The Tragedy of King Richard 111 (not by William Shakespeare)
Part 5 – …” these dukes showed their intention, not in private but openly…”
“Catesby hath sounded Hastings in our business
And finds the testy gentleman so hot
That he will lose his head ere give consent
His master’s child, as worshipfully he terms it,
Shall lose the royalty of England’s throne’
“A black day will it be to somebody”
It is 9 o’clock on Friday the 13th June 1483. William Lord Hastings, the Lord Chamberlain enters the council chamber at the Tower for a meeting with the Lord Protector. Already there and seated are the duke of Buckingham, Lord Stanley, the earl of Derby, Thomas Rotherham the Archbishop of York, John Morton the Bishop of Ely and others. Hastings doesn’t notice three men standing ominously in the shadow: the Rat, the Cat and Lovell the dog. Hastings sits down at the head of the table. Nobody speaks to him.
The clock ticks and still Richard has not arrived, it is now past the time appointed for the meeting. The silence is becoming oppressive and the tension palpable. Hastings plays anxiously with his chain of office. He is right to be nervous; last night he had a visit from Lord Stanley’s man. Stanley had dreamt ‘the boar razed off his helm’. Was it a sign they were discovered? Hastings’ palms are sweating and his mouth is dry. Gloucester’s personality dominates the chamber despite his absence. The silence is now thunderous, the tension physical.
Hastings shuffles nervously in his chair, coughs and speaks hesitantly: “Now noble peers, the cause why we are met is to determine of the coronation. In God’s name speak. When is the royal day?” Buckingham suggests that the Lord Chamberlain probably knows the Lord Protector better than anyone present; what does he think Gloucester would say? Hastings demurs: “…I know he loves me well, but for his purpose in the coronation I have not sounded him, nor he delivered his gracious pleasure in any way therein. But others may name the day and in the Duke’s behalf I’ll give my voice, which I presume he will take in good part”. Suddenly the door flies open. Gloucester, dressed in black, hunched and intimidating stands framed in the doorway. He fixes Lord Hastings with a demonic stare and steps purposefully into the chamber, grinning malevolently. He is dangerously cheerful: “ My noble lords and cousins all, good morrow, I have been long a sleeper…” After asking Morton to fetch some strawberries from his garden, Richard takes Buckingham outside for a private conference. Hastings, Stanley and Rotherham remain seated. They look at each other nervously, their fear unspoken. As Ratcliffe and Lovell step out from the shadows to stand threateningly behind Hastings, Stanley and Rotherham shuffle along to the other end of the table. The returning Morton sits with them. Their faces drawn and pale, they are all dreading what is to come and wishing themselves anywhere but in this chamber at this time.
On his return, Richard’s mood has changed. He asks pointedly “Pray you all tell me, what they deserve that do conspire my death with devilish plots?” Hastings gulps and fidgets in his chair. Richard is looking straight at him. He stammers “The tender love I bear your grace makes me most forward to doom the offenders. I say they have deserved death”. Richard moves forward, his hot breath on Hastings’ face: he roars: “ Then let your eyes be the witness of the evil. See how I am bewitched! Mine arm is like a blasted sapling all withered up…” Hastings can barely control his panic now; he stutters, “If they have done this deed — If! Talks thou to me of ifs! Though art a traitor! Off with his head, now by Saint Paul I will not dine till I see it done.” And that according to William Shakespeare (and Laurence Olivier) was how Lord Hastings met his end.
Thanks to Olivier’s definitive performance as Richard in his 1955 film, the sheer drama of this scene has overshadowed any doubts I may have had as to its accuracy. From the perspective of dramatic art, I doubt if it can easily be bettered. But is it historically correct? Shakespeare got this version of events from Thomas More, who got it from John Morton, who was an eyewitness. Yet, as we all know, John Morton was Richard duke of Gloucester’s mortal enemy: an inveterate dissembler and traducer of his posthumous reputation. Can we trust his account? The answer to that question is an unequivocal ‘probably’. Although there are differences between the various accounts, they generally confirm the gist of the Morton/More/Shakespeare version. That said, More’s history contains obvious falsehoods. For example, we now know from the recent medical opinion of Richard III’s scoliosis that there was no withered arm or claw hand. Also, Mancini is wrong to say that Hastings was killed in the scuffle and there is disagreement about whether Stanley was wounded, and whether Gloucester’s accused the queen of witchcraft. But generally, it seems to have gone pretty much as described in the sources. The Protector revealed his knowledge of the plot, the conspirators’ response was heated, the word treason was used, swords were drawn, the room was flooded with the Protector’s men, there was a scuffle and the plotters were swiftly overwhelmed. It was over in a trice. Stanley et al were taken into custody; Hastings was rushed outside to meet his maker. The conspiracy was crushed.
However, the cries of ‘treason’ roused the city. There was consternation amongst the citizens. The tension was racking-up. Shortly, a herald appeared with a proclamation and the citizens listened in stunned silence to the Protector’s communiqué. It seemed to everybody that the Yorkist regime was imploding. So much for the deed: what about the consequences? To answer that question, we have to go back in the chronology to Wednesday 11 June 1483.
“ My friends are in the north…”
It was on the 11 June 1483 that Richard duke of Gloucester wrote to Ralph Neville of Raby. “My Lord Neville, I recommend you to me as heartily as I can; and as you love me and your own weal and security and this realm, that you come to me with that ye may make, defensibly arrayed, in all haste that is possible and that you give credence to Sir Richard Ratcliffe, this bearer that I now send to you, instructed with all my mind and intent”. The tone of this letter is so completely different from the duke’s earlier letter to the citizens of York that it suggests something else has happened since the 10 June to persuade him to move quickly. That and the fact that the letter was sent north immediately, suggests that the ‘something ‘ was of supreme importance and urgency. In his earlier letter, Gloucester requested the Mayor and citizens of York to send troops with due diligence. Whereas, he asked Neville, to come as soon as possible with whatever troops he can muster. Is he panicking? I think not. Everything we know about Richard duke of Gloucester suggests that he is good at handling this type of situation. We will never know what knowledge of Gloucester’s private ‘mind and intent’ Sir Richard Ratcliffe carried north, but I think he is probably relaying verbal messages to the duke’s northern adherents with the real reason for his urgent request. The duke had just discovered that Hastings was involved with the Woodville’s in the plot to kill him. The revelation of the pre-contract had forced them to bring forward their plan to murder the Lord Protector and the duke of Buckingham, and to crown Edward V. It seems that Hastings had known of the pre-contract for some time but had neglected to tell the Lord Protector. It was the most unforgivable example of a breach of trust that Richard duke of Gloucester could imagine
Whilst the knowledge of Hastings treachery had infuriated Gloucester, it also alarmed him. Hastings was a seasoned soldier. He was Captain of Calais; he had fought in Edward’s battles for the throne. He was a man of power and influence with a posse of armed retainers in London. And he was ferociously loyal to the dead king. Unlike the Woodville dilettantes at Stony Stratford, Hastings posed the most serious threat yet to Gloucester’s life. He knew he must act quickly and decisively if he was to survive. The arrangement of two meetings fixed for the 13 June suited his purpose precisely. It separated the conspirators from the remainder of the Council. Bishop Russell would chair one meeting at Westminster with the non-aligned council members, who could discuss routine arrangements for the coronation. Richard, Buckingham and the conspirators would attend the other meeting in the Tower; ostensibly, they were going to give the formal go-ahead for the coronation. The reasons for holding this meeting at the Tower are self-evident. The Protector would face the conspirators on ground of his own choosing, in a place where the presence of his armed men would not be taken amiss and where he was secure from interference. He knew who the conspirators were, he knew about the pre-contract and —decisively— he knew what they knew. They were at a disadvantage because they only had part of the story: they had no idea what he knew or what he was planning.
If we look at this from Hastings’ point of view he believed that the conspiracy was going well and that time was still on his side. He knew of the pre-contract before anybody else and he is anxious to keep that under wraps. Hastings’ interest is in the preservation of the status quo ante, which means ensuring that Edward V is crowned on the 22 June 1483. His alliance with the Woodville’s is one of convenience but he is confident he can thrive once he has disposed of Gloucester and Buckingham. However, Stillington’s revelation of the pre-contract was a setback. Gloucester was always going to be an obstacle to his plans. But now that he knew of the pre-contract, his uncompromising nature meant that he was unlikely to turn a blind eye to Edward IV’s bigamy. It didn’t need a genius to see the threat to Edward V’s coronation. To ensure that the coronation did take place, Hastings was prepared to do anything; even to murder the man he had campaigned with and who shared his devotion to Edward IV. Neither do I think Hastings motives were entirely driven by loyalty. Like other over-mighty subjects he was acquisitive; a grateful Edward V was his best chance of retaining and even enlarging the gifts, privileges, offices and the influence he had enjoyed during Edward IV’s reign. It was an outcome not to be sniffed at and one he was unlikely to achieve should the morally conservative and pious duke of Gloucester extend his Protectorship after the coronation.
For the duke of Gloucester the execution of Hastings and the arrest of Stanley, Rotherham and Morton was a Rubicon. From his perspective the day was a success. He has crushed a dangerous conspiracy with ease. Of course, he doesn’t have the benefit of knowing what the future holds, as we do, and his mistakes are not yet apparent to him. Furthermore, he still has to grapple with the pre-contract problem and especially it’s bearing on the succession. He has yet to consider whether to depose his nephew, exclude Edward’s children from the succession and take the crown himself. He is not sure what to do. His inclination, as always, is ‘to do the right thing’ but what is the right thing? Is it doing right by Edward’s children, or doing right by the realm?
 Richard J Sylvester – The complete Works of St Thomas More, Volume 2: the History of King Richard III (Yale 1963) at page Ixvi. Morton was not More’s only source but he was an important one. There is much in the ‘History of King Richard III’ that is not taken from eyewitness testimony and is not from Morton. For instance, he was not present at Stony Stratford or during the disappearance of the Princes. However, More’s version of the events on the 13 June 1483 does have the ingredients of an eyewitness account: its obvious errors and embellishments notwithstanding.
 The main primary and Tudor sources support the gist of More’s version despite their differences of detail. See Mancini at pages 89-91 (AJ Armstrong (ed) – Dominic Mancini: the Usurpation of King Richard III [Oxford, 1969]). See also the Great Chronicle at page 231 (AH Thomas et al [Eds] – The Great Chronicle of London [London 1938]) and the London Chronicle at page 190 (C L Kingsford – Chronicles of London [Oxford 1905]). The remaining primary sources need not trouble as they add little or nothing to the above. The only other worthwhile source is Vergil at page 180 (Sir Henry Ellis (ed) – Three books of Polydore Vergil’s English History; comprising the reigns of Henry VI, Edward IV and Richard III [The Camden Society 1844]). Vergil is the only source to suggest that Gloucester attributed his ‘blasted sapling’ to the queen’s witchcraft. It is worth pointing out however, that their credibility as accurate recorders of events is challenged by their collective failure to get the chronology right (Thomas More also got it wrong). They all Place the duke of York’s release from sanctuary before the council meeting on the 13 June 1483, whereas it actually happened on the Monday after Hasting’s execution. Thankfully, we have Simon Stallworths letter of the 21 June 1483 (See Peter A Hancock- Richard III and the murder in the Tower – [The History Press 2011] at Appendix 1, pages 158-59) and an entry in the duke of Norfolk’s household accounts to fix the correct dating sequence.
 Two possible reasons have been offered for Hastings’ involvement in this murder: one noble, the other ignoble. The noble reason is that owing to his loyalty to Edward IV, he would not countenance the deposition of Edward V. The ignoble reason was that he saw the coronation of Edward V as his best chance of continuing the licentious lifestyle of Edward IV’s courtiers, and preserve the privileges, grants and power he had enjoyed during the dead king’s reign. It matters not for my purpose what Hastings reasons were. High treason is an absolute offence: if it is proved, there is only one outcome. For Gloucester’ enemies (then and later) the summary execution of Hastings is definitive proof of his intention to usurp the throne and that would stop at nothing to achieve his aim. The protector’s actions are also problematic for Ricardians. Even the staunch old Ricardian Sir George Buck is unable to exonerate him for that action, though he offers reasons of state (artes imperii) as mitigation.
 See Prof Mark Lansdale and Dr Julian Boons psychological profile of Richard III (The Ricardian Bulletin March 2013) at pages 46-56.
 Due to the absence of hard evidence, Ricardian history is a fruitful subject for personal speculation. I do not apologize for theorizing. What I offer is an explanation of events on the 13 June 1483 ; though I appreciate it may not be the explanation.