SHORT drive from Nottingham, with its busy streets and factories, brings us to a scene of tranquillity, in striking contrast to the whirl and hurry of the prosperous county town. 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 Great Hall of Wollaton Hall as pictured in the late 19th century.
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. Hugh Willoughby, his third son, was a daring Arctic explorer, and commanded the Bona Esperanza in an expedition in 1553 to discover the North-East Passage to Cathay. It was a scene of wild excitement at Greenwich when the ship, with three others, started on its perilous voyage. Members of the Privy Council went to see it off, and great hopes were entertained of the success of the gallant and adventurous mariners. Unhappily the vessels met with storms off the coast of Spitzbergen, and the Bona Esperanza was driven into a river or haven, called Arzina, in Lapland. Unable to withstand the rigours of the winter, the whole party perished, and the body of Sir Hugh was discovered in a chair, where he had evidently been frozen to death, with his will and the ship’s log-book before him.
On the death of Sir Henry’s eldest son without issue the estate came to Henry, heir of Edward, the second son.
This representative of the great family met with his death in the suppression of Ket’s Rebellion, one of those curious revolutionary movements in the reign of Edward VI. His wife, Anna, sister of Henry Grey, Duke of Suffolk, was left with two sons—Thomas, aged eight, and Francis. The former died, and Wollaton therefore passed to Francis, who was the builder of the palatial dwelling already referred to.
In the publications of the Historical Manuscripts Commission there are several references to Sir Francis. In July, 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. But his great work was the building of his magnificent house, which remains a noble monument to his own excellent taste, and the wealth of his family.
He had two wives, the first of whom was Elizabeth, daughter of Mr. John Littleton, and the second, Dorothy, relict of John Tamworth. By the first he had four daughters, and their claims, 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 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.
His eldest son, Sir Francis, succeeded to the estates. He was a soldier, and served in the Low Countries, where he lost large sums of money, and his son met his death. He took part in the expeditions to Cadiz, Rhe, and Rochelle, and there is a letter in the State Papers from William Weld, describing a quarrel between a Sir Francis and Sir Lucius Cary. He died in 1665, in the seventy-sixth year of his age, and was succeeded by his son Francis, the celebrated naturalist. His heir, also named Francis, was created a baronet in 1677, with remainder to his brother, Sir Thomas, who, having represented the county in Parliament, was created Baron Middleton of Middleton, in the county of Warwick, in 1711. From him the present noble owner, the ninth Baron, is descended.
Lenton Priory font dates from the mid-12th century.
In immediate proximity to Wollaton is Lenton, where William Peverel, in the reign of Henry I., founded and endowed a Cluniac Priory, the story of which, from its creation to its dissolution, is well told in the recently published history of the parish by Mr. John T. Godfrey.
Arnold and Bestwood, now busy centres of industry, in equally close proximity to Nottingham, were once within the bounds of Sherwood Forest; but the merry horn of the hunter sounding through the woodland glades as he pursued his quarry has given place to the shriek of the locomotive whistle and the rattle of the hosiery frames. The two parishes have become suburbs of the great town but notwithstanding all the changes that have taken place, there is still the ancient parish church of Arnold, with its architectural antiquities, to link us with the past. At the time when this was built, in the Early English style about 1270, the family of Arnehall, or Arnold, had risen into considerable prominence, for in 1278 Ralph de Arnehall was created a knight by Edward I.
Other owners of property at Arnold in early days were the Earls of Hereford, Margaret, wife of Sir Thomas Rempstone, Sir Nicholas de Strelley, John Foljambe, and Ralph, Lord Cromwell, the famous Treasurer to Henry VI. In the time of Edward VI. the Duke of Clarence was lord of the manor, which then passed to the family of Hastings.
Mid-14th century Easter Sepulchre.
The chancel of the church was erected in the fourteenth century, when the Earls of Hereford were in possession of the property. In it are the remains of an Easter sepulchre—one of the few stone constructions of the kind to be found in the country. There are no figures or ornaments left here, but an account dated July 4, 1470, containing details of materials for making a similar construction at St. Mary Redcliffe, will give an idea of what was generally represented: ‘Item. Hell made of timber, and ironwork thereto, with the Divels to the number of 13; item, 4 armed knights, keeping the sepulchre with their weapons in their hands, that is to say two axes, and two spears with two paves.’ There are also in the church the founder’s tomb, a splendid triple sedilia and a double piscina.
Adjoining the village of Arnold is Bestwood Park, the beautiful residence of the Duke of St. Albans. In an inquisition taken at St. John’s House at Nottingham, in 1281, before Geoffrey Langley, Justice of the Forest, it is described as ‘a park of our Lord the King, wherein no man commons.’ The Plantagenets were fond of resorting here to enjoy the pleasures of the chase, and it was at Bestwood that Richard III. heard of the approach of his rival, Henry Tudor. Thoroton speaks of the park as having ‘a very fair lodge in it,’ which had been in the possession of three Earls of Rutland, and before that of Thomas Markham, one of Queen Elizabeth’s courtiers, and of Sir John Byron—a favourite of King Henry VIII. In the historian’s time it was in lease to William Lord Willoughby of Parham.
At the period when the keepership of Bestwood passed to Roger, Earl of Rutland, the park abounded with deer, for, writing to the Earl in 1607, John Woods and Lancelot Rolleston say: ‘We find that there are in the park at least three hundred fallow-deer, and four-and-twenty red deer.’ A subsequent account of the property shows that in 1650 the hall was built of wood, lime, and plaster, and covered with slate and tile, and contained thirty-eight rooms. The park was enclosed, and contained about 3,000 acres, of which 100 acres were tilled, and the rest was in pasture, in the occupation of William Willoughby, Esq.
Bestwood Lodge in the late 19th century.
In 1683 Charles II., by letters patent, granted Bestwood to Charles Beauclerk, first Duke of St. Albans. This noble family has done much to improve it and make it worthy to rank as one of the stately homes of England. In 1885 Bestwood Lodge was completed, under the direction of the present Duke, and is a fine specimen of domestic architecture in the style of the fifteenth century. Among royal visitors entertained by his Grace were the Prince and Princess of Wales on the occasion of the opening of Nottingham Castle Museum in 1878, and the late Duke of Albany, who opened the University College. In the park is erected a beautiful little church, in which lie the remains of the late Duchess, to whom there is a memorial, and a marble medallion carved by the Princess Louise. The Duke is Lord-Lieutenant of Nottinghamshire, and takes a lively interest in philanthropic and deserving institutions, both in the county town and the district surrounding it.