William Hastings: Richard III’s First Victim

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.

9 thoughts on “William Hastings: Richard III’s First Victim”

  1. Catherine Delors

    English Kings of old weren’t very nice, now, were they?
    Except the French ones, of course. 🙂

  2. Antonia Woodville

    Several books, old books, refer to Antony Woodville has having been murdered rather than executed. There was, it seems, a campaign to remove Woodvilles from the planet, every bit as much as Henry VIII was accused (and still is) of having a campaign to remove all Plantagenets from the planet. The tragedy of that period of history is that once a man’s head is removed from his shoulders, no one could put it back. There are many wrongs to be righted still, it is to be hoped that papers will eventually come to light, that evidence will be produced, even after all this time, to set the record straight.

  3. Good post. I agree that Hastings’ supposed plot against Richard never existed, and Richard eliminated him because he knew Hastings would never countenance Richard’s actions against Edward IV’s sons.

  4. I too, think that Richard wanted to get possible opponents out of the way quick. If he had sure proof of a plot, it would have made him look better if there had been a formal trial and I bet Richard knew that. So he rather risked the rumours than a trial that would acquit Hastings.

  5. Although I’m sure that Richard would have wanted to get rid of Hastings and would have done at some point, I often wonder if there wasn’t some sort of trigger point in that meeting that caused Richard to order his execution at such short notice.

  6. I wonder the same as Lady D. Maybe Richard had suspicions of Hastings (imaginary or otherwise) and something happened in the meeting to make him lose the famous Plantagenet temper. If he was planning to seize the crown he would know it would be unpopular (!) and might have been on a hair-trigger.

  7. It is quite possible that Hastings switched the sides and really plotted against Richard who relied mostly on Buckingham and put Hastings aside. Quick execution of Hastings can be explained by necessity to prevent imminent coup which should have restored Woodvilles to power. Such a coup would not be the first nor the last attempt to overthrow Gloucester as the Protector or later the King. That Elizabeth Woodville tried to seize power for her against the last will of Edward who named Richard as Protector is evident as well as it is probable that all other arrested and/or executed were active paricipants and supporters of the first plot.

  8. I find it heart-rending that Hastings' death came at the hands of a man that he had eaten and drank with, fought and bled beside. Richard wanted Hastings out of the way because he knew he was the one person who had the power and the strength of character to stand up to his ambition. There is no excuse for cold-blooded murder, yet that is what Richard committed that day by refusing Hastings the opportunity to exonerate himself of those charges. Despite the fact that Richard had other redeeming features, that unjustified act stands out in my mind as a defining moment for him. He preferred the death of a loyal and trusted friend and ally to his own greed and ambition.

  9. Susan Higginbotham

    Thanks, Laura! I quite agree. Even if Hastings were actually plotting against Richard, he could have been sent to the Tower and given a trial. His hasty execution suggests to me that Richard not only regarded him as a threat to his ambitions, but that he also knew that Hastings could and would give evidence against the existence of a precontract if left alive to do so.

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