Sir William Hankford

Sir William Hankford

In the Second Part of Henry IV , Shakespeare makes his hero, Prince Hal, behave with splendid generosity to Judge Gascoigne, who had committed him to prison for striking him in open court.

The King says to him:—

How might a prince of my great hopes forget
So great indignities you laid upon me?
What! rate, rebuke, and roughly send to prison
The immediate heir of England! Was this easy?
May this be wash'd in Lethe, and forgotten?

The Chief Justice replies:—

I then did use the person of your father;
The image of his power lay then in me:
And, in the administration of his law,
Whiles I was busy for the commonwealth,
Your highness pleasèd to forget my place,
The majesty and power of law and justice,
The image of the king whom I presented,
And struck me in my very seat of judgment;
Whereon, as an offender to your father,
I gave bold way to my authority,
And did commit you.

Shakespeare makes King Henry V recognize that Gascoigne was in the right.

You are right, justice, and you weigh this well;
Therefore still bear the balance and the sword.

But here Shakespeare has not been true to history. His ideal king was not so generous as he represented him. In fact, directly on his accession Henry displaced Gascoigne from the Chief-Justiceship, and elevated to his place the Devonshire lawyer Sir William Hankford, Knight of the Bath.

Prince, indeed, in his Worthies of Devon , claims that it was Hankford who committed Prince Hal to prison; but this is a mistake, the brave and resolute judge was Sir William Gascoigne, who was displaced, and Sir William Hankford installed as Chief Justice in his room by Henry V eight days after his accession.

Sir William was probably born at Hankford, the ancient seat of the family, in the hamlet of Bulkworthy, a chapel-of-ease to Buckland Brewer. He was made Serjeant-at-law in 1391 in the reign of Richard II, and was advanced to be one of the lords-justices in the Court of Common Pleas in 1397. He was made Knight of the Bath at the coronation of Henry IV, and, as already said, he was called up higher to be Chief Justice by Henry V on his accession to the throne. He retained his office for part of a year under Henry VI, so that he served under four kings. He moved from Hankford, the family seat, to Annery, in the parish of Monkleigh, near Great Torrington, a beautiful spot on the Torridge. Here he had a stately mansion “famous for a large upper gallery, wherein might be placed thirty standing beds, fifteen of a side, and yet not one to be seen there. Nor could you from one bed see another: for this gallery being very long and wainscotted on each hand, there were several doors in it, which led into little alcoves or apartments, well plaistered and whited, large and convenient enough for private lodgings.”

Annery still stands in its beautiful park, but the gallery has disappeared; it was pulled down in the year 1800.

Towards the end of his days Hankford fell into deep fits of depression in retirement at Annery, where, weary of life and despondent at the prospect of the new reign with an infant as king, and with furious rivalries ready to break forth and tear the kingdom to pieces, he was impatient that death might end his troubles.

“On a fit time for the purpose, he called to him the keeper of his park, which adjoined his house at Annery, and charged him with negligence in his office, suffering his deer to be killed and stolen; whereupon he left it in strict charge with him, that he should be more careful in his rounds by night, and that if he met any one in his walk that would not stand and speak, he should shoot him, whoever he was, and that he would discharge him (i.e. free him of blame). This the keeper directly promised, and too faithfully performed. The judge having thus laid the design, meaning to end his doleful days, in a dark tempestuous night, fit for so black an action, secretly conveyed himself out of the house, and walked alone in his park, just in the keeper's way; who being then in his round, hearing somebody coming towards him, demanded, Who was there. No answer being made, he required him to stand; the which when he refused to do, the keeper shot and killed him upon the place: and coming to see who he was, found him to be his master.”

So relates Prince, following Baker's Chronicle , 1643, and Risdon and Westcote. But Sir Richard Baker's account is full of errors: he makes Hankford die in the reign of Edward IV, whereas he died in the same year as Henry V (1422). Prince objects that the story may not be true or only partly true. That Sir William was killed by his keeper is a fact not to be disputed, but that he purposely contrived his own death is very doubtful—it is a conjecture and no more.

Sir William was a liberal and religious man: he built the chapel at Bulkworthy, as well as the Annery Aisle to Monkleigh Church. In this latter he lies interred, and a noble monument was erected over him, with the epitaph: “Hic jacet Willielmus Hankford, Miles, quondam Capitalis Justiciarius Domini Regis de Banco, qui obiit xx die mensis Decembris, Anno Domini MCCCCXXII. Cujus Animae propicietur Deus. Amen.”

He is represented kneeling in his robes alongside of his wife. Out of his mouth proceeds this prayer: “Miserere mei Deus, secundum magnam misericordiam tuam.” A book in his hand is inscribed with “Miserere mei Deus secundum magnam justiciam divinam,” and over his head is “Beati qui custodiunt judicium et faciunt justiciam omni tempore.”