Sir William Stanley (1548 – 1630) & Thomas Bunbury of Stanney (1542 – 1601)

Sir William Stanley was the eldest son of Sir Rowland Stanley of Hooton and Storeton, Cheshire, the head of the senior branch of the house of Stanley and the oldest knight in England at his death aged 96 in 1614.[1]. His mother Lady Margaret Stanley was the widow of Henry Bunbury (1509 – 1547), Lord de Bunbury, and daughter of Hugh Aldersey, a prosperous merchant who served as Mayor of Chester in 1528, 1541 and 1546. He was thus a half-brother to Thomas Bunbury of Stanney (1542 – 1601), father of the first Sir Henry Bunbury.

The Desmond Rising

Thomas is the first of the Bunbury family known to have had any involvement with Ireland. This occurred in 1585 in the wake of the Desmond Rising, of which a brief synopsis. Gerald Fitzgerald, 15th Earl of Desmond, had been in open rebellion against the Dublin administration since 1569. In 1579 he received some assistance from Philip II of Spain in the shape of a small army. The resources of the Crown forces under the command of “Black Tom” Butler, Earl of Ormond, overpowered Desmond’s army and the Earl was forced to go on the run. In 1583, he was captured and killed by the O’Moriartys in a forest near Tralee; his severed head was dispatched to London and left to rot on London Bridge as a warning to would be traitors. “The territory over which he had ruled like a monarch was quickly annexed to the English crown and, three years later, the Munster plantations began. An estimated 300,000 acres of good land was involved”.[2]

The Rise of William Stanley

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. Initially 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 he distinguished himself at Limerick as one of Sir William Drury's captains in the campaign against the Earl of Desmond. 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.

Sheriff of Cork

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 asked 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.

The Payback

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 disillusioned. 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.

The Lismore Lease of 1585

On 1st December 1585 a feoffment (ie: a trust) was set up by Sir William Stanley of Hooton with regard to the future of the castle etc. of Lismoreto the use of his wife and children”.[3] The manor and castle of Lismore, located on the banks of the River Blackwater, were leased by Patrick, Bishop of Waterford & Lismore, to Sir William Drury for 61 years on 8th October 1576.[4] However, Sir William Stanley is recorded as paying rent for the castle to Anne Thickpenny, widow of John Thickpenny, from 1584-1586.[5] The three executors of this trust were his two brother-in-laws John Egerton [the Younger of Olton, Cheshire], John Poole [of Poole] and his step-brother, Thomas Bunbury of Stanney.[6]

Stanley the Traitor

"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".

Lady Stanley

"Sir William’s wife was stripped of all her goods and assets by order of the English Privy Council. However, Egerton successfully pleased Lady Stanney’s case and on 2nd September 1587, despite loud objections from Sir Walter Raleigh, the Lord Deputy wrote to the Sheriff of Waterford and ordered him “to make restitution of goods previously seized from Lady Stanley”. Whether Thomas Bunbury knew of Sir William’s divided loyalties when he became executor to the Lismore feoffment is unknown but he was still in that position on Shrove Tuesday (ie: 20th Feb) 1588 when Roger Wilbraham wrote a letter to himself, Egerton, Poole and the elderly Sir Rowland Stanley (Sir William’s father) asking for an explanation of a lease made by the Bishop of Waterford and Lismore to Sir William Stanley.[7]

Stanley in Spain

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.

Sir Henry Bunbury

Thomas Bunbury died on May 5th 1601, some six months before Lord Mountjoy’s English army annihilated the combined Spanish-Irish forces at Kinsale and effectively brought Celtic Ireland to its absolute end. Two years later, on 23rd July 1603, his eldest surviving son and heir, Henry Bunbury (d. 1634), was knighted by King James. Henry had been married to Elizabeth Anne, daughter of Geoffrey Shakerley [of Hulme, Cheshire and Shakerley, Lancashire]. Her mother, Jane, was a daughter of Sir George Beeston, one of the Admirals responsible for defeating the Spanish Armada in 1588. Elizabeth Anne Bunbury died on June 4th 1601 and was buried at Stoke.[8] She provided him with a son in 1597, Henry Benjamin Bunbury, the Royalist, and four daughters. Sir Henry was married secondly to Martha Norris and through their son Thomas he was grandfather to Benjamin Bunbury of Killerig. [9]

The Gunpowder Plot

Soon after the death of Queen Elizabeth in 1603, Sir Henry Bunbury’s uncle, Sir William 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]

Death of William Stanley

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.

Speculative Conclusions

By his wife Elizabeth, daughter of John 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]. One wonders what impact Sir William Stanley’s colourful life had upon his half-brother, Thomas Bunbury of Stanney, or upon his “nephew”, Sir Henry Bunbury, 1st Bart. It is interesting that Sir William was a Roman Catholic; I have not yet discovered when or why the Bunbury family changed religion. However, the fact that Henry was willing to accept a knighthood from King James while Sir William was communicating with the same King’s would-be assassins suggests “uncle” and “nephew” might not have been of the same persuasion. Nonetheless, it is excellent to see a Bunbury meddling with the affairs of Ireland in 1586, which now becomes the earliest known date of reference to the family in Ireland. And it’s fun to speculate that long-haired Bunburys were drinking fireside ales into the late hours with such Elizabethan formidables as Raleigh, Spenser, Egerton, Beeston and Stanley.

Any thoughts or criticisms of this theorizing are most welcome!


All italicised block texts above are taken from the website of The Gunpowder Plot Society, written by David Herber Copyright © 1997,1998. His references include:

[1] Dictionary of National Biography, 1895

[2] '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.



[1] Sir Rowland Stanley (1518 - 1613) of Hooton and Storeton was the eldest son of William Stanley and Grace Griffith, daughter of Sir William Griffith. His first wife was Margaret Bunbury, widow of Thomas and daughter of Hugh Aldersley. She was mother to Sir William (1548 – 1630), Edward and John, the Jesuit priest mentioned elsewhere in this text. Rowland was knighted on 2nd October 1553 by Queen “Bloody Mary” the day after her Coronation. He married secondly Ursula, daughter of Sir Thomas Smith of Hough, Cheshire, by whom he had two daughters – Margaret, who married Sir John Egerton, and Mary, who married John Poole. In 1577 he served as Sheriff of Cheshire under Queen Elizabeth. In 1585, he married thirdly [at Easterham] Jane, the widow of Richard Brown of Capenhurst, Cheshire. This marriage produced no children although he did have two further children by his mistress Sybil Thomson – Edward Pendleton and Anne. He died on 25th April 1614 at the age of 96, making him the oldest knight in the kingdom. He was buried at Eastham.

[2] Among the thirty four beneficiaries granted the forfeited Desmond estates were Sir Walter Raleigh, the poet Edmund Spenser and Hugh Cuffe, forbear of the Earls of Desart. “The Irish Country House: A Social History”, Peter Somerville-Large (Sinclair-Stevenson, 1995).

[3] Stanley of Hooton MSS Rylands Charter No. 1465. Quoted in “British Sources for Irish history 1485-1641”, Brian Donovan, David Edwards, Irish Manuscripts Commission 1997.

[4] The castle was probably in a poor condition, perhaps even ruined. The surrounding countryside cannot have been much better. The Elizabethan army in Munster had conducted a scorched earth campaign, destroying crops in the fields and bringing famine to the region. Over time the executors may have restocked Lady Stanley’s estate by shipping fresh supplies – livestock, equipment, raw materials and arms - across the Irish Sea, probably via the port at Bristol. Under the terms of the land grant, Stanney was also obliged to sponsor a designated number of English tenants and freeholders who would have lived in more modest houses of wood and stone. Nonetheless, as a new landowner in a conquered land, Sir William Stanley must have been a man to whom sleep did not come easy. There is certainly evidence of clashes between the incoming New English and the established Old English (Anglo-Normans), who feared the newcomers undermined their traditional rights and authority in Ireland.

[5] “British Sources for Irish history 1485-1641”, p.188.

[6] John Egerton descended from the Egertons of Ridley Hall outside Bunbury, Cheshire. The manor of Ridley was granted by Henry VIII, as a reward for taking the French standard at Tournay, to Sir Ralph Egerton of Egerton. Ridley Manor previously belonged to Sir Rowland’s father, Sir William Stanley, who had transformed the property into "the finest gentleman's house of all Cheshire." However, Henry VIII believed the Stanley’s were possessed of too much wealth and power; hence the seizure of the Ridley Manor. Ralph was the second son of Philip Egerton. Sir Ralph received his knighthood from Henry in 1513 for his conduct at the battle of the Spurs, and the sieges of Tourenne and Tournay. The following January he was made Standard Bearer of England for life with a salary of £100 per annum. He was made Marshall for his bravery at the battle of Flodden. Ridley Manor was garrisoned by Parliamentary troops during the Civil War, surviving a Royalist attack on 4th June 1645, but was finally burnt about 1700.

[7] Rylands Charter No. 1467

[9] Sir Henry and Elizabeth also had four daughters - Mary, who married Thomas Draper of Walton in Shropshire [co. Salop]; Elizabeth [1595 - 1612] who married John Richardson, Bishop of Ardagh in Ireland; Martha [d. July 1664] and Anne who married Sir John Keningham of Ireland {Coningham of Scotland?} and had two daughters.