Out of Time: Sir Francis Willoughby and the Construction of Wollaton Hall

Words: George White
Illustrations: Natalie Owen
Monday 31 January 2022
reading time: min, words

Wollaton Hall has been a centrepiece of the Nottingham landscape for just under five centuries, proudly overlooking the city from the summit of its glorious grounds. We take a look at the unique life of Sir Francis Willoughby, a controversial yet influential figure who paid for the construction of the iconic mansion back in 1580...


Everyone knows Wollaton Hall. Many have probably been inside the iconic building at some point or another. But fewer are aware of the fascinating, volatile life story of Sir Francis Willoughby, the Tudor man of means who oversaw the construction of the building way back in the sixteenth century. Coming from an ancient Nottinghamshire family of considerable wealth, Willoughby overcame significant troubles in his early years to erect the stunning building in Wollaton Park that we see today - a decision that would lead him to near bankruptcy, and one that followed a fractious, abusive relationship that was dubbed the “most explosive marriage in the Elizabethan period” by historian Jorge H. Castelli. 

Born in Wollaton in 1546 as the second son of Sir Henry Willoughby and Anne Grey, Francis was the descendant of Nottingham’s Ralph Bugge, a self-made merchant who purchased large sections of land in Willoughby-on-the-Wolds back in the thirteenth century. From an early age, Francis suffered serious anguish, with his mother dying shortly after his birth and his father, who at that point had only recently inherited the Wollaton estate, perishing a couple of years later during a battle in Kett's Rebellion. 

Henry’s death caused disarray throughout the Willoughby family, not least for Francis, who was sent down to Essex to be looked after by his uncle, George Medley. Just five years later, Francis’ brother, Thomas, also died after suffering heat exhaustion while out hunting, making Francis the sole heir to the Wollaton Estate at just thirteen years of age. 

By 1564, the young Willoughby had inherited not only the grand grounds of Wollaton, but also several coal mines across the country - and at just eighteen he was given the chance to elevate his status in society even further. After spending five years as the ward to Sir Francis Knollys, a close confidante of Henry VIII, Edward VI and Elizabeth I, he was offered the hand of Sir Francis’ daughter, Elizabeth Knollys - who eventually served as a Maid of Honour to Queen Elizabeth I.

While Willoughby’s personal life was dominated by an explosive relationship, his mark on Nottingham remains vivid - with Wollaton Hall still looming over the city five centuries later

However, in an unexpected turn of events, Willoughby instead married another Elizabeth, the daughter of his neighbour John Littleton of Frankley. Once Sheriff of Worcestershire, Littleton had extensive power in the county, and this wedding was seen as a matter of convenience - a seemingly inexpensive move from Francis to strengthen the hand of the most influential families in the Midlands. 

The marriage was supported by many of those closest to Francis, including Sir Robert Dudley, the Earl of Leicester and favourite of Elizabeth I. Yet others strongly disapproved, including Francis’ own sister Margaret, who spoke of her distrust of John Littleton. Despite these objections, the pair wed in 1564 - but the relationship quickly deteriorated. Margaret’s concerns over the Littleton family proved warranted, with John gradually undercutting a financial agreement that had been struck between the pair. This angered Francis, who had become used to living a life of power and luxury, and he believed John’s actions threatened to undermine his status. According to Castelli, Francis began “treating his wife harshly” as a result of the betrayal, causing strains in the relationship. 

While the couple remained married for fifteen years, having five children in that time, their courtship was hardly one built on love and trust. Rather, the pair had an extremely hostile relationship, with Francis’ behaviour becoming increasingly toxic over time. In the words of historian Kate Merson, “At one point Sir Francis confined Elizabeth to certain rooms in the house and took away all her rights in the care of their children.”

After a couple of “violent clashes” in 1578 and 1579, the couple finally parted ways. Shortly after, in 1580, Francis turned his attention to the development of a grand modern residence on the grounds of Wollaton, with the hopes of encouraging Queen Elizabeth I to come and stay. Willoughby called on the services of architect Robert Smythson, who also designed Hardwick Hall and Burton Agnes Hall, to oversee the works. Yet it is believed that Francis himself played a key role in the aesthetics of the building, which has been described as “advanced Elizabethan with early Jacobean elements”, ensuring the Hall boasted the ornate decorative style that it still has today. 

Willoughby’s commitment to making the Hall a residence fit for royalty proved vastly expensive, forcing him to take up various high-ranking positions across the Midlands

However, the sheer scale and intricate nature of the developments came at a dear price for Francis, whose revenues from coal mining operations were beginning to decline. Willoughby’s commitment to making the Hall a residence fit for royalty proved vastly expensive, forcing him to take up various high-ranking positions across the Midlands, including justice of the peace throughout the 1580s and High Sheriff of Nottinghamshire in 1588. 

After eight years, the Hall was finally completed and - following repeated requests to get back together - Francis restarted his relationship with Elizabeth Littleton. This was more a matter of “expediency”, according to Castelli, as Willoughby required support in furnishing the building and entertaining the upper classes in style. Upon returning to Wollaton, though, Elizabeth’s health quickly deteriorated, an issue that wasn’t helped by Francis’ continuously wicked behaviour, and she died in 1594, with Francis himself passing away just two years later. 

While Willoughby’s personal life was dominated by harmful behaviour and an explosive relationship, his mark on Nottingham remains vivid - with the grand presence of Wollaton Hall still looming over the city five centuries later. Since then, the mansion has become home to everyone from George the Gorilla to Christian Bale’s Batman, and visitors can still find an acknowledgement of its initial creator inside, with ‘En has Francisici Willoughbaei aedes rara Arte extructas Willoughbaeis relictas. Inchoatae MDLXXX— MDLXXXVIII’ - a nod to the influence of Sir Francis Willoughby - inscribed for all to see.

We have a favour to ask

LeftLion is Nottingham’s meeting point for information about what’s going on in our city, from the established organisations to the grassroots. We want to keep what we do free to all to access, but increasingly we are relying on revenue from our readers to continue. Can you spare a few quid each month to support us?

Support LeftLion

Please note, we migrated all recently used accounts to the new site, but you will need to request a password reset

Sign in using

Or using your

Forgot password?

Register an account

Password must be at least 8 characters long, have 1 uppercase, 1 lowercase, 1 number and 1 special character.

Forgotten your password?

Reset your password?

Password must be at least 8 characters long, have 1 uppercase, 1 lowercase, 1 number and 1 special character.