One Man in Wangaratta

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Craig Pett is a Gale Sales Representative based in Melbourne. Craig promotes Gale resources to University and State Libraries in Victoria, Western Australia and the Australian Capital Territory. In addition, he sells Gale databases to public libraries and schools in the same states. Craig is also an independent researcher in his own right, with a specialty on Jonathan Swift and eighteenth-century Anglo-Irish affairs.

The town of Wangaratta in the north of Victoria, Australia, has a population of approximately 19,000, but little does that population realise that one amongst their number is a man who, but for an accident of history, could today be the King of England. This matter was originally researched by the British historian, Dr. Michael Jones, in 2003, and it can be updated with the help of Gale Primary Sources.

The research of Dr. Jones centred on Edward IV, who reigned from 1461 to 1483. It concerned the question of whether this fifteenth-century monarch had been born legitimate and of the royal bloodline. From the time of his birth there were rumours that Edward IV did not meet these prerequisite qualifications for the throne. It was suspected that he had been conceived not by his royal ‘father’, Richard Plantagenet, Duke of York, but pursuant to an affair his mother, Lady Cecily Neville, is thought to have had with an English archer. If this is true, Edward IV was neither legitimate or of royal blood. Contemporary evidence indicating that this may in fact have been the case includes the reputed comment of King Louis XI of France, ‘His name is not King Edward ‒ everybody knows his name is Blaybourne’, which is referred to in The Daily Mail on 20 December 2003 in an article concerned with Dr. Jones’s research.

Wilson, Christopher. “Strewth! Am I the Real King of England?” Daily Mail, 20 Dec. 2003, p. 6+. Daily Mail Historical Archive, 1896-2004, http://tinyurl.galegroup.com/tinyurl/6gHMu3

So widespread was the belief that Edward was illegitimate that in the 1590s Shakespeare put the allegation into the words of his character, Richard III, Edward’s youngest brother (/half-brother). This can be seen in Gale’s Shakespeare Collection, in Act 3, Scene 5 of Richard III:

‘Tell them, when that my mother went with child
Of that insatiate Edward, noble York
My princely father then had wars in France;
And, by true computation of the time,
Found that the issue was not his begot.’[1]

The evidence discovered by Dr. Jones in 2003 goes a long way to proving this historical rumour. It is known that in the summer of 1441 both the King, Richard, and his Queen, Cecily, were in France. They had travelled to the town of Rouen because, elsewhere in France, English forces were doing battle with the French. What Dr. Jones discovered is that, throughout the five-week period during which Edward must have been conceived, Cecily remained in Rouen, whilst Richard was in Pontoise with his forces – a full five days’ march away. Indeed, Dr. Jones found that throughout this five-week period the Register of the Rouen Cathedral provides continual details of prayers being offered for Richard’s safety in Pontoise.

Soon after this was uncovered, the news became the subject of a BBC documentary broadcast in 2004 entitled Britain’s Real Monarch. This documentary examines all of the evidence and concludes that from the time of Edward IV, the monarchical line has been ‘built on a lie’.

The documentary also traces the genealogical path the monarchical line should have taken. This genealogical path begins with Richard and Cecily’s first legitimate son, George Duke of Clarence, who had two children. One died but the other, Margaret Pole, Countess of Salisbury, went on to have four sons and one daughter. Later in their lives Margaret and these adult children were all executed by Henry VIII, but by this time one of Margaret’s sons had had a daughter, and that daughter later married into a family by the name of Hastings which had a castle in Ashby-de-la-Zouch in Leicestershire (through marriage, the family later became Abney-Hastings).

This, then, was the legitimate monarchical line up to the time of Elizabeth I, although, according to the documentary, from this time the Abney-Hastings family lost sight of the fact that it had a claim to the throne. It was also a family that had fluctuating fortunes; the BBC documentary traces its subsequent generations, arriving eventually in rural Australia.

So could it be true that the Abney-Hastings family of Australia has a legitimate claim to the throne? The answer would appear to be yes. From the time the news broke, there were objections. The letters to the editor in The Daily Mail for 26 December 2003, for instance, argue that the monarchical line presently represented by Elizabeth II has been legitimised by independent events. These letters argue that Henry VII, who was not of royal blood, had legitimised his claim to the throne when he had married the daughter of Edward IV, Elizabeth of York, in 1485. Alternatively, it is argued in these letters that Henry VII assumed the throne by conquest over Richard III, which was a lawful mode of acquiring the royal mantle. But these objections had been anticipated by the BBC documentary. With respect to Henry VII’s marriage to Elizabeth of York, the documentary explains that because the bride’s father had been a bastard son, Henry was not in fact marrying into a legitimate royal blood line. Similarly, in relation to the ‘conquest’, Richard III had been a successor in the illegitimate line that had begun with Edward IV, and a conquest over an illegitimate King is no conquest at all.

Other objections to the Abney-Hastings claim are mentioned in an article in The Times from 11 August 2012. This article says that the claim overlooks the Act of Settlement (1701), the Union under the Stuarts (1707), and the arrival of the House of Hanover from Germany (1714), all of which were events that bore upon the direction of the monarchical line. These objections, though, are hypothetical, for if the throne had been passed down the correct bloodline in 1461, instead of diverting to Edward IV, the course of history from that time would have been different and the question of whether any of these other events would have happened at all is conjectural.

Griffin, Edward. “Stand in line, Michael.” Daily Mail, 26 Dec. 2003, p. 70. Daily Mail Historical Archive, 1896-2004, http://tinyurl.galegroup.com/tinyurl/856VS3. Accessed 15 Oct. 2018.

So, until an expert can clearly explain why the Abney-Hastings claim should be disregarded, we are entitled to look upon the last six centuries as a never-ending story of mistaken identity. The Wars of the Roses, the Glorious Revolution, the Jacobite uprisings and countless other battles, skirmishes, plots and insurrections were all concerned with the wrong man, or men. Through it all, the person who was the true monarch by hereditary right was living a life of comparative tranquillity in the Abney-Hastings family castle in Leicestershire.

Who are the current descendants of the Abney-Hastings family? In 2003, when the documentary was produced, the family was living in Jerilderie in the Murrumbidgee region of New South Wales, 670km south-west of Sydney. The head of the family at that time was sixty-two-year-old Michael Hastings. As the documentary shows, Michael Hastings had all along been generally aware of his family’s ties to the Plantagenets. He was also well aware of his family’s historical title. The Scottish Peerage had in 1633 bestowed upon his ancestors the title, Earl of Loudoun, and Michael Hastings was the fourteenth Earl of Loudoun. But Michael Hastings was a regular Australian family man, hard-working and unpretentious, and this ancestry and title played no real part in his life.

He had been born in England in 1942 and, after travelling to Australia as a teenager in 1960, had married an Australian, Noelene McCormick. They had settled in Jerilderie in 1969 and had gone on to have five children. On the day of the visit of the BBC team in 2003, Michael Hastings had been contacted in advance by the compere of the programme, Tony Robinson, who had phoned him from England to ask whether he could come with a camera crew. But in that phone call, Tony Robinson had said only that he wanted to talk to him about his Plantagenet ancestry generally. The cameras are rolling, then, when in their kitchen and living room Michael Hastings and his adult daughters are informed that because of an affair that their maternal ancestor Cecily had with an archer of the royal garrison in 1441, they are in fact the rightful royal family (the documentary is easily accessible online).

This interview with Michael Hastings was conducted in an informal manner and it is clear that it was recorded in snippets over a few days. During the course of it Michael Hastings makes it clear that he loves Australia. In his own words, “Over here, there is no class system… In Australia, you are taken for what you are, not who you are”. These words are reported in The Daily Mail story of 20 December 2003, and they are words befitting a King if ever any were spoken, but Michael Hastings said that he will not be making any moves to displace Elizabeth II. In fact, he is in favour of Australia severing ties with the Commonwealth altogether and becoming a republic.

That is where the research presented in the BBC documentary ends. That documentary, however, was produced in 2003, and in the intervening years Michael Hastings has passed away. As was reported in The Times on 11 August 2012, Michael Hastings died on 30 July that year at the age of sixty-nine. His eldest son then became the fifteenth Earl of Loudoun and, according to the documentary, the rightful monarch of Britain. That eldest son is Simon Abney-Hastings, who at the time of assuming these responsibilities was thirty-seven and living in Wangaratta.

“The Earl of Loudoun.” Times, 11 Aug. 2012, p. 72. The Times Digital Archive, http://tinyurl.galegroup.com/tinyurl/6gHPE0.

Now, ordinarily this blog post would end at this point. But in early 2018 I saw that the Wikipedia entry for Simon Abney-Hastings says that he still lives in Wangaratta. That is only a few hours’ drive from my home in the northern suburbs of Melbourne. I saw also that he was readily contactable through Twitter or Facebook. What should I do? I sent him a message on Facebook, introducing myself as an employee of the History and Humanities publisher, Gale, and in my own time an independent researcher. I said that I was interested in his family’s story and asked whether it would be possible to meet him if I came to Wangaratta. He replied the same day saying that, better than me driving to Wangaratta, he would be in Melbourne the weekend after next because he had been asked to serve as Permanent Patron to the annual Highland Games being held in Ringwood in Melbourne’s east. I looked online for venues and after a few more Messenger exchanges, we agreed to meet at a café on the Maroondah Highway in Ringwood at 9am on Saturday 25 March. This café, coincidentally, was called Stirr it Up (double ‘r’ in Stirr).

I got there early and chose a table inside, before moving to a quieter spot outside. My guest arrived just before 9. I greeted him, we ordered coffees, and there began my period of a little over an hour of sitting opposite Lord Simon Abney-Hastings, 15th Earl of Loudoun – the man whose face represents an alternative history of the world.

A person of quietly-spoken integrity, he explained that the documentary did not change the lives of the family in any significant way. They had always known that they were a titled family, and that the title was hereditary. The documentary simply brought to their attention that they have a claim to be the rightful royal family. But whilst for some this might be significant news, Lord Abney-Hastings has never at any stage had any interest in the documentary. In 2003, when told of the upcoming visit of the BBC team, he chose not to be part of it, which is why he does not appear in it other than in the background of one family photograph which is shown, and in the years since he has never bothered to watch it.

This lack of interest in the documentary is principally due to a corresponding indifference to the programme’s premise – namely, that his family (or his father, as head of the family at that time) is Britain’s real monarch. There is an important point of principle here for Lord Abney-Hastings. On the one hand, there is no denying his direct ancestral ties to the last legitimate Plantagenet king. That is a truth that has always existed – just ask William Shakespeare. In fact, the legitimacy of his claim to the throne, if he ever chose to exercise it, is acknowledged by the College of Arms in London, which has access to the genealogical records of the British aristocracy dating back centuries.

After the formal registration of his Earldom in 2014, the College of Arms recommended that he have a personal Coat of Arms. This Coat of Arms was then designed for him by the Officers of the College with the information at their disposal. It includes a depiction of a woman holding a letter, which represents a letter of challenge, and it has the motto, ‘In Veritate Victoria’ – In Truth Lies Victory. But, despite the name of the café we were meeting at, Lord Abney-Hastings has no intention of acting on this claim. On the contrary, he has utmost respect for Elizabeth II and the royal family and, differing from his father on this point, if another referendum was held on the question of whether Australia should remain a constitutional monarchy, he would vote to preserve the status quo. For Lord Abney-Hastings, then, any claim that he has is one that exists only in the observance.

As the 15th Earl of Loudoun, he is an Honourary Governor or board member of several philanthropic organisations in both Australia and England, and he is regularly invited to attend events in the capacity of a Patron. He works full-time in Wangaratta but is in Melbourne for an event on average every second weekend. It is a life of part-time voluntary public duty, and one that he says he has gradually grown more comfortable with throughout the years following the passing of his father.

In 2015 it had been necessary for him to go to England for the funeral of an old relative – that of Richard III, his Plantagenet ancestor, after that king’s remains were discovered beneath a Leicester car park. Otherwise he only travels to England once every few years to meet his obligations there, and his next trip was in fact scheduled for May 2018. When in London he does not visit Buckingham Palace but he says that he does receive a letter or card from the Windsors an occasion, which he describes as cordial correspondence.

I felt that we could have talked all day, and I could have taken enough notes to write a book. But we had to get on with our respective days, and at about 10:15, I thanked him. Given that his engagements are normally co-ordinated by his barrister, who also acts as his secretary, I knew how fortunate I had been. We walked to our cars, which happened to be parked next to each other, and, letting him back out first, I glanced in my rear vision to see the man who could have been King of England take off eastward along the Maroondah Highway in his Nissan Navara Utility.

He took with him copies of two Gale Primary Source documents that he had not seen before. One is an address of welcome and congratulations from the tenantry of Ashby-de-la-Zouch and surrounding neighbourhoods that was delivered to his ancestors, Edith Maud and Sir Charles Abney-Hastings, upon their accession to these estates. This address was printed in The Morning Post on 23 September 1858 and can be found in Gale’s British Library Newspapers collection.  The other is a report of the unveiling of a memorial in honour of this same ancestor, Edith Maud Abney-Hastings, Countess of Loudoun, following her death. This was printed in The Illustrated London News on 9 August 1879.

“The Late Countess of Loudoun.” Illustrated London News, 9 Aug. 1879, p. 124+. The Illustrated London News Historical Archive, 1842-2003, http://tinyurl.galegroup.com/tinyurl/6gGps4.

Myself (left) with the Earl of Loudoun, Lord Simon Abney-Hastings, at Stirr it Up cafe, Ringwood, Melbourne, Australia.

[1] William Shakespeare, The works of Mr. William Shakespear. Volume the fourth. Ed. N. Rowe. Vol. 4. London, 1709. 539 pp. 6 vols. Shakespeare Collection. Gale Document Number: CQ1490023001