Sir Francis WILLOUGHBY of Wollaton, Knight

Born: 1546, Wollaton, Nottinghamshire, England

Died: 16 Nov 1596

Father: Henry WILLOUGHBY (Sir Knight)

Mother: Anne GREY

Married 1: Elizabeth LITTLETON (b. ABT 1546 - d. 1594) (dau. of Sir John Littleton and Bridget Pakington) 1564




3. Margaret WILLOUGHBY (B. Spencer of Wormleighton)




7. Winifred WILLOUGHBY






Married 2: Dorothy COLBY


13. Frances WILLOUGHBY

Willoughby,Francis01.jpg (7841 bytes)

Sir Francis Willoughby

Sir Francis Willoughby was a wealthy and powerful member of the gentry in the time of Elizabeth Tudor. Son of Sir Henry Willoughby and Anne Grey, the youngest of three children born to them. His life included many achievements, including coal production, and the most explosive marriage in the Elizabethan period.

Francis came from an ancient Nottinghamshire family whose landholdings included estates in Nottinghamshire, Warwickshire, and Dorset. His great-grandfather, Sir Henry Willoughby, was a Knight of the body under both Henry VII and Henry VIII and served under Thomas Grey, Marquis of Dorset. His great uncle, Hugh Willoughby, died in search of the Northwest Passage in 1553.

Francis’s father, Sir Henry Willoughby, married Anne Grey, daughter of the Marquis of Dorset, sometime prior to 1540 when their first son, Thomas, was born. They then had a daughter, Margaret, and then Francis in 1546. Francis’ mother died shortly after his birth. Francis’ father’s Warwickshire estates brought him into close association with John Dudley, Earl of Warwick. Their relationship was so close that Sir Henry died at Dudley’s side in defense of the crown against Ket's rebells, one of those curious revolutionary movements in the reign of Edward VI in 1549.

The death of their father threw the Willoughby children into a whole new world. Thomas’ wardship was purchased by Henry Grey, Marquis of Dorset and Duke of Suffolk. Henry Grey was also Willoughby’s uncle and Lady Jane Grey’s father.

Francis spent much of his youth on the fringes of a group that included Princess Mary, Lady Jane, and the Dudley boys. He was being trained in courtly ways, and his older sister Margaret was being taught the virtues of being a good court lady. Francis was taught to play the virginals and retained music as a passion in his life, often employing musicians and composers in his home during adulthood.

The attempt to place Lady Jane on the throne left the Willoughbys relatively unscathed. Thomas’ wardship was purchased by Lord Paget, Margaret became a Lady in Waiting to Frances Brandon, Duchess of Suffolk, and Francis was sent to school where he studied music and writing. His life was to be thrown in the air again, however, in 1559 when his brother died suddenly of heat exhaustion while hunting. This elevated Francis to the head of his household, and put his wardship up for sale as he was only thirteen.

Sir Francis Knollys, a longtime friend of the Willoughbys, purchased Francis’ wardship, and Francis’ studies changed to incorporate what a gentleman would need to know to function in the world. Knollys’ position at court meant that Francis had to be in constant attendance on the Queen, including many progresses.

At the age of 18, Francis was offered the hand of Elizabeth Knollys to be his wife. He refused, however, exercising his independence, and his wardship was soon transfered back to the estate. It is not recorded whether or not this was because of his refusal, but future correspondence between Knollys and Willougby seems to indicate that no ill will was felt.

Knollys wrote to John Grey that Francis had been offered the hand of Elizabeth Littleton, the daughter of Sir John Littleton of Frankley (b. 1523 - d. 15 Feb 1590), a one-time Sheriff of Worcestershire and Governor of Deadly Castle. Little is known of Elizabeth’s life before her marriage to Francis Willoughby. Francis was a friend of Sir John’s and viewed the match as a way to consolidate his ties to the great Midland families, because, like himself, Littleton was a follower of the Earl of Warwick and one of Sir Robert Dudley’s ‘country gentlemen’. The marriage offer was simple: Littleton would pay a dowry of £1,500, would buy his daughter’s clothing, and provide residence and six servants for the couple for three years at his house at Frankley. In return, Francis promised a one-third jointure of his estates to Elizabeth, excluding profits from coal mines, but this was renegotiated several times during the marriage. Robert Dudley, a close friend of Francis’, supported the match, as did others.

Not all approved of the match, however. The start of the collapse of this marriage began when Margaret and her husband, Sir Mathew Arundell, denounced John Littleton as untrustworthy. They felt that Francis could forge a better alliance and match at court, and they also felt he was being influenced by untrusted family members. Regardless of this opposition, the couple married in 1564.

Elizabeth Littleton

attributed to George Gower, 1573

The bitterness of Margaret toward Elizabeth was only the first link to break. Sir John Littleton reneged on his dowry agreement which began a huge argument which began a huge argument between Francis and his father-in-law. Francis was obsessed with wealth and status, and any loss was inconceivable to him. He began treating his wife harshly as a result of his argument, and their marriage soon began to crumble. Over the next fifteen years, they still managed to give birth to twelve children, only five of whom survived, all daughters.

The household was further strained by the absence of a mail heir. Francis was unwilling to name an heir and his whole household vied for the opportunity to serve the young lord. It was quite a sizable estate, with Francis taking in nearly £1,000 a year. This put him in the same monetary bracket as much of the peerage, and he soon began constructing a grand home in Wollatonshire.

Francis was always looking for moneymaking schemes and ways to get ahead. He was very concerned with estate development, and was a model for all land owners in managing his properties. He also served in numerous local positions. In Nottinghamshire and Warwickshire, Francis served as a justice of the peace in the 1570's and 1580's, and he also served as High Sheriff of Nottinghamshire in 1574, 1588, and 1593.

In the 1570s the household at Wollaton consisted of 45-50 men but only a handful of women. In 1572, Elizabeth was attended by two gentlewomen, Elizabeth Mering (possibly a relative) and Marjory Garner. There were also two nurses for the children, Mary the fool, and two other women. He was not to receive his knighting until 1575 when the Queen visited his home at Middleton.

Meanwhile, the Willoughby home life was degrading quickly. Relations between husband and wife were antagonistic, and apparently made worse by the interference of servants. Francis became more abusive toward his wife, and restricted her access to the home, relegating her to only her rooms, and not even providing for her or her servants. Elizabeth’s daily life was restricted to raising her five surviving daughters, tending to the household needlework, reading, playing the virginals, and playing cards and conversing with her attendants Elizabeth Mearing and Marjory Garner. Occasionally she would visit her friends at Colwick, Newstead, and Belvoir. Elizabeth also spent time in London with her physician, John Banister, and, at his urging, frequently took the baths at Buxton, an expense that Sir Francis found insupportable.

Unable to deal with Elizabeth, Francis had her confined to specific rooms within the house, and she was forbidden to "discharge or receive any servant" or "stike or evil entreat any servant". Further, she was to submit to the orders of the two household Captains, was barred from the household stores, could make no purchases and had "no authority to command anything in the house except necessary diet for herself". The care of the children was given to their nurse, Joan. In effect, Elizabeth found herself under house arrest.

In 1579, Sir John attempted to persuade Francis to give Elizabeth a separate allowance for her upkeep. Francis turned a deaf ear until Elizabeth threatened to plead her case to the Queen, who finally in 1582, obliged Francis to pay two hundred pounds a year "for Elizabeth’s separate maintenance". Sir Francis’s complaints against his wife included “her disorderly life”, keeping company he disliked, and “reviling him to his face”. He also suspected her of adultery. This seems unlikely to have been true. Sir Francis, however, did father a son born out of wedlock in 1585. 

Her separated state did not sit well with Elizabeth and she pleaded repeatedly with Francis to take her back. Francis did so in 1588, after completion of the new Wollaton Hall. It was a matter of expediency, for Francis needed her to help in the furnishing and entertaining at the new hall. For this reason only, Francis finally gave Elizabeth the authority she desired. However, once again her personality became erratic and her health deteriorated further.

Elizabeth died in 1594, after a life of hardship and misery. Francis remarried, to Dorothy, relict of John Tamworth, and had another daughter before passing away at age 50 in 1596.

In the publications of the Historical Manuscripts Commission there are several references to Sir Francis. In Jul, 1593, he was sent by the Lords of the Council to Sawley to inquire into the misconduct of a Mrs. Williamson, and others, towards the messenger sent from the Council to apprehend the ringleaders of a riot committed in plucking down Sir Thomas Stanhope’s weir at Shelford.

The claims of his daughters of Elizabeth, with that of the widow, involved the family in costly law proceedings. Sir Percival Willoughby of Eresby, married the eldest, Bridget, and thus united the two houses, already related to each other. In the hall of Wollaton are portraits of Sir Percival and his lady, and in the background of Sir Percival’s picture is depicted a ship, with a Latin motto thus rendered, ‘Lost by words, not by winds and waves', which it is surmised relates to the ruinous legal conflict.

Wollaton Hall is one of the stateliest homes of which old England can boast, and the wooded park, where browse the frighted deer, surrounds it with all the beauties of nature, that give to country life its enchantment in both winter and summer. Passing through the entrance at the lodge, the visitor emerges under an avenue of majestic limes three-quarters of a mile in length, and at the extremity stands the hall, described as ‘a combination of elegance and art,’ bearing on its southern front this proud inscription: ‘En has Francisici Willoughbaei aedes rara Arte extructas Willoughbaeis relictas. Inchoatae MDLXXX— MDLXXXVIII.’ It is a crystal palace, combining lightness and grace with imposing stability, and the beauty of its design can best be illustrated by the fact that Sir Joseph Paxton found nothing comparable to it in England, and sent an assistant to obtain models from it for reproduction at Mentmore—Baron Rothschild’s seat.

This splendid Elizabethan mansion, as the inscription testifies, took eight years in its completion, and cost £80,000—an enormous sum in those days. The Ancaster stone used in its construction was supplied in exchange for coal from the pits on the Wollaton estate. The interior of the noble building is no less attractive than its exterior, and its wealth of artistic adornment includes the masterpieces of Giordano, Vandyck, Snyders, Hemskirk, Teniers, Rubens, and others.

The early history of the founders of the family will be found touched upon in a chapter on Willoughby-on-the-Wolds, and we now propose to glance at the noble owners of a later period.

One of the most ancient monuments in the church at Wollaton is that to Richard Willoughby, who died in 1471, and Anne his wife, standing on the north side near the altar. They died without issue, and the property passed to Sir Henry Willoughby, whose memorial speaks of him as ‘dominus de Wollaton’, and who died in 1528.

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