Sir John Stanley II
Sir John Stanley II (d. 1437) succeeded his father as the Lord of Man upon the latter’s death in 1414. Unlike his father, Sir John II was actively involved in the administration of the Island, and he made several changes that had a significant and lasting impact upon the Isle of Man and Tynwald. Most notably, Sir John II was responsible for the customary laws of 1417, the earliest known written laws of the Isle of Man.
After the foundation of the Stanley fortunes under his father, Sir John II’s rule can be characterised as one of consolidation. Although he did not acquire any significant new property, his marriage to Isobel Harrington, a member of one of the leading families of 15th century Lancashire, is an indication of the rising status of the Stanleys. He inherited his father’s offices in Macclesfield, and was elected to the second Parliament of 1414. As Lord of Man, he was among the parties to a short-lived truce between England and France drawn up in early 1415. Later that year he fought at the Battle of Agincourt, for which service he received a knighthood. In later life, he acted as a commissioner or agent on behalf of the Crown in Lancashire, and was particularly in demand as an arbitrator in disputes between landowners. He was known for his legal expertise, and he may have studied law at one of the inns of court.
Laying Down the Law
An important aspect of Sir John II’s consolidation of the Stanley fortunes was his work in the Isle of Man. In 1417, he ordered that the laws of the Isle of Man be written down for the first time. Beginning with the procedure for Tynwald Day, the customary laws of 1417 describe in some detail the rights of the Lord of Man and his relationship to his subjects. As such, they can be understood as an attempt on Sir John II’s part to assert his authority as the King and Lord of Man.
This was required for a number of reasons. First were the numerous rebellions that took place during this period. Sir John II is said to have first visited the Isle of Man on behalf of his father, in an attempt to quell a rebellion; he visited the Island in 1417 for the same reason, after an attack on his Lieutenant Governor. This uprising was dealt with in the customary laws of 1417 by sentencing those involved to death. This does not, however, appear to have deterred the rebels, as Sir John II had to return to the Island in 1422 to quell another rebellion against his Governor.
Another reason was the competing influence of the barons, the major landowners in the Isle of Man during this period. All eight of the baronies of the Island were ecclesiastical: they belonged to the Lord Bishop of Sodor and Man, the Prioress of Douglas, and the Abbot of Rushen, as well as the Prior of Withorne in Galloway, the Abbot of Furness, the Prior of St Bees in Cumberland, and the Abbot of Bangor. Partly as a result of the uncertainty that had prevailed since the fall of the Kingdom of Man and the Isles, the Church barons had become increasingly powerful in the Isle of Man. The baronies operated as separate jurisdictions with their own courts and ecclesiastical prison; the Church had its own written laws dating back to 1229, while the state had none. The Church also had a complex system of taxation: it had all the tithes on a range of products, including grain, beer, poultry, eggs, butter, cheese, fish, wool, and honey; all working men had to pay it 2p a year; and they received 20 shillings on the death of a property owner.
In 1417, Sir John II sought to reduce the baronial powers in two main ways: by depriving the barons of the power of sanctuary on their lands through the indenture signed on his behalf by his commissioners Thurstan de Tyldesley and Roger Haysnap, and by having them swear fealty to the Lord of Man on Tynwald Day, or else forfeit their lands.
Some historians have understood Sir John II’s efforts to reduce the barons’ powers as an early form of secularism or Protestantism, but it seems more likely that it was an attempt to subdue competing powers in the Island to the authority of the Lord of Man. There is no evidence that Sir John II was anti-Catholic; indeed, around this time he and his wife obtained papal permission to use a private confessor, reflecting their high social status.
In 1422, Sir John II was able to put this aspect of the Tynwald Day procedure into practice. While the Bishop of Sodor of Man, the Abbot of Rushen, and the Prioress of Douglas attended Tynwald Day and pledged their fealty, the other barons did not. They were given 40 days in which to pledge their fealty to the Lord of Man, which they dutifully did.
At the meeting of Tynwald in 1422, Sir John II commissioned a survey that would later result in other legal and constitutional reforms. In 1429, at a Tynwald presided over by his Governor Henry Byrom, trial by battle was abolished and replaced with trial by jury; and in 1430, an early form of election to the House of Keys was held, whereby six men from each sheading were proposed by the Commons, and out of the 36 men the Governor selected the ’24 worthiest’.
A.W. Moore summarised Sir John II’s rule in the following terms:
He may justly be considered an enlightened and upright ruler, much in advance of his time. He caused the ancient laws and constitutions of his little kingdom to be reduced to writing, he humbled the overbearing ecclesiastical authorities, and, after he had practically concentrated all power into his own hands, he wisely conceded a representative form of government.