Our History Series – Chapter One – Cassandra Willoughby

8th Mar 2024

Our ‘History’ series of blogs will take you through the history of Birdsall House as well as family members with interesting stories. Welcome to article one all about Cassandra Willoughby.

A little background

A little background first: Birdsall village is constructed on an old monastic site. Following the Dissolution of the Monasteries in 1540, the Sotheby family acquired the land from the Church and built a small Tudor house, where they lived for several generations.

In 1719, Thomas Willoughby, a younger son of the 1st Lord Middleton and MP for Cambridge, was travelling over the Yorkshire Wolds from the family home, Wollaton Hall in Nottingham, when he lost his way in a heavy snowstorm. He sought shelter and followed a light he saw in the distance which led him to Birdsall House. The Sotheby’s gave Thomas shelter for the night and introduced him to Elizabeth, their daughter and only child; the pair fell in love, marrying the same year. Birdsall House has been the home of the Willoughby family since 1729 when Thomas and Elizabeth Willoughby inherited the house from Elizabeth’s parents.

Launching our history series on International Women’s Day, it seems fitting to start with Cassandra Willoughby. The world can credit much of our knowledge of life in Elizabethan England to Cassandra, who was meticulous in record keeping and journaling.

Cassandra Willoughby portrait

Cassandra Willoughby at Wollaton Hall

Cassandra was the only daughter of Francis Willoughby, the naturalist, and his wife Emma. Poor Cassandra was only two years old when her father died. She was taught by her father’s friend John Ray until her mother married Sir Josiah Child in 1676. Following the marriage, the family moved to Wanstead in Essex. In 1687, her brother Francis gained control of his own estate from their stepfather. He decided to move into Wollaton Hall, which had lain empty since a fire 1642 and the death of their grandfather in 1643. He asked Cassandra to act as a mistress of Wollaton. She was charged with renovating and running the household. It was also her duty to spend time in the old family library and muniments room among its neglected family papers.

There she sorted and catalogued. She worked with deeds, wills, marriage settlements, legal papers dating back to the 12thcentury, family letters dating back to the 16th and 17th century, copies of orders for running the household from the 16th century, and 16th and 17th century household accounts and inventories. Cassandra then proceeded to collate and copy down some of these materials for the family archives. She also kept her own journal from 1692 to 1718 and wrote poems and essays.

Cassandra produced at least two letter books with copies of outgoing and incoming family correspondence from 1713 to 1735 entitled The History of the Willoughby Family and The Continuation of the History of the Willoughby Family. Today, first hand accounts of life in Elizabethan England are rare. Cassandra’s books give a unique and fascinating insight into the social history of this period.

Marriage and family life

She married James Brydges (1674-1744), M.P and paymaster of the forces. After his first wife died, James was left with two small children in need of a loving mother. They married in 1713 and she moved to her husband’s mansion at Canons in Middlesex. She took over raising his children and oversaw the renovation works there. Cassandra became a countess in 1714, when her husband was raised to the peerage as Earl of Carnarvon. She became a Duchess in 1719 when her husband was created Duke of Chandos.

Cassandra was also great aunt to the novelist Jane Austen. Jane’s mother and sister were named after Cassandra Willoughby in celebration of their link with the ducal family. Austen used names from her extended family for characters in her novels. Next time you read Sense and Sensibility, notice the names of Mr Willoughby and Lord Middleton!

She died on the 17th July 1735 and was buried in the Chandos tomb at Whitchurch, Middlesex.

Would you like to visit Birdsall House for a historic house tour? Find out dates and book onto one here.

Posted in Our history

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