Henry Hastings, the Wodwo of Dorset

Having taken us to pubs inside trees and vice versa, Jonathan visits the wild man of 17th Century Dorset…

His house was perfectly of the old fashion, in the midst of a large park, well stocked with deer; and near the house, rabbits for his kitchen; many fish ponds; great stores of wood and timber …

So Anthony Ashley Cooper, later the first Earl of Shaftesbury, begins an account of his visit to Henry Hastings, squire of Woodlands in Dorset, in the year 1638. It’s an unruffled sort of beginning; so Fielding might bring us to the country estate of his Squire Western, or Peacock introduce us to one of his eccentric rural house parties.

But then things get a little strange. What else might you find in this park? Why, obviously

… a banqueting house like a stand, a large one built in a tree …

So Henry Hastings, brother and son to the Earls of Huntingdon, likes to dine in a tree? Shaftesbury doesn’t stop to ponder this quirk but leads us onward, into the main house, where the oddities start to pile up: it becomes clear that our host, the rustic Mr Hastings, Keeper of Christchurch Walk in the New Forest, is another maker of forest rooms, another who likes to mess with our ideas of inside and outside:

The great hall [was] strewed with marrow¬bones, full of hawks, perches, hounds, spaniels, and terriers; the upper side … hung with fox-skins, of this or the last year’s killing; here and there a pole-cat intermixed; gamekeeper’s and hunter’s poles in great abundance … On a great hearth, paved with brick, lay some terriers, and the choicest hounds and spaniels. Seldom but two of the great chairs had litters of cats in them, which were not to be disturbed: he having always three or four attending him at dinner; and a little white stick, of fourteen inches long, lying by his trencher, that he might defend such meat as he had no mind to part with … The windows, which were very large, served for places to lay his arrows, cross-bows, and stone-bows, and such like accoutrements; the corners of the room full of the best chosen hunting and hawking poles … on the tables were hawks’ hoods, bells and such-like; two or three old hats, with their crowns thrust in, so as to hold ten or a dozen eggs … Tables, dice, cards, and boxes … stores of tobacco-pipes …

As described by Shaftesbury, the master of Woodlands seems a fitting genius locus for this rude domain; not just an epitome of the hunting, shooting, and fishing Tory backwoodsman, but a sort of wodwo or Green Man:

He was low, very strong, and very active, of a reddish flaxen hair; his clothes always green cloth, and never worth, when new, five pounds … He lived to be an hundred … but always wrote and read without spectacles, and got on horse-back without help. Until past fourscore, he rode to the death of the stag as well as any.

Shaftesbury, the polished Oxford graduate and future Whig grandee, was clearly both intrigued and appalled by this feral, earthy man and gives a detailed, almost anthropological, account of his habits. Apart from beef, mutton, and oysters – which he consumes twice daily at all seasons – Hastings eats almost nothing that he has not himself caught and killed in the woods. To keep these provisions from the beasts that range the house, they are stashed profanely in his chapel: “the pulpit, as the safest place, was never wanting of a cold chine of beef, venison pasty, gammon of bacon, or great apple pie, with thick crust, extremely baked.”

This is all washed down with a modest, if rather curious, choice of liquors:

He drank a glass or two of wine at meals; very often put syrup of gillyflowers in his sack, and always holding a pint of small beer, which he often stirred with rosemary.

Is it imagination, or is there a hint of wood magic even here? A whiff, perhaps, of Milton’s Comus and his “baneful cup … with fragrant syrups mixed” – potions to delude any unwise virgins found wandering in his forest realm?

Because if Shaftesbury is to be trusted, Hastings’ primitive ways were not limited to his table manners and domestic economy. Any time not spent hunting and fishing, we are told, “he borrowed to caress his neighbours’ wives and daughters, there being not a woman in all his walks, of the degree of a yeoman’s wife, or under, and under the age of forty, but it was her own fault if he was not acquainted with her. This made him very popular; always speaking kindly to the husband, brother or father, who was to boot very welcome to his house.”

A generous policy, no doubt – although these habits seem to have caused the odd complication with the servants:

He was well-natured but soon angry, calling his servants bastards and cuckoldry knaves, in one of which he often spoke the truth to his own knowledge, and sometimes in both, though of the same man.

So did you get that? It seems that our Squire Hastings begets bastards, employs them as servants, and goes on to repeat the cycle by rutting with their wives. At least I think that’s what we’re being told.


Thanks to Shaftesbury’s account, Henry Hastings, the old rascal of the woods, would go on to enjoy a strangely vital afterlife for the next century and beyond (most recently, he appears as “an emblem of English incorrigibility, of bloody-minded, freely fornicating earthiness” in Simon Schama’s Landscape and Memory).

It is not known exactly when Shaftesbury wrote, but it was probably sometime in the 1650s or 60s, when Hastings was quite recently dead. By this time, Shaftesbury had risen to be a great power in the land, riding out successive changes of regime with wary aplomb (he is usually considered the founder of the Whig party that would dominate English politics for the next 100 years). Whether writing under Oliver or in the age of Wren and Congreve, Shaftesbury must have been aware that his subject looked more than ever like a rough sort of throwback – “an original in our age, or rather a copy of our ancient Nobility”. This impression can only have become stronger as his account was published and republished during the 18th century: indeed, it is hard to imagine a figure more foreign to the spirit of the age, with its cult of polished manners and rational improvement.

Then, at the close of the century, things change again with the new taste for the picturesque, the rugged and irregular. When William Gilpin, another New Forest man, comes to write about Hastings in his Remarks on Forest Scenery (1790), the Squire of Woodlands is presented as an object of savage wonder – close kin to the time-blasted oaks and other “splendid remnants of decaying grandeur” that grace the ancient woods.

And so he comes down to us today. The mixed feelings evoked by this wondrous old brute seem to chime with Roger Deakin’s
view that in our blandly suburbanized England “woods … have come to look like the subconscious of the landscape … the guardians of our dreams of greenwood liberty, of our wildwood, feral, childhood selves, of … Just William and his outlaws.” As a potent but ambiguous spirit of misrule, Squire Hastings seems to belong with that contemporary ne’er-do-well Johnny ‘Rooster’ Byron
as much as with Falstaff or Puck.

To come: some writers and their tree houses …

Jonathan Law is a writer and editor of reference books at Market House Books.
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About Author Profile: Jonathan Law

Jonathan Law grew up in Westonzoyland, Somerset. He gained a degree in English from Oxford University and has subsequently followed a career in reference publishing. His books as editor or co-editor include European Culture: A Contemporary Companion (Cassell, 1993), The Cassell Companion to Cinema (1997), The Macmillan Dictionary of Contemporary Phrase and Fable (2002) , Perfect Readings for Weddings (Random House, 2007) and The Methuen Drama Dictionary of the Theatre (2011). Since 2009 he has been a director of Market House Books Ltd. As well as being a regular contributor to The Dabbler, he has also written for the literary quarterly Slightly Foxed. His book The Whartons of Winchendon is published for Kindle by Dabbler Editions. Jonathan lives in Buckinghamshire with his wife and three children.

7 thoughts on “Henry Hastings, the Wodwo of Dorset

  1. Wormstir@gmail.com'
    June 6, 2012 at 20:13

    Fascinating read Jonathan – Hastings puts me in mind of the main character in mark rylances Jerusalem, although I forget his name.

    Regarding gillyflowers, the Internet confuses rather than answers with:

    “any of several scented flowering plants, especially the carnation, or clove pink (Dianthus caryophyllus), stock (Matthiola incana), and wallflower (Cheiranthus cheiri). However, the gillyflower of Chaucer, Spenser, and Shakespeare was the carnation. Other plants that are types of gillyflower are dame’s gillyflower, also known as dame’s violet (Hesperis matronalis); mock gillyflower, also known as soapwort or bouncing bet (Saponaria officinalis); feathered gillyflower, also known as the grass or garden pink (Dianthus plumarius); and sea gillyflower, also known as the thrift or sea pink (Armeria maritima).”

  2. andrewnixon@blueyonder.co.uk'
    June 7, 2012 at 21:23

    In fact JL mentions the character, Worm, Rooster Byron..

  3. Wormstir@gmail.com'
    June 7, 2012 at 21:39

    D’oh! This is what happens when you read a thoroughly well written blogpost on a twitchy little phone screen

  4. Gaw
    June 11, 2012 at 20:45

    Just catching up with this fascinating piece. Hastings sounds an archetype for so many characters in English fantastical fiction – without too much amendation he could be a character from Middle Earth or Wind in the Willows.

    And for some reason an image of the imperishable Robin Page is springing to mind…

    • law@mhbref.com'
      jonathan law
      June 13, 2012 at 11:15

      Robin Page looks more like a human Toby jug with each passing year. I suppose if you were casting Hastings!: The Musical he would be a shoo-in for the lead, with maybe Lord Mandelson in the role of Shaftesbury?

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