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Hastings, Henry, third earl of Huntingdonfree

  • Claire Cross

Henry Hastings, third earl of Huntingdon (1536?–1595)

by unknown artist, 1588

© Board of Trustees of The Armouries (accession no. I.46)

Hastings, Henry, third earl of Huntingdon (1536?–1595), nobleman, was the eldest son of Francis Hastings, second earl of Huntingdon (1513/14–1560), and his wife, Katherine Pole (d. 1576). His grandfather George Hastings, first earl of Huntingdon, a personal friend of Henry VIII, introduced him to the court at a very early age. A year or so senior to Edward VI, Lord Hastings joined the young prince at his studies at the king's invitation. Francis Hastings became second earl of Huntingdon in 1544, and three years later Lord Hastings was knighted at the coronation of Edward VI. In 1548 he spent a brief period at Queens' College, Cambridge, profoundly influenced by the evangelical protestantism he encountered at court and at the university. During the reign of Edward VI the second earl of Huntingdon threw in his lot with the duke of Northumberland, sealing the alliance with the marriage of his eldest son to Katherine Dudley [see Hastings, Katherine, countess of Huntingdon (1538–1620)], the duke's youngest daughter, on 25 May 1553. Both Huntingdon and Lord Hastings backed Northumberland in his attempt to divert the succession in favour of Lady Jane Grey in July 1553, and on Mary Tudor's triumph they found themselves imprisoned for a time in the Tower.

In the Marian period the countess of Huntingdon used her family connections to rehabilitate her husband and son. Having granted a free pardon to Lord Hastings in November 1553, the following year, out of devotion to her godmother, the countess of Salisbury, Mary restored the lands of Henry Pole, Lord Montagu, to his coheirs Katherine and Winifred Pole. In his turn, Reginald, Cardinal Pole, responded with great eagerness to the overtures of his nearest surviving relative, and soon after his arrival in England he congratulated his niece on the accomplishments God had disposed upon her eldest son. In 1555 he took Lord Hastings with him briefly to Calais and later encouraged him to translate Osorius's De nobilitate. Hastings was also a member of King Philip's English household.

The deaths of both Mary and Pole in November 1558 brought a further change in the family fortunes. Together with the second earl, Lord Hastings received a summons to the Lords in the first parliament of Elizabeth, and attended assiduously, being present (among much else) at the passage of the Acts of Supremacy and Uniformity in the spring of 1559. The second earl of Huntingdon, who had been unwell for some years, died prematurely in June 1560, and Hastings acceded to the title at the age of twenty-four. He thus assumed responsibility for his widowed mother and his ten brothers and sisters, only two of whom, his eldest brother, George, and his eldest sister, Katherine, had gained their inheritance in their father's lifetime.

With his humanist education, experience of court life, and a brother-in-law, Robert Dudley, high in the new queen's favour, Huntingdon might well have expected early advancement. However, he soon discovered that his Yorkist ancestry barred his way. When Elizabeth fell ill with the smallpox in October 1562, the protestant group put him forward as a potential successor and, though he subsequently did all in his power to convince her of his loyalty, the queen proved very slow thereafter to employ him outside his native county of Leicestershire.

On the eclipse of the Grey family in the second half of the sixteenth century, Leicestershire became a Hastings fiefdom governed by Huntingdon from Ashby-de-la-Zouch. He was assisted by his four brothers, Sir George at Loughborough and then Castle Donington, Sir Edward at Leicester Abbey, Sir Francis Hastings at Market Bosworth, and Walter at Kirby Muxloe. From the first, Huntingdon gave priority to the religious complexion of the county. Within months of his father's death he brought the Genevan exile Anthony Gilby to be his chaplain at Ashby-de-la-Zouch, and helped finance the ministry of William Whittingham and other itinerant preachers in the county. Subsequently he provided Thomas Sampson with the mastership of Wyggeston's Hospital after his deprivation in 1565 from the deanery of Christ Church, Oxford, for his nonconformity at the time of the vestiarian controversy. Huntingdon engineered the appointment of a civic lecturer at Leicester as early as 1562, and established or re-established protestant grammar schools at both Ashby and Leicester. He always retained this interest in education, settling his four best livings in Leicestershire and Somerset upon Emmanuel College, Cambridge, soon after its foundation in 1584. It was also during this period that he began the patronage of protestant writers which he continued for the remainder of his life.

The flight of Mary Stuart to England in the spring of 1568 caused Elizabeth to see Huntingdon's birth in a somewhat different light. On the disclosure of plans for Mary's marriage to the duke of Norfolk, the queen, considering the earl of Shrewsbury too lenient a gaoler, to Mary's great indignation named Huntingdon as her joint custodian. For three months during the northern uprising in the autumn of 1569, Shrewsbury and Huntingdon shared the guardianship of the Scottish queen, first at Tutbury and then at Coventry, until, the crisis over, Elizabeth restored Mary to Shrewsbury's sole care in January 1570. Throughout this period Huntingdon corresponded with Cecil almost daily, and in the process secured an important new advocate at court. Elizabeth formally recognized his service by creating him a knight of the Garter in April 1570 and from this time seems to have regarded him as a suitable recipient for high office.

The rebellion of the earls had demonstrated the ineffectiveness of Sussex as president of the council in the north, and in a deliberate attempt to strengthen the control of the central government over the region, in the autumn of 1572 the queen appointed Huntingdon as Sussex's replacement. With jurisdiction in civil matters over Yorkshire, co. Durham, Northumberland, Westmorland, and Cumberland, and in ecclesiastical affairs throughout the northern province which extended additionally to Lancashire, Cheshire, and Nottinghamshire, the promotion at a stroke transformed Huntingdon into the most powerful royal official in the whole of northern England. At the start his fellow councillors considered him to be very inexperienced, but within a short time Grindal was commenting upon the way in which his office had 'made manifest to many those excellent virtues and good gifts which afore were in a manner hid in him' (Nicholson, 355). Since Northumberland's execution had taken place in York only three months previously, Huntingdon's first priority was the restoration of good government in the region. With the earls of Northumberland, Westmorland, and Cumberland broken or confined to the south, he worked incessantly to fill the power vacuum with loyal northern gentlemen. As cases of land rights had contributed to the restiveness of the commons earlier in the century, Huntingdon now used the conciliatory services of the council in the north to resolve conflicts between landlords and tenants and to arbitrate in trading disputes among rival northern towns.

Throughout the period the north of England stood as a buffer zone against Scotland, still in a highly volatile state after Mary's flight. As soon as he arrived in York, Huntingdon added his weight in support of the protestant regent, Morton, subsequently acting as the chief government negotiator when border raids threatened to disrupt the peace. When, after Morton's fall, the young James VI began to take power into his own hands, Huntingdon did his best to maintain the previously good relations between the two countries. With the office of lord lieutenant permanently annexed to his presidency from 1580, as fears of a Spanish invasion were intensifying in July 1586 he obtained with Lord Eure a defence pact with Scotland. Assigned supreme control over all the forces in the north at the time of the Armada, Huntingdon moved to Newcastle in the autumn of 1588 to secure the border in the event of invasion. Even after the threat from Spain had diminished, and James had become a pensioner of the English crown, he continued building up northern resources to withstand any fresh onslaughts from Spain.

As an administrator, diplomat, and military commander Huntingdon considered himself an instrument of central government. He was at times almost obsessively anxious to fulfil to the letter the commands of the queen and the privy council, but in the sphere of religion he never felt any hesitation about seizing the initiative. After the papal excommunication of Elizabeth in 1570 he, like Cecil, equated Catholicism with disloyalty to the state. From the beginning of his presidency he launched a campaign to bring the north to religious conformity. During his first decade in office he used the northern high commission to try to overawe conservative gentry and townspeople, and after the passing of the penal laws from 1581 preferred the more stringent penalties obtainable in the secular courts. Over and above those seminary priests dispatched for trial in the south, between 1582 and 1595 thirty priests and eight lay people were sentenced to death at York; most of them had previously appeared for a preliminary examination before the president and council in the north.

Alongside Huntingdon's unrelenting attack on Catholicism went his self-imposed mission to promote protestantism. Sir Francis Hastings maintained with little exaggeration that his brother 'never sett a straying foote in anye place where hee did not labor at the leaste to settle the preachinge of the word to the people' (Cross, Letters, 59). In 1575 he sided with William Whittingham, then dean of Durham, when Archbishop Sandys was questioning the validity of his ordination in a protestant church abroad; in 1579 he began pressing for the appointment of a civic lecturer in York, with which the corporation reluctantly complied in 1582; and he encouraged the town of Newcastle to invite John Udall to serve as town preacher after his silencing at Kingston upon Thames. He furthered preaching exercises throughout the north and, though he owned no direct patronage in the region, still contrived to place evangelical protestants in strategic town livings such as Leeds, Guiseley, Hull, and Halifax and used his best efforts to encourage 'the well plantinge of the gospell in Manchester' (CUL, Add. MS 17, fol. 38v).

This absorption with the government of the north exacted a heavy price. Almost as soon as he succeeded to the title, Huntingdon began making inroads into his inheritance, perhaps raising as much as £100,000 from land sales by the time of his death. His obligations towards his mother and his brothers and sisters accounted for his indebtedness in his early years, and an unwise investment in copperas mines at Canford in Dorset and ensuing lawsuits subsequently made his situation worse; but there seems little doubt that royal service in the last instance caused the financial chaos from which the family never fully recovered. Huntingdon himself claimed in 1587 that since he had become president he had spent 'more than her majesty's allowance above 20,000 li.' (Salisbury MSS, 3.275). Despite commissioning Sir Francis Hastings from 1583 to supervise his estates in the south-west, he succeeded only in stalling these debts.

Having gone north to Newcastle to oversee the musters in the autumn of 1595, Huntingdon planned to join his wife at court for Christmas and to use the opportunity to reorder his finances. On his return to York in late November, however, he fell ill with a fever and died there, much mourned, on 14 December 1595. As he had tried to set an example of protestant commitment all his adult life, so at the end he strove to achieve a Calvinist death. At court Elizabeth went out of her way to comfort his distraught widow, though she did little to mitigate the debts. Childless, Huntingdon had educated Francis Hastings, the eldest son of his brother Sir George Hastings, as his heir, sending him for a time to Geneva. Francis's ten-year-old son Henry was being brought up in his great-uncle's household at York in 1595. Since his brother had died intestate, George, fourth earl of Huntingdon, tried to avoid taking up the administration of his estate, but the queen insisted upon Huntingdon's being given a funeral commensurate with his rank, and he was buried with his nephew, Francis, who had outlived him by three days, at St Helen's Church, Ashby-de-la-Zouch, on 26 April 1596. A portrait of Huntingdon in armour dated 1588 now hangs in the Tower.


  • Hunt. L., Hastings papers
  • TNA: PRO, chancery proceedings C 2 and C 3
  • TNA: PRO, chancery close rolls, C 54
  • patent rolls, TNA: PRO, C 66
  • TNA: PRO, state papers SP 10, 11, 12, 15, 19, 38, 39, 52, 59
  • TNA: PRO, STAC 5
  • TNA: PRO, E 150/1158/12
  • BL, Add. MSS
  • BL, Cotton MSS, Caligula
  • BL, Cotton MSS, Titus
  • BL, Egerton MSS
  • BL, Harleian MSS
  • BL, Lansdowne MSS
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  • portfolio of letters, Leicestershire Archives Office, 20 D 52
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  • Borth. Inst., high commission act books 1–12
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  • The letters of Sir Francis Hastings, 1574–1609, ed. C. Cross, Somerset RS, 69 (1969)
  • C. Cross, ‘The third earl of Huntingdon's death-bed: a Calvinist example of the ars moriendi’, Northern History, 21 (1985), 80–107
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  • CSP dom., 1547–97; addenda, 1566–79; addenda, 1580–1625
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  • R. R. Reid, The king's council in the north (1921)
  • parish register, Ashby-de-la-Zouch


  • BL, corresp. and MSS, Add. MSS 5458, 5752, 6113, 6167, 6672, 12507, 19188, 21432, 27632, 29546, 33207, 33594, 34218, 34889, 38113, 38141, 39117, 41178, 45866, 48099, 66575
  • Hatfield House, Hertfordshire, corresp. and MSS
  • Hunt. L., letter-book and MSS
  • TNA: PRO, MSS, Chancery proceedings C 2 and C 3
  • TNA: PRO, MSS, close rolls C 54
  • TNA: PRO, MSS, patent rolls C 66
  • TNA: PRO, MSS, state papers SP 10, 11, 12, 15, 19, 38, 39, 52, 59
  • BL, Cotton MSS, Caligula C 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 7, 8, D 2; Nero B 6; Vespasian F 12, 13; Titus B 3 8, F 3 13
  • BL, Egerton MSS 1694, 2642, 2644, 2790, 2986, 3052
  • BL, Harley MSS 36, 254, 260, 289, 304, 416, 433, 465, 787, 807, 851, 1074, 1088, 1155, 1160, 1196, 1393, 1394, 1529, 1576, 1951, 1985, 3881, 4199, 4698, 4774, 4849, 4990, 6124, 6991, 6992, 6994–6999, 7031, 7033, 7035, 7042, 7177
  • BL, Lansdowne MSS 2, 7, 16–19, 20, 22, 24, 27, 30–33, 38, 40, 42–44, 46, 49, 52, 53, 57, 63, 67, 68, 73, 76–79, 82–87, 99, 101, 102, 107–109, 155, 156, 162, 229, 256, 260, 775, 860, 863, 978


  • oils, 1588, royal armouries, Tower of London [see illus.]
  • M. Gheeraerts senior, group portrait, etching (Procession of Garter Knights, 1576), BM
  • oils, NPG
  • portrait (posthumous), Leicester Guildhall

Wealth at Death

many thousands of pounds in debt: Cross, Puritan earl, 306–4

Camden Society
Borthwick Institute of Historical Research, University of York
J. Bain, W. K. Boyd, & others, eds., , 13 vols. in 14 (1898–1969)
W. B. Turnbull & others, eds., (1861–1950)
College of Arms, London
Huntington Library, San Marino, California
Cambridge University Library
Bodleian Library, Oxford
Historical Manuscripts Commission
National Archives of the United Kingdom, Public Record Office, London
G. A. Bergenroth, P. De Gayangos, & others, eds., , 13 vols., PRO (1862–1954); M. A. S. Hume, ed., , 4 vols., PRO (1892–9); repr. (1971)