Hans-Francis Hastings

Captain Hans-Francis Hastings, Claiming to Be Earl of Huntingdon

The earldom of Huntingdon was granted by King Henry VIII. to George, Lord Hastings, on the 8th of November 1529. The first peer left five sons, of whom the eldest succeeded to the title on his father's decease; but notwithstanding the multiplicity of heirs-male, and the chances of a prolonged existence, the title lapsed in 1789, on the death of Francis, the tenth earl, who never was married.

In 1817, there was living at Enniskillen, in Ireland, an ordnance store-keeper called Captain Hans-Francis Hastings, and this gentleman there made the acquaintance of a solicitor named Mr. Nugent Bell, who, like himself, was ardently devoted to field-sports. The friendship subsisting between the pair was of the closest kind; and it having been whispered about that the captain had made a sort of side-claim to the earldom of Huntingdon, Mr. Bell questioned him about the truth of the rumour. As it turned out, the circumstantial part of the story was totally false; but it nevertheless was a fact that Captain Hastings had a faint idea that he had some right to the dormant peerage. However, as he said himself, he had been sent early to sea, had been long absent from his native country, and had little really valuable information as to his family history. He said that his uncle, the Rev. Theophilus Hastings, rector of Great and Little Leke, had always endeavoured to impress upon him that he was the undoubted heir to the title, and that fourteen years previously he had himself so far entertained the notion as to pay a visit to College of Arms in London, to learn the proper steps to be taken to establish his claim; but that when he was told that the cost of the process would be at least three thousand guineas, he abandoned all notion of legal proceedings, which were simply impossible because of his scanty resources. Mrs. Hastings, who was present during the conversation, contributed all that she knew respecting the whimsical old clergyman who had so carefully instructed his nephew to consider himself a peer in prospective, and particularly pointed out that the old gentleman entertained an irreconcileable hatred of the Marquis of Hastings. It seemed also that some time after the last earl's death, the Rev. Mr. Hastings had assumed the title of Earl of Huntingdon, and that a stone pillar had been erected in front of the parsonage-house at Leke, on which there was a metal plate bearing a Latin inscription, to the effect that he was the eleventh Earl of Huntingdon, godson of Theophilus the ninth earl, and entitled to the earldom by descent.

These reminiscences and suspicions could not have been poured into more attentive ears. Mr. Bell had long been a student of heraldry, and saw an opportunity not only of benefiting his friend, but of signalizing himself. Accordingly he undertook to investigate the matter, and offered, in the event of failure, to bear the whole of the attendant expense, simply premising that, if he succeeded, he should be recouped. On the 1st of July a letter passed between Captain Hastings and Mr. Bell, which shows the sentiments of both parties. This is it:—

My dear Bell , — I will pay you all costs in case you succeed in proving me the legal heir to the Earldom of Huntingdon. If not, the risk is your own; and I certainly will not be answerable for any expense you may incur in the course of the investigation. But I pledge myself to assist you by letters, and whatever information I can collect, to the utmost of my power; and remain very sincerely yours,

"F. Hastings.
               Nugent Bell, Esq."

On the back of this letter Captain Hastings wrote:

"By all that's good, you are mad."

On the 17th of August Mr. Bell sailed for England, and proceeded to Castle Donnington, where he had a very unsatisfactory interview with a solicitor named Dalby, who had long been in the employment of the Hastings family. Bit by bit, however, he picked up information, and every addition seemed to render the claim of the Enniskillen captain stronger, until at last Bell drew up a case which met the unqualified approval of Sir Samuel Romilly, who said, "I do not conceive that it will be necessary to employ counsel to prepare the petition which is to be presented to the Prince-Regent. All that it will be requisite to do is to state that the first earl was created by letters-patent to him and the heirs-male of his body; and the fact of the death of the last Earl of Huntingdon having left the petitioner the heir-male of the body of the first earl, surviving him, together with the manner in which he makes out his descent; and to pray that his Royal Highness will be pleased to give directions that a writ of summons should issue to call him up to the House of Lords." A petition was accordingly prepared in this sense, and was submitted to the Attorney-General, Sir Samuel Shepherd, who made the recommendation as suggested. After the Attorney-General's report had received the approbation of the Lord Chancellor, the Prince-Regent signed the royal warrant, and Captain Hastings took his place in the House of Lords as Earl of Huntingdon.