On Friday, June 13, 1483, William Hastings walked into what he thought was a routine council meeting called by Richard, Duke of Gloucester. When Hastings left the chamber a few hours later, it was as a prisoner being hustled out to execution.
No trial was given to Hastings, whose death on Tower Green was such a hasty affair that no scaffold had been erected. He was the first of the four men who would die violently before Gloucester, who had been serving as protector of England during the minority of Edward V, took the throne as Richard III.
As with so much involving Richard III, there are conflicting theories as to why William Hastings, probably the most loyal friend Edward IV ever had, met his death at the hands of Richard, Edward IV’s supposedly devoted brother. Richard himself claimed that Hastings had been plotting against him, though he never produced any proof to substantiate his claims. Those defenders of Richard who have taken him at his word suggest that Hastings was driven into conspiracy by concerns that under the protectorate, he would lose the power and prestige he had enjoyed during Edward IV’s reign or by his suspicion that Richard meant to take the throne for himself.
The alternative explanation is that there was no plot at all and that Richard, having planned to seize the crown, ruthlessly eliminated Lord Hastings as the man most likely to stand in his way. This theory was propounded by those writing under the Tudors, but it was also that of Dominic Mancini, writing shortly after the events in question at a time when Henry Tudor was still an obscure exile:
After this execution had been done in the citadel, the townsmen, who had heard the uproar but were uncertain of the cause, became panic-stricken, and each one seized his weapons. But, to calm the multitude, the duke instantly sent a herald to proclaim that a plot had been detected in the citadel, and Hastings, the originator of the plot, had paid the penalty. . . . At first the ignorant crowed believed, although the real truth was on the lips of many, namely that the plot had been feigned by the duke so as to escape the odium of such a crime. [Richard III: A Source Book, by Keith Dockray]
It’s probably not a big surprise to readers of this blog that I lean toward the second theory: that of there being no plot by Hastings at all. Richard had recently had three of the men closest to Edward V—his uncle Anthony Woodville, his half-brother Richard Grey, and his chamberlain, Thomas Vaughan—arrested on equally vague charges of conspiracy, which would never be proven. They too would be executed without trial. In just a few days, Richard and his followers would spread the story that Edward IV had been precontracted to Eleanor Butler before his marriage to Elizabeth Woodville, making the latter marriage invalid and the resulting children bastards. These allegations would never see the inside of an ecclesiastical court, where they belonged. In each case—Hastings, Woodville, Grey, Vaughan, and the precontract—Richard would accuse, but never prove. None of those involved were allowed to defend themselves against Richard’s allegations.
No one, however, was inclined to press the point: The sudden, shocking execution of Hastings, the arrests of others on June 13 and on June 14 (including the Archbishop of York, the Bishop of Ely, Oliver King, secretary to Edward V, and John Forster, an official of the queen), the previous arrests of Edward V’s associates and their executions on June 25, the large number of armed men sent to Westminster Abbey to aid in persuading Elizabeth Woodville to giving up the Duke of York to Richard on June 16, and the rumors of massive numbers of troops headed from the north to London were powerful incentives for those who valued their heads to be docile, for the time being at least. What must have made Hastings’ execution all the more terrifying was that he was no unpopular royal favorite, but a well liked, competent, and respected man who had been associated with the Yorkist cause for decades.
In his treatment of Hastings’ widow and children, Richard did act commendably, allowing Lady Hastings to retain her husband’s land and goods, though Rosemary Horrox notes that Hastings’ royal grants were seized. This can and has been treated as an instance of Richard’s chivalrous behavior toward widows, though one might counter that it would have been rather more chivalrous of Richard not to have made Lady Hastings a widow in the first place.
Richard did do Hastings one service: he allowed his family to bury him in the Chapel of St. George at Windsor beside his friend Edward IV, as Hastings had requested in his will (made in 1481). His tomb can be seen there today. Other relicts of Hastings survive in the Hastings Hours, an illuminated manuscript owned by Hastings that today is in the British Library; in the ruins of Ashby de la Zouche Castle, which Edward IV granted to Hastings, and in Kirby Muxloe Castle, which Hastings was improving until the last days of his life.