Wednesday, December 10, 2008

The Real William Hastings

As anyone who’s read a lot of historical fiction set during the Wars of the Roses, there are certain inviolable rules as to how certain characters must be portrayed. George, Duke of Clarence, must be a heavy drinker. George’s son, Edward, must be a simpleton (usually, in Ricardian novels, due to his neglect by his greedy Woodville guardians). Anne Neville, Richard III’s queen, must be meek and frail. William, Lord Hastings, must be a dissipated, badly aging playboy.

Cherished as they are by historical novelists, the evidence for these portrayals is rather lacking. The only thing that points toward George’s drinking habits is the supposed manner of his death, being drowned in a barrel of sweet wine. Little Edward’s simple-mindedness is derived from a single remark made about him in later life that he could not “tell a goose from a capon,” which could mean that he was mentally slow, but could just as easily mean that he was naïve, unworldly, or lacking in common sense. (Having at that time spent most of his life as a prisoner in the Tower, it’s not surprising if he was deficient in some respects, like the long-imprisoned Edward Courtenay would prove to be decades later.) The only evidence for Anne’s frail health is her early death, but up until a few months before her final illness, she seems to have been active enough, accompanying her husband in his kingly travels. As for her meekness, almost nothing is known of her personality.

And Lord Hastings, the main subject of this post? While the little the sources have to say on the subject of his sex life suggest that he was a bit of a womanizer, this is hardly the sum total of his personality. There’s certainly nothing to support his portrayal by one historical novelist as a sexual predator with a fondness for raping virgin peasant girls. The one contemporary account of his sexual predilections comes from Mancini:

Hastings was not only the author of the sovereign’s public policy, as being one that had shared every peril with the king, but was also the accomplice and partner of his privy pleasures. He maintained a deadly feud with the queen’s son, whom we said was called the marquess, and that because of the mistresses whom they had abducted, or attempted to entice from one another. [The Latin here reads “idque propter amores alteri ab altero ablatos, aut sollicitatos.”]

Elsewhere, Mancini writes of Edward IV himself, “He pursued with no discrimination the married and unmarried the noble and lowly: however he took none by force.”

Assuming Mancini’s informants were correct, the description of Hastings and the Marquis of Dorset’s abducting each other’s mistresses, while not showing either in a particularly favorable light, certainly does not support a characterization of Hastings as a rapist, especially since his partner in pleasure, Edward IV, is emphatically described as not being one. Interestingly, the Crowland Chronicler, who unlike Mancini appears to have been well connected at court and probably knew Hastings personally, mentions nothing of Hastings’ sexual behavior at all, but states without explanation that much ill-will existed between Hastings and the queen’s relations.

That’s it, as far as I can tell, of contemporary or near-contemporary accounts of Hastings’ sexual appetites. Thomas More writes that Elizabeth Woodville “thought [Hastings] secretly familiar with the king in wanton company,” but gives jealousy of Hastings’ offices and gifts from the king, not sexual rivalry, as the reason he was disliked by the queen’s relations. As for his character, More described him as “a good knight and a gentle, of great authority with his prince, of living somewhat desolate [dissolute].” This rather vague last descriptor could mean a lot of things, but certainly doesn’t support a portrayal of Hastings as a sexual predator. Neither does More’s statement that Hastings kept Jane Shore as his mistress after the king’s death and that although Hastings was enamored of her during the king’s life, he “forbare her of reverence to the king, or else of a certain kind of fidelity to his friend.” (Other than Thomas More, only The Great Chronicle of London links Hastings and Jane Shore.)

Philip de Commines, who had dealings with Hastings over the pension paid to him by the King of France, described him as “a man of honour and prudence, and of great authority with his master, and deservedly, upon account of the faithful service he had done him.”

Hastings seems to have been devoted to his family as well. Having been hustled off to execution without trial by the future Richard III on June 13, 1483, Hastings had no time to settle his affairs on that day, but he did leave behind a will, made in 1481. An abstract of this lengthy document can be found here (p. 368), and it shows a man who, whatever his appetites, was conventionally pious and concerned about the welfare of his loved ones. Hastings makes careful provision for his wife and for his children, and Katherine heads the list of his executors, where she is described as “my entirely beloved wife.” Hastings concludes with a request to Edward IV:

whose good grace, in the most humble wise, I beseche to be good and tender and gracyous Lord to my sowle, to be good and gracyous Soverayne Lord to my wyfe, my son, and myn eyre, and to all my children, whom I charge upon my blessyng to be true sogetts and servants to you my Soverayne Lord under God, and to your eyre, and to all your issue

As this passage and his years of unwavering allegiance to Edward IV suggest, Hastings’ defining quality was not debauchery, but loyalty.