William Hastings – Victim or player?

Hastings CoA

The rise of Hastings

William Hastings’s father Leonard had been a follower of Richard of York; so when he died, William naturally followed his father and became part of the York affinity. He was at Ludlow in 1460, fought with Edward at Mortimer’s Cross and Towton in 1461.   Hasting’s rise was steady; and after 1471 he began to acquire pre-eminence in Edward IV’s regime. This came from a combination of wardships and grants; but at the core was his closeness to the king, and his position of Lord Chamberlain. From this, power and influence flowed; religious houses made him their steward, barons sent him gifts.

By 1483, he was one of the leading magnates through whom Edward ruled the regions of England. Hasting’s power and affinity centres in the midlands; there he lavished money on creating grand new houses, particularly Ashby, where he enclosed 3,000 acres for hunting;and Kirby Muxloe, where he built a new house of red brick, the latest word for the time.

Hasting’s closeness to Edward seemed to extend to his personal life; Jane Shore for example, seems to have been the object of both his and Edward IVth’s admiration. But Hastings combined closeness to Edward with the good opinion of pretty much everyone. He was, in the words of Thomas More, an

‘honourable man, a good knight and a gentle … a loving man, and passing well beloved’.

Hastings and Gloucester

Gloucester and Hastings seem to have been on good terms in the previous reign: Gloucester’s role as chief steward of the Hastings Manticore Badge duchy of Lancaster in the north had meant that their spheres of interest in the north midlands had overlapped and they had apparently worked well together. But the clearest evidence comes from the early days after the death of Edward IV. Hastings was in London, Gloucester at Middleham and York. It was Hastings who wrote to Gloucester to advise and keep him informed; warning him of the power of the Woodvilles, advising him to secure the person of the young King, Edward V, to head off the threat to Gloucester’s position as potential Protector.

Clearly this was not disinterested. Hastings’ relationships with the Woodvilles, particularly Dorset, were troubled and acrimonious; on his death bed, Edward IV was said to have ordered them to like each other. Obviously, by and large not an effective approach – I seem to remember my mother trying it. Hastings trusted Gloucester enough to work side by side with him against the Woodvilles.

Gloucester seizes the king at Stony Stratford

In fact he trusted Gloucester so much that when Gloucester seized the king and imprisoned Earl Rivers at Stony Stratford on 30th April, Hastings read his letter to the lords in London and reassured them;and as a result, the Woodville’s attempt to raise an army against Gloucester failed, and the Queen and her family fled to the Westminster Sanctuary. At Gloucester’s first meeting with the royal council, Hasting’s support was critical to his confirmation as Protector with very wide powers. And Hastings, initially at least, appeared delighted at the outcome. The Crowland Chronicle reported:

“the lord Hastings… was extremely elated at these changes to which the affairs of the world are so subject, and was in the habit of saying that hitherto nothing whatever had been done except the transferring of the government of the kingdom from two of the queen’s blood to two more powerful persons of the king’s; and this, too, effected without any slaughter, or indeed causing as much blood to be shed as would be produced by the cut of a finger.”

Disgrace and death – the events of June 13th

John MortonAll this changed very suddenly with the dramatic events of June 13th.

There was to be a standard meeting of the royal council; but Gloucester had split the council into two. At one meeting was Hasting, John Morton, Rotherham, Thomas Stanley. All were experienced, influential men, loyal adherents of Edward IV. Hastings might has sensed something was wrong when Gloucester’s man, John Howard, turned up to make sure Hastings arrived on time.

When Gloucester and Buckingham arrived at the council everything changed. Gloucester accused the men of plotting against him.Furious denials were brushed aside, soldiers rushed in, and all 4 were removed. Stanley was soon released; this was a man and family Gloucester needed on his side. Morton and Rotherham, both prelates could not be killed and were instead imprisoned.

But Hastings was roughly shoved towards Tower Green; only his desperate pleas allowed him a little time to make his peace with God – and then he was executed, on the same spot that some day Anne Boleyn and Jane Grey would suffer the same fate. He had no form of trial.

A helpless victim? 

Gloucester’s official explanation was that Hastings and his companions were plotting against him – and they had paid the price. Princes

The favoured explanation by many modern observers is that the official explanation is a blind; that Gloucester had by this time decided to take the throne from Edward V.That he’d found out knew that Hastings would not support such a usurpation, and had to be removed. Some sources mention that Buckingham had sounded out Hastings on the idea, and been vehemently rebuffed, others that Gloucester got his information from William Catesby, a man closely connected with Hastings.

It seems very likely that Hastings felt a close loyalty to the young King, Edward V. There is a suggestion that a Book of Hours, the Hastings Hours, had actually been Edward V’s, and had been passed by Edward to Hastings during a meeting in the tower, evidence maybe of their closeness; evidence maybe that Hastings had secretly visited the king in the Tower to offer him support. It seems likely that Hastings would have been most unwilling to see Edward V passed over.

Or a player who lost?

Those who take a kinder view of Gloucester and his motives point out that Hastings was by no means a passive observer of affairs. Here was a man who had operated at the highest levels of government for over a decade, and whose affinity and networks ran deep. Who had done his best to manipulate events by writing to Gloucester to take on the Woodvilles. Was it therefore possible that Hastings was plotting with the Woodvilles? If not the Woodvilles, simply with Morton and Rotherham, both of whom, like Hastings had been trusted servants of Edward IV, and close colleagues with Hastings for many years.

It seems very unlikely for Hastings to have formed a partnership with the Woodvilles. Their mutual antagonism had been crystal clear; it would have been a dramatic turnaround for both parties. Nor is it clear that the Woodvilles would have been very helpful anyway – sitting in sanctuary or prison as most of them were. Plus let’s not forget (small thing!) Elizabeth strongly suspected that Hastings had been involved with Edward in sharing mistresses- the the idea was that one of them, Jane Shore, was used as a go between. I don’t think so.

But Morton, Rotherham and Stanley – these are very different. These were powerful, devious men perfectly capable of planning to resist Gloucester. The rise of the duke of Buckingham had been extraordinary – now practically a king in Wales, and the new dominant force in politics – the resulting lost of influence of all 4 men cannot have been welcome.It could well be that for Hastings, Gloucester had achieved his aim, and now needed to be contained, his powers at least restricted.

St George ChapelOr it could be that Gloucester had been visited by Stillington, been told that Edward V was illegitimate; and Hastings had made it clear that he would not accept the consequences,or did not believe the story.

The aftermath

Hasting’s widow was allowed to keep her lands and goods;and Hastings was buried in the St George Chapel next to his great friend, the man he had served so well – Edward IV. Either a sign of Gloucester’s nobility of spirit – or of a guilty conscience!


12 thoughts on “William Hastings – Victim or player?

  1. Another explanation for Richard’s letting Katharine keep the lands-it may not have hurt him to do so.

    1. According to Baldwin he took her most profitable manor of Loughborough leaving her in dire straits and allowed Lovell to pray on her so she had to pay protection money to keep him off her lands during her son’s minority.

  2. But Richard was Lord Protector, and about to ascend to Kingship – if he’d wanted to attaint Hastings, he could have. Surely the simple fact that he didn’t, means that – for whatever reason – he actually chose not to, ie chose to let Hastings’ widow/family retain their lands.

  3. Hi Lesley – yes, that is certainly the interpretation that Riccardians would put on it. However, other historians point out that by and large visiting attainders on the family was very often avoided anyway. So Henry VI issued 21 attainders, all reversed; Edward IV 140 attainders, 86 reversed; Richard III 100 attainders 99 reversed; though Henry VII, 138, only 52 reversed. Where the wife & family were affected, usually provision was made for the wife.

  4. If Gloucester had evidence why not expose that publicly at a trial, or before Parliament as Edward IV had done with Clarence?
    Dragging a man outside and beheading him immediately cannot be justified.
    Hastings was removed because he was powerful enough to stop a grab for the crown. At the meeting he was isolated from any household men he might have had. Also Gloucester didn’t allow Katherine to keep all her lands; the most valuable property of Loughborough was given to Anne Neville and Francis Lovell also attempted to take lands from her and she was forced to borrow money to buy him off; he only agreed to wait until Hastings’s son, Edward came of age.

    1. I totally agree – though this is a long time ago for me! Having Hastings executed was one of the consequences of the illegality of what Gloucester was doing; I doubt he ever wanted or expected to when he started, but the chain if events he started led him to it

    2. There wasn’t any need for a public trial. Richard as High Constable of England had legal powers in a case of Treason to conduct a Courts Martial and this is what he did. Prof Annette Carson has written on this and the role and powers Richard held since 1468 are outlined in her book and an article on her blog. Buckingham placed evidence before the Council and the citizens outside. A summary execution was perfectly legal.

  5. But what if Richard of Gloucester really believed in the pre-contract (perhaps because it was fact)? What was he supposed to do? Put an illegitimate boy on the throne. And who is to say Hastings did not receive a trial? Thomas More? Come on, More was either biased or having a laugh. He certainly wasn’t in attendance when all this was going on and when he wrote about Richard III he, More, was pleasing a Tudor audience. Richard could well have had Hastings appear before the Court of Chivalry, which did not have the power to confiscate anything. Thus Hastings’ wife would not have been chucked out in the cold. As for Hastings himself….I believe he continued to support Edward V, and would have preferred him on the throne. Quite rightly, that would have been treason to Richard of Gloucester, who by then knew he, Gloucester, was the rightful legitimate heir. Edward IV’s precontract left Richard of Gloucester in an invidious position. Edward IV must have known that. In fact he threw his youngest brother to the dogs.

    1. I don’t think for a moment Richard of Gloucester believed in the pre-contract; it’s way too convenient. Even if it had been true he would have been able to proceed with Edward V and bury what was only rumour. I agree, More wrote his history more as an explanation of Tyranny than for historical accuracy, but it’s difficult to believe there wouldn’t have been some other evidence of such a high profile trial. That is my view anyway!

  6. A point which I consider important is that Richard only ‘revealed’ the alleged pre-contract after his brother was dead. If he’d really believed it surely he’d have brought it up before?
    The answer may be that he was scared to..
    The most likely explanation is that it was a convenient fiction.
    To usurp the throne successfully he needed some sort of moral justification, however tenuous.
    I’m not a historian but I am a lawyer who deals with evidence daily.
    The justification put forward for Richard’s actions seems very weak.

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