WILLOUGHBY, Sir Thomas, 2nd Bt. (1672-1729), of Wollaton, Notts. and Middleton, Warws.

Published in The History of Parliament: the House of Commons 1690-1715, ed. D. Hayton, E. Cruickshanks, S. Handley, 2002
Available from Boydell and Brewer



1698 - 1702
1705 - 1710
1710 - 1 Jan. 1712

Family and Education

b. 9 Apr. 1672, 2nd s. of Francis Willoughby of Wollaton and Middleton by Emma, da. and coh. of Sir Henry Barnard, Turkey merchant, of London and Bridgnorth, Salop.  educ. privately by tutor; St. Catharine’s, Camb. 1683, Jesus, Camb. 1685.  m. 9 Apr. 1691 (with £10,000), Elizabeth, da. and coh. of Sir Richard Rothwell, 1st Bt.†, of Ewerby and Stapleford, Lincs., 4s.  suc. bro. as 2nd Bt. 13 Sept. 1688; cr. Baron Middleton 1 Jan. 1712.1

Offices Held

Chief forester and keeper of the walk of Langton Arbor, Sherwood Forest 1690–?; sheriff, Notts. 1695–6; high steward, honor of Peveril, Notts. and Derbys. 1706–d., Tamworth 1715–d.2

FRS 1693.


Although the Willoughby family were ultimately descended from the 5th Lord Willoughby de Eresby, the main Nottinghamshire estates of the family were derived from a local merchant named Ralph Bugge who purchased lands at Willoughby-in-the-Wolds. Bugge’s son took the surname Willoughby and his son, Sir Richard Willoughby, acquired the Wollaton estate in the 16th century. Willoughby’s father, an eminent ornithologist and noted fellow of the Royal Society, died shortly after his birth. Four years later, in August 1676, his mother married Sir Josiah Child†, thus necessitating the family’s removal from Wollaton to Wanstead in Essex. He remained there until his brother, Francis, a Cambridge undergraduate, decided he should benefit from the educational environment of St. Catharine’s College. His sister casts some doubt as to whether Willoughby actually attended that college, but he was admitted as a fellow commoner to Jesus College in 1685 under the tutorship of Dr Man. He remained at Cambridge until 1688 when his brother’s final illness took him to London. Although resident in the capital during the winter of 1688–9 he was incapacitated with smallpox. Afterwards he decided to reside at Wollaton, taking his sister, Cassandra, with him as a housekeeper. His first task was to settle an expensive Chancery suit with his stepfather who still had control of the family estates. He resisted the temptation to travel abroad, deciding instead to finish his education at Wollaton under the supervision of Dr Man. On his 19th birthday he married the eldest daughter of Sir Richard Rothwell, whose lands included an estate at Stapleford close to the borough of Newark. When his father-in-law died in 1694 Willoughby was thus a very rich young man with major estates, including valuable coal mines, in three counties. Indeed, that year his sister was reputed to be worth £10,000 in the marriage market.3

Willoughby’s wealth and status meant that he was soon courted by various political groups. As early as April 1689 he had been added to the Nottinghamshire commission of the peace. In 1690 the Earl of Danby (Peregrine Osborne†), the warden of Sherwood Forest, appointed him to an office in his gift which involved the perquisite of hunting within its liberties. By 1692 his assimilation into the county elite was complete with his appointment to the deputy-lieutenancy, and in 1696 he served as sheriff. Following considerable criticism of the sitting county Members for their stance on taxation and the standing army in the 1697–8 session, he joined with Gervase Eyre* to defeat them ‘by a great majority’ in the election of 1698.4

Willoughby was classed as a Country supporter on a comparative analysis of the old and new Parliaments in about September 1698, and was also forecast as a likely opponent of the standing army. However, he was not an active legislator. In February and March 1700 he helped to pilot a bill through the Commons on behalf of his half-brother, Richard Child*, who, as a minor, was unable to perform all the covenants his father had made upon the marriage of his elder brother without private legislation. At some point after 1694 Willoughby must have been removed, or have resigned from the bench, since in 1701 the Duke of Newcastle (John Holles†) feared Willoughby’s refusal to serve might be interpreted as a partisan move to exclude a political adversary. However, Willoughby’s lack of enthusiasm for a post in the county was probably due to his growing influence outside Nottinghamshire: his place in Lincolnshire society had been recognized when he was added to the deputy-lieutenancy of that county in 1699. Two other incidents in 1701 illustrate contemporary perceptions of his influence: in January an attempt was made to use his interest with Robert Sacheverell* to secure support for Thomas Coke* in the vigorously contested Derbyshire election; and in February he was suggested as the ideal person to obtain the bishop of Lincoln’s interest in a case pending before an ecclesiastical court at Leicester.5

Re-elected in January 1701, Willoughby was listed as likely to support the Court on the continuation of the ‘Great Mortgage’. In the election of November 1701 a proposed accommodation seems to have broken down when John Thornhagh* entered the fray. Certainly Willoughby had to defend himself against charges of breaking a promise to the Earl of Kingston (Evelyn Pierrepont*) not to stand again with Eyre. In the event Willoughby was returned with Sir Francis Molyneux, 4th Bt.* In the 1702 election Willoughby ‘all the time refused to stand a candidate’, yet secured nearly 700 votes on polling day. There was no obvious reason for his reluctance to stand, but it may have been connected to the financial drain and trouble of defending a suit against the widow of Sir Beaumont Dixey, 2nd Bt. Her brother had left several estates to Willoughby’s father in his will. The will had been challenged, but upheld by the courts in three trials before his father’s death. However, the loss of the original will allowed Dixey and her son to reopen the case and it took Willoughby four more trials and a reputed £5,000 to reassert his title. Despite the fact that he was out of the Commons, his interest there was deemed strong enough for Nottingham corporation to seek his help in November 1702 to oppose the Derwent navigation bill. The erroneous appearance of his name on a list of Lord Nottingham’s (Daniel Finch†) supporters over the Scotch Plot provides an indication that his views remained firmly on the Tory side. In June 1703 he attempted to extend his influence by petitioning Queen Anne for a grant of the profits and title of high steward of the honor of Peveril in Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire. The honor included some extremely rich coal mines and stone quarries which the surveyor-general of crown lands reported to be valued at £500 p.a. for a 31-year lease. After numerous petitions and reports, the prohibitive entry fine on any grant or lease appears to have persuaded Willoughby to accept only the title of high steward in May 1706.6

The death of Gervase Eyre in February 1704 brought Willoughby back into politics as a self-proclaimed compromise candidate, hoping to avoid a divisive contest between Tory and Whig in the shape of Robert Sacheverell and John Thornhagh. Although the former withdrew, Willoughby was left with the prospect of fighting an equally divisive election against Thornhagh. However, an accommodation appears to have been reached through the initiative of Lord Lexington, which promised Willoughby an unopposed election to the next Parliament in exchange for his acquiescence in Thornhagh’s return in the by-election. In 1705 this agreement held and Willoughby was elected unopposed. However, it did not prevent his partisan involvement in other contests, as Dyer recorded his role in organizing Sacheverell’s election for Nottingham against strenuous Whig opposition as well as carrying ‘divers other elections which he has been at with equal success, as Newark, Retford and Leicester’. This was the first occasion on which his involvement at Newark was mentioned, but apart from his Stapleford estate he had also inherited a mortgage on Sir Matthew Jenison’s* estate which he bought out at some point in these years, thus immeasurably strengthening his interest in the borough. On a list of the new Parliament he was noted as a ‘Churchman’, a judgment with which the Earl of Sunderland (Charles, Lord Spencer*) concurred when he recorded his election as a ‘loss’. However, this assessment was qualified by a ‘d’, possibly signalling some doubt in Sunderland’s mind. As if to compound this uncertainty over his attitude to the ministry, Willoughby was absent for the division on the Speaker on 25 Oct. 1705. This evidence may indicate that he was perceived to be open to the moderating influence of Robert Harley*. He was named on 20 Nov. 1705 to draft a bill relating to the Trent navigation. His support for the Church made him the target of lobbyists on behalf of the Scottish episcopal clergy in order to organize collections for them in June 1707. He left no evidence in the Journals of important activity in this Parliament, although a letter from Peter King* indicates that he was interested in amending a bill on the game laws in March 1708. A list of early 1708 marked him as a Tory.7

The electoral pact between Willoughby and Thornhagh held during the 1708 election, and both were returned unopposed. In July 1708 he was in correspondence with Newcastle, the warden of Sherwood Forest, over the vexed question of the depredations of the royal deer. George Gregory* felt that Willoughby was using the deer ‘to break the honest interest in the county as well as at Retford’. Newcastle was opposed to any solution which might offend the Queen by reducing her rights in the forest. Willoughby seemed keen to accommodate Newcastle’s views, but in November 1708 Harley was writing to the Duke in terms which suggested a disagreement over the issue. Later that month William Wenman reported that Willoughby had been ‘sounding the Members of both Houses to feel their inclinations upon it’. Having met with ‘a cold reception’ he was now taking legal advice. It seems likely that he was the presenter of a petition from Nottinghamshire on 21 Feb. 1709, praying for legislation to limit the forest’s boundaries to those which had existed in Edward I’s reign, but it was rejected. On 28 Feb. 1709 he acted as a teller, for the only time in his career, in favour of continuing a clause from a statute of James I’s reign in the bill for naturalizing foreign Protestants, which would have made receiving the sacrament and taking the oaths of allegiance and supremacy compulsory for all those wishing to take advantage of the Act.8

In the Nottinghamshire election of 1710 Willoughby refused offers of an alliance with Lord Howe (Sir Scrope*) and actually deprived himself of votes to ensure the election of the Tory William Levinz*. As one disappointed correspondent reported to Robert Harley:

Had Sir Thomas Willoughby stood to his first disposition everything in this country would have gone as you would have it but he has been persuaded by the Rigids to break from his first engagements and to excuse his treachery has framed a false and artificial tale and has even gone so far as to set up likewise for Newark in opposition to Mr Digby [John] whom he himself formerly brought in there.

Digby in fact withdrew from the contest at Newark where Willoughby’s local interest was sufficient to enable him to top the poll. On the ‘Hanover list’ of 1710 he was listed as a Tory and in the following year he was noted as a ‘worthy patriot’ who had detected the mismanagements of the previous ministry. Although not listed as a member of the October Club, Sir John Cotton, 2nd Bt.*, and his son, John Hynde Cotton*, explained that institution to Bishop Nicolson in February 1711 ‘as made of old beer-drinkers, as Sir Thomas Willoughby etc.’ Willoughby certainly enjoyed convivial evenings over a bottle, being put up for candidate membership of the ‘Board of Brothers’ in July 1709 and being elected to that society in May 1712. He continued to take a close interest in Nottinghamshire affairs, a special journey being made in April 1711 to secure his approbation of a new county hall. On the death of Newcastle in July 1711 he even attempted to extend his influence in the county by applying to Lord Oxford (Robert Harley) for the newly vacant post of warden of Sherwood Forest: ‘I must be in hopes of success for as now I believe no one of that country will pretend to a better fortune than my self’. Unfortunately, this request came up against Oxford’s own ambitions to reap the electoral fruits of Newcastle’s demise, and the lord treasurer obtained the post for himself or his son. However, Willoughby was close enough to Oxford to be raised to the peerage as Baron Middleton on 1 Jan. 1712 in order to safeguard the ministerial majority in the Lords. He immediately set about making interest for Digby in the ensuing by-election at Newark, urging the Duchess of Newcastle to support his nominee. In the event, Digby was heavily defeated by Richard Sutton*. Willoughby continued to play an active part in local politics, ensuring his eldest son’s election for the county in 1713 and making Wollaton the centre of Tory opposition in Nottinghamshire until well into George II’s reign.9

Willoughby died on 2 Apr. 1729. His had been a parliamentary career of consistent support for the Tories which was never taken to extremes. His main strength lay in his intimate local knowledge, which led one contemporary to observe in 1710 that ‘Sir Thomas Willoughby will never join with a man that cannot help him to a vote’. It was the mark of a successful election manager and a worthy rival of Newcastle.10

Ref Volumes: 1690-1715

Author: Stuart Handley


  • 1. C. Brydges, Continuation Hist. Willoughby Fam. ed. Wood, 129–30, 141; Dugdale, Warws. 1052.
  • 2. HMC Middleton, 501, 503; C. F. Palmer, Hist. Tamworth, p. xxiii.
  • 3. J. T. Godfrey, Notes on Churches of Notts. i. 315; Brydges, 118, 123, 132–5, 139–41; A. L. Cust, Chron. Erthig. i. 18.
  • 4. CSP Dom. 1689–90, p. 69; 1691–2, p. 277; BL, Althorp mss, Halifax pprs. Eyre to Ld. Halifax (William Savile*), 8 Jan. [1698]; Huntington Lib. Hasting mss HA 6107, p. 42, Earl of Huntingdon to Mr Davys, 14 Aug. 1698; Vernon–Shrewsbury Letters, ii. 157.
  • 5. CSP Dom. 1699–1700, p. 117; Add. 33084, f. 165; BL, Lothian mss, Robert Harding to Coke, 15, 23 Nov. 1700; HMC Cowper, ii. 419.
  • 6. Add. 70501, f. 45; Flying Post, 20–28 Aug. 1702; Brydges, 112; Luttrell, Brief Relation, v. 306, 422, 613; Nottingham Bor. Recs. vi. 15; Cal. Treas. Bks. xviii. 290, 308, 447; xix. 7, 62, 135, 268; xx. 626–7, 646–7.
  • 7. Nottingham Univ. Lib. Portland (Holles) mss Pw2 301a, Willoughby to [Newcastle], n.d. [1704]; W. A. Speck, Tory and Whig, 106; Nottingham Univ. Lib. Middleton mss 5/169/54.1, 55, R. Scott to Willoughby, 26 June 1707, King to same, 6 Mar. 1707[–8].
  • 8. Portland (Holles) mss Pw2 302, ‘Sir Thomas Willoughby’s message to my Lord’; Pw2 304, ‘Sir Thomas Willoughby’s answer’; Pw2 72, George Gregory to [Newcastle], 8 Aug. 1708; Pw2 168, Wenman to ‘Mr Neale’, 30 Nov. 1708; Add. 70501, f. 64; J. C. Cox, R. Forests of Eng. 218–19.
  • 9. Add. 70026, f. 110; 70314–15, Wenman to [?Newcastle], 19 Oct. 1710; 70263, Willoughby to [Oxford], 18 July, 31 Dec. [1711]; 49360, ff. 5, 86v; Nicolson Diaries ed. Jones and Holmes, 543; Notts. Co. Recs. 18th Cent. ed. Meaby, 46.
  • 10. Portland (Holles) mss Pw2 138, William Jessop* to [Newcastle], 4 July 1710.