The Willoughbys

The first Barony Willoughby de Eresby was created in 1313 . The family owned estates in North Lincolnshire on the Lindsey coast and in Suffolk. The Willoughby de Eresby family home came to be Grimsthorpe Castle near Bourne in Lincolnshire. It was granted by Henry VIII to the 10th baron Willoughby de Eresby in 1516, when he married one of Queen Catherine of Aragon’s ladies-in-waiting. The North Front is the last work of Sir John Vanbrugh. It was commissioned in 1715 by his friend Robert Bertie, the 16th Baron Willoughby de Eresby, to celebrate his enoblement as the first Duke of Ancaster and Kesteven.

Brandon Mews was named after the Brandon family because they were lords of the manor of Barbican. Willoughby House was similarly named after one of his successors as lord of the Barbican manor. In 1533 Charles Brandon, Duke of Suffolk, owner of “the manor of Basecourt, known as Barbican” married Catherine Willoughby de Eresby (whose pencil portrait by Holbein in 1534 is shown on the left). He died in 1545. (His portrait shortly before his death is shown on the left.) As a result of his death Catherine inherited the Barbican manor.

Catherine then married Richard Bertie. Catherine was baroness of Willoughby de Eresby in her own right (since this was one of the few baronetcies which could be held and inherited through the female line). Both her baronetcy of Willoughby and the lordship of the manor of Barbican ultimately passed to her son, Peregrine Bertie, Lord Willoughby de Eresby (1555 – 1601). His will referred to his Manor as “Willoughby House or Barbican”.

Richard and Catherine Bertie fled England when Mary came to the throne, to escape persecution as Protestants. Catherine had previously given offence to Bishop Gardiner, the new Lord Chancellor, by having a dog carried around in a litter and addressing it as Bishop Gardiner. They had to leave England in disguise and they went to Lower Wesel, in Cleves, where Peregrine Bertie was born in 1555. (He was called Peregrine because he was born in terra peregrina – in a foreign land). A later inscription set up in a Lower Wesel church by the family says he was born in the church porch. They kept ahead of attempts to capture them by moving regularly. When the Catholic interlude ended with Queen Mary’s death, the family returned to England and a patent of naturalisation was obtained for Peregrine. He married Mary, the daughter of the earl of Oxford.

When his mother died in 1580, Peregrine became Lord Willoughby de Eresby. He had married Lady Mary de Vere, daughter of the Earl of Oxford, in 1578. Through this marriage, the Willoughby family became entitled to the hereditary title of Lord Great Chamberlain. He was soon involved in diplomatic work abroad. His first mission in 1582 was to Denmark to invest Frederick II with the Order of the Garter. The Order of the Garter was an Order of Chivalry founded by Edward III, with twenty six knights as its exclusive membership, and the motto Honi Soit Qui Mal Y Pense – Evil be to him who evil thinks. The garter and the motto came about when King Edward’s mistress, the Countess of Salisbury, lost her garter during a royal ball. Edward retrieved it for her and (since English kings spoke French at court in those days) said the equivalent of, “No snide remarks, please”.

Returning to Willoughby’s visit to Denmark, his real task was to persuade Frederick to side with England in its support for the Netherlands who were in rebellion from Spain. He was not successful initially, but he returned in 1585 and Frederick agreed to use his influence to persuade the King of Spain to withdraw from the Netherlands.

Willoughby went on to Flanders (the Netherlands) to fight the Spanish; and in 1586 he succeeded Sir Philip Sidney as governor of Bergen. The Earl of Leicester praised him to Queen Elizabeth for waylaying a large Spanish convoy and taking it by surprise with a small force. He repeated the exploit a few months later at the battle of Zutphen, although Sir Philip Sidney died in the skirmish. He was also involved in taking the town of Axel by a surprise attack.

In 1587, Willoughby was promoted to command the cavalry in Leicester’s army. They had some successes, but none decisive. Leicester was recalled and Willoughby took his place as commander-in-chief of the army. He soon discovered it was a poisoned chalice. The army was soon running low on money, food and clothing for the troops and the English government failed to send money or supplies. The States-General, the rebel government of the Netherlands, were suspicious of English intentions and wouldn’t help either. Willoughby begged unsuccessfully to be recalled. (This was not an age when appointees were allowed to resign or retire unless the sovereign allowed it).

In 1588, England had more immediate problems of her own. Philip of Spain countered the English efforts to destroy his empire in the Netherlands, by sending the Armada to take the war directly to the English. The Armada was to collect the army of the Duke of Parma in the Netherlands and ferry it to the English mainland. Willoughby was ordered to send back two thousand soldiers for the defence of England. Nonetheless, even with his ravaged and now depleted force, he still managed to play an important role in the defeat of the Armada. He captured a Spanish man-of-war which ran aground near Ostend. He closed on the Duke of Parma’s much superior army and used his small naval force to threaten the Duke’s fleet so that it could not risk leaving port to assist the Armada. Later in the year, the Spaniards laid siege to the city of Bergen. But Willoughby with a small force held out until the Spaniards withdrew.

Finally, in 1589, he was allowed to return to England. But his health was broken and he was financially ruined because he had been paying the army’s expenses out of his own pocket. But he was soon sent back to the continent, with a poorly-equipped army of four thousand men, to aid Henry of Navarre at Dieppe. Henry of Navarre (now Henry IV of France) had succeeded the recently assassinated Henry III of France. But he was a Protestant, so the Catholic League had formed to try to depose him. Willoughby played a prominent role in capturing Vendome, Mons, Alencon and Falaise for the King. But he was suffering the usual problems. He received no money from home. He wrote to complain that more of his soldiers died from hunger and cold than from fighting. In 1590, he was allowed to return to England with the remnants of his army. (King Henry solved his problems by declaring himself a Catholic. As he remarked, “Paris is worth a Mass.”) From 1590, Willoughby travelled in Italy and Austria to convalesce (and no doubt to evade further military commissions from the Queen). When he returned in 1596 he appealed to the Earl of Essex to use his influence to have him appointed governor of Berwick-on-Tweed. He must have been living at the family house in the Barbican while he was waiting for a reply, because he sent the government a proposal from there on the best way to defeat any future Spanish invasion. It is preserved in Queen Elizabeth’s papers.

Willoughby’s appointment came through in 1597. The governorship of Berwick-on-Tweed was an important post. Berwick-on-Tweed was the strategic town on the border with Scotland. The governor was responsible for the defences against invasion by the Scots. Willoughby was in regular contact with King James VI of Scotland (the future James I of England). He was clearly a vigorous governor. He restored defences and he took action against pirates. There were many complaints about his severity, but in every case the government in London approved his actions.

But Willoughby’s health finally failed and he died in 1601. His reputation for personal bravery, particularly during the war in the Netherlands, was higher than that of almost any other soldier in an age when brave soldiers were commonplace.

Peregrine’s son, Robert, who had been born in 1582, inherited the Barony, becoming 13th Lord Willoughby de Eresby. His godparents were Queen Elizabeth and the Earls of Essex and Leicester. He spent much time travelling abroad initially for pleasure and eventually in the service of the Queen and then James I.

On one journey, in the company of his brother and John Smith, the founder of Virginia (see elsewhere), he was badly wounded in a fight but survived. Between 1605 and 1612 he remained at Grimsthorpe where he entertained the King and Queen on one occasion. In 1605, he married Elizabeth, daughter of Lord Montague of Boughton: in 1606, the first of thirteen children was born. He began a military career in 1612 and remained a soldier for thirty years until his death in the Battle of Edgehill fighting against Cromwell’s New Army.

During his career, he distinguished himself in a war in the Netherlands resulting in his being awarded the Earldom of Lindsay. He subsequently became Commander of the Fleet and of the Army. He eventually died on 23rd October, 1642 at Warwick Castle and although losing two sons on the same day in the battle, his heir survived.

Neither the name nor the family have died out. Nancy Heathcote-Drummond-Willoughby, The Baroness Willoughby de Eresby, was one of the train bearers for the Queen at her coronation in 1953.