WILLIS, Browne (1682-1760), of Whaddon Hall, Bucks.
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Family and Education
b. 14 Sept. 1682, 1st s. of Thomas Willis of Bletchley, Bucks. by Alice, da. of Robert Browne of Frampton and Blandford, Dorset. educ. Beachampton sch. Bucks. ?1692–6; Westminster 1696–1700; Christ Church, Oxf. 1700, MA 1720, DCL 1749; I. Temple 1700. m. Nov. 1707 (with £7,000) Katherine (d. 1724), da. and h. of Daniel Eliot*, 5s. d.v.p. 5da. (1 d.v.p.). suc. fa. 1699.1
Originally from a family of Oxfordshire yeomen, Willis’ great-grandfather died fighting for Charles I at the siege of Oxford in 1643. The family’s fortunes were improved by Willis’ grandfather, Thomas, one of the most celebrated physicians of his time, who purchased Bletchley, Fenny Stratford and Water Eaton in 1675 from the 2nd Duke of Buckingham. In 1698, his father added the Whaddon estate purchased jointly with James (later Serjeant) Selby from Buckingham’s trustees, but he died shortly afterwards. At Westminster school, Willis’ life-long interest in antiquarian studies was awakened, but his subsequent education at Oxford was cut short, perhaps by the pressures of having inherited an estate valued later at approximately £2,000 p.a., and he left before taking his degree. Initially he seems to have resided with the scholarly William Wotton, rector of Milton Keynes, but by 1705 his thoughts were turning to both matrimony and Parliament.
Willis’ initial choice of bride appears to have fallen on Elizabeth Hacket (who eventually married Nicholas Carew*), but, partly because he was prone to ‘fits’ or the ‘falling sickness’, the match was not finalized. His first political involvement appears to have been in the Buckinghamshire election of 1705 where he campaigned for the Tory, Lord Cheyne (Hon. William*). However, no sooner had the shire gone to the polls than Willis was seeking support for the impending by-election at Buckingham, consequent upon the return of Sir Richard Temple, 4th Bt., for both the borough and county. Thus, five days after the shire poll he wrote to the Earl of Bridgwater for support. Constant solicitation of the corporation saw Willis triumph by one vote over the Whig candidate in the by-election held in December 1705.2
By 1705 Willis was ‘well known for his diligent search into our English antiquities’. He was reputed to be a good attender of debates in the Commons, but there is no indication that he ever spoke. He was uneasy about the Union with Scotland informing Cheyne
I cannot think it for the interest of England. I am sure it will not be a strengthening of the Church to have them intermixed in most of our towns of commerce. They will pick their consciences as well as their pocket and dive into both.
On 10 Feb. 1707 he was included with the MPs ordered to draft a bill for the upkeep of the Stony Stratford road. In November Lord Fermanagh (John Verney*) reported that Willis had journeyed into Wiltshire to marry a fortune of £10,000, news which led Sir Thomas Cave, 3rd Bt.*, to respond, ‘I am glad to hear Mr Willis succeeds so well, being a very honest gentleman’. Perhaps his new marital status contributed to his decision not to stand in 1708, although it did not prevent a continuation of his keen interest in politics, nor a commitment to the Tories in election contests.3
According to Lady Fermanagh, Willis spent ‘a great deal of money’ helping her husband to gain election in 1710, and Willis certainly exhibited considerable interest in seeing the poll in print. The 1713 election saw him involved in analysing the poll, particularly for Quaker voters, and also in preparing it for the press. In 1715 he refused initially to countenance the division of the shire representation between the parties, but no doubt upon being apprised of the situation by Lord Cheyne he attempted to ensure that Richard Hampden II’s candidacy did not upset the agreement. His dismay in 1715 at ‘such open faced bribery and use of great persons’ names’ made him see the usefulness of the Buckinghamshire agreement, but it did not deter him from actively campaigning for the Tory candidates in Bedfordshire. Although deep into his work on parliamentary history, Willis found himself in dispute with Thomas Hearne over whether to take the oaths to the new dynasty. For Willis it was the needs of his family that dictated his decision to take the oaths if necessary. However, as he informed Dr Arthur Charlett, he would only respond to a proper summons from the quarter sessions to take them, resolving to submit ‘rather than come to extremity, though I hope my concerning myself with nothing will make me be unobserved’.4
Willis was an important force in local politics, not least because he chose to spend his income on projects with a visible impact on his neighbourhood. As early as 1702 he had been instrumental in reviving Fenny Stratford market and in the years 1704–9 he spent nearly £800 on beautifying Bletchley church in honour of his parents who were buried there. This was remarked upon in the visitation of 1706, and in April 1708 Bishop Nicolson noted that Willis was ‘still zealous in beautifying Bletchley Church’. Work had already begun rebuilding Whaddon Hall by 1706, the visitation records revealing that Willis lived in ‘part of a very large house, neatly repaired’. The condition of Water Hall, ‘now quite destroyed’, was another challenge which Willis took up even though he never lived in the repaired mansion which cost him £5,000. At this stage, antiquarian research and construction seem to have pre-occupied him much, for in October 1710 he wrote to Lord Fermanagh for the loan of his ‘noble collection of antiquity and heraldry’, having just returned from inspecting ‘his building’.5
Willis’s commitment to the Church manifested itself not only in building work. He purchased the meeting-house at Fenny Stratford, purely to demolish it, an act curiously at odds with the later characterization of him as ‘strictly religious, without any mixture of superstition or enthusiasm’. Another contemporary also remarked upon his strong Anglicanism: ‘he was a constant frequenter of the Church, and never absented himself from holy communion’.6
Throughout his long life, Willis evinced a concern for the borough he had represented in Parliament, particularly in its struggle for local supremacy with Aylesbury. A contemporary wrote that on every occasion he showed his regard for Buckingham, particularly
in endeavouring to get a new charter for them, and to get the bailiff changed into a mayor; by unwearied application in getting the assizes held once a year there, and procuring the archdeacon to hold his visitations, and also the bishop there, as often as possible.
However, his constant building projects, antiquarian research, subscriptions in support of his fellow scholars and large family saw Willis depreciate his estate. Rewards came in the shape of recognition from Oxford, the order for his MA by diploma in 1720 referring to his former residence at Christ Church and the fact that he ‘hath constantly applied himself to the advancement of learning and particularly the study of ecclesiastical antiquities’ and had published useful books such as Notitia Parliamentaria (dedicated to Lord Cheyne) and the History of the Mitred Parliamentary Abbeys. Subsequent publications, although dedicated to such powerful Whig figures as Speaker Arthur Onslow† and the Duke of Richmond, were not always a financial success. Nevertheless their publication no doubt encouraged the university to award him a DCL by diploma in 1749. By 1728 his estate was reported to be worth only £935 p.a. compared to £1,500 or more at the beginning of the century. Perhaps declining income partly explained his famously dilapidated appearance. A lady meeting him for the first time in 1740 found him still wearing the greatcoat tailored for his election at Buckingham in 1705 and now so dirty as to be ‘quite disagreeable to sit by him at table’. Her opinion of him on further acquaintance was that ‘with one of the honestest hearts in the world, he has one of the oddest heads that ever dropped out of the moon. Extremely well versed in coins, he knows hardly anything of mankind.’ Willis died on 5 Feb. 1760, leaving his manuscripts and collections to the University of Oxford to be placed ‘next to those of my friend Bishop Tanner’, and a volume of Notitia Parliamentaria to each member of Buckingham corporation. Having survived all his sons, his estates went to his son Thomas’ eldest son and then to the younger, John, both of whom changed their names to Fleming.7
Ref Volumes: 1690-1715
Authors: Eveline Cruickshanks / Stuart Handley
Unless otherwise stated this biography is based on B. G. Jenkins, The Dragon of Whaddon.
- 1. BL, Verney mss mic. 636/53, Fermanagh to Cave, 10 Nov. 1707.
- 2. HMC 7th Rep. 506; Huntington Lib. Ellesmere mss EL 9992–3, Willis to Bridgwater, 20, 29 May 1705.
- 3. Hearne Colls. i. 117; Verney mss mic. 636/53, Fermanagh to Cave, 10 Nov. 1707; Ellesmere mss EL 10761, Willis to Cheyne, 5 Oct. 1706; Verney Letters 18th Cent. i. 235.
- 4. Verney Letters 18th Cent. 287; Verney mss mic. 636/54, Willis to Fermanagh, 14 Nov. 1710; Hearne Colls. iv. 153, 167, 171.
- 5. A. C. Ducarel, Some Acct. of Browne Willis, 2; Bucks. Dissent and Parish Life 1669–1712 ed. Broad (Bucks. Rec. Soc. xxviii), 149, 156; Nicolson Diaries ed. Jones and Holmes, 468; Verney mss mic. 636/54, Willis to Fermanagh, 21 Oct. 1710; VCH Bucks. iv. 275.
- 6. Ducarel, 2; Nichols, Lit. Anec. vi. 194.
- 7. R. Gibbs, Worthies of Bucks. 419–20; Nichols, Lit. Hist. ii. 811–12; Bodl. Ballard 18, f. 171; Ducarel, 4; VCH Bucks. 278.