A brief history of the Willoughby family and Birdsall House
The Willoughby family traces its descent back to Ralph Bugge, a Nottinghamshire merchant of Saxon Origin, who bought lands in Willoughby-on-the-Wolds in the thirteenth century. The family thereafter took its name from the village. In subsequent years other land and properties were acquired, importantly at Wollaton and Cossall in Nottinghamshire during the fourteenth century, and then at Middleton in Warwickshire during the fifteenth century.
In 1580 a direct family ancestor, Sir Francis Willoughby (1546-1596), commissioned a new and highly impressive family seat on land owned by the family at Wollaton. He employed the renowned architect Robert Smythson to design Wollaton Hall which was completed in 1588 at a cost of £8,000, a vast sum at the time. Sir Francis had no sons, and the estate and resultant crippling debts passed to his daughter and son-in-law Sir Percival Willoughby.
Sir Percival’s grandson, a subsequent Francis Willoughby, was a famous naturalist and very early member of The Royal Society during the reign of King Charles II. He identified and catalogued hundreds of species of plants and animals throughout Europe 200 years before Darwin. After his death his son, also Francis Willoughby, was made a baronet in recognition of his father’s contribution to the natural world.
In 1719 Thomas Willoughby, the younger son of 1st Lord Middleton, was travelling over the Yorkshire Wolds from Nottingham when he lost his way in a snowstorm. He followed a light he saw in the distance which led him to Birdsall House where the owners, the Sotheby family, gave Thomas refuge for the night. Thomas fell in love with the Sotheby’s only daughter and heiress, Elizabeth, and they married soon after. It is as a result of this marriage that the Willoughby family came to live at Birdsall.
Henry Willoughby, Thomas and Elizabeth’s son, lived at Birdsall following the death of his parents. In 1781 he inherited the Middleton title from his cousin who had no sons of his own. Along with the title, (5th Baron Middleton), Henry inherited the properties of Middleton Hall and Wollaton Hall and so the three estates were brought together. The three properties were run simultaneously until 1923 when Wollaton Hall and Middleton Hall were sold by the 11th Lord Middleton to pay off double death duties. Since 1923 the Willoughby family have lived solely at Birdsall House.
The history of Birdsall House
Birdsall House sits attractively in its private valley on the edge of the Wolds. Pevsner writes of the West Front that ‘from the lake it looks like a great palace.’
The ground that Birdsall House was built on was originally a monastic site up to King Henry VIII’s dissolution of the monasteries in 1540. The Sotheby family acquired the land from the church and built the original small Tudor Birdsall House. The original five bays windows and central door of this house form the Long Hall of the present day Birdsall House. Since then many changes have been made.
In 1729 Thomas and Elizabeth Willoughby set about remodelling the house to convert the original Tudor house into a larger stone Georgian building which forms the main block of the present day house. In 1776 a new south west wing was added by Thomas and Elizabeth’s son, Henry, 5th Lord Middleton. This contained The Ballroom and The Oval Room which were used by the family for entertaining.
In 1873 Henry, 8th Lord Middleton employed the renown Victorian architect Anthony Salvin, a pupil of Nash, to extend the house again. Salvin added a matching wing to the Georgian wing on the other side of the house (now The Dining Room) as well as adding a further, higher, storey to the main block of the house and a Valet’s wing on the far side of the house. Salvin also remodelled the interiors, including the entrance Long Hall which was originally two rooms. The handsome stone fireplaces of 1873 in the Long Hall are in Jacobean style, as is the House’s main staircase. The furniture and paintings in the house have been commissioned and collected throughout the ages by members of the family from all over the globe. Birdsall House was the first house in England to have a private gas system installed.
The majestic grounds have also seen considerable changes since Thomas Knowlton drew up plans in 1730, and his two lakes remain, another and larger lake being created some thirty years later. The road to the east was diverted away from the house in a great arc around the grounds. This enabled the old church, with its Norman chancel arch and 14th century archades, to be incorporated as a picturesque ruin, and a large new church was built in parkland to the north of the house in 1823-4.