Stately house, part I: Wollaton Hall

Inspired by a recent article about how to fund a British stately home or manor house in modern times, I thought I would write about how this has been handled by my three favorite houses.  First up: Wollaton Hall.

Wollaton Hall, Nottingham

Wollaton Hall was built in Nottingham between 1580 and 1588 for Sir Francis Willoughby.  The building was designed and built by master mason Robert Smythson, who remained in the Willoughby family employ for the rest of his life, settling in Wollaton Village and eventually acting as the bailiff for Sir Francis and his heirs.


The Willoughby's no longer live at Wollaton and have not done so since 1881. The descendents of the original Sir Francis Willoughby now live in Birdsall House in North Yorkshire. 

In fact, Wollaton Hall has not been used as a private residence for much of it's 430 year history.  Upon completion of the new Hall and until his death, Sir Francis remained living at Wollaton Old Hall, using the new building only for special occassions.  His heir and son-in-law preferred the family residence at Middleton.  Another Sir Francis Willoughby, the great-great grandson of the builder decided to live at Wollaton upon receiving the title and inheritance, only to die two years later.  

Much of what we know of the early history of Wollaton can be traced to the writings of this Sir Francis's sister, Cassandra Willoughby, later the Duchess of Chandros.  She lived at Wollaton from 1686 until 1713 and spent her time transcribing documents and writing a family history.

Cassandra and Francis's brother Thomas inherited the estate after Francis' death and was elevated to Baron Middleton in 1711 or 1712.  Eventually, in 1781, Thomas's grandson, Henry, inherited the title of 5th Baron Middleton from his Uncle.  Henry's parents were Thomas Willoughby, younger son of the 1st Baron Middleton and Elizabeth Sotheby of Birdsall Manor in Yorkshire (yes, connected to those Sothebys).  At this point, the Willoughby holdings consisted of  Wollaton Hall, Middleton Hall, in Staffordshire, and Birdsall House.

By 1881, Birdsall was the preferred residence for the Willoughby family and Wollaton Hall remained vacant.  In the 1920s, facing heavy death duties, or inheritance taxes, the 10th Baron agreed to sell the Wollaton estate to Nottingham Corporation.  The sale became final under the auspices of the 11th Baron for the sum of 200,000 pounds.  The following year the Corporation sold off part of the estate to housing developments, keeping the Hall and immediate grounds for public use.

Wollaton Hall, now the Nottingham Natural History Museum

In 1926 Wollaton Hall reopened its doors as a National History Museum and has remained that ever since.  Parts of the building can be toured as a historical building, along side the natural history exhibits.  Builder Sir Francis's great grandson was a well known naturalist, and I think he would have been pleased with this turn of events.  The original Sir Francis? I'm not so sure.  

Elizabethan Great Hall ceiling with dinosaur


When we visited, we shared the space with a special exhibit of the Dinosaurs from China. What would the original builder, that proud and eccentric man, have thought of the huge skeletons of ancient beasts standing in his Great Hall? 




The Willoughby family retains ownership and residence in Birdsall House, which, like others in the original article is available for private hire for weddings and other events.  Middleton Hall was sold in the 1920s as well, first to a private owner and later to a corporation.  It is currently owned by a charitable trust.  Middleton Hall has it's own rich history and is open for visitors and events.

In summary, the Willoughby family is associated with three great houses.  Only one of them is still lived in and privately owned.  All three are open to the public in some manner, whether for private event hire or a general visit.  Stay tuned for the story of Longleat and Hardwick.



Wollaton Hall and the Willoughby Family, by Pamela Marshall, Nottingham Civic Society, 1999

The Middleton Collection at the University of Nottingham, 

Wollaton website

Birdsall House website

Middleton Hall website

About Katherine J. Scott

Welcome to my website and blog. I am a writer and librarian interested in historical fiction. My works in progress include a trilogy about a stonemason from Elizabethan England and a novel loosely based on the Hunt of the Unicorn Tapestries housed at the Cloisters in New York.
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