Friday, 2 September 2011

Article - The magnificent mansion built to impress a queen (Wollaton)

EVERYONE who has grown up in Nottingham knows about Wollaton Hall, one of the great Elizabethan houses of England.

However the present house is not the first Wollaton Hall. There were for many years actually two halls on the Wollaton estate. How did this come about?

Francis Willoughby, who employed master builder Robert Smythson to build the present hall, had suffered a very difficult childhood.

Francis was the youngest of three siblings; he had an elder brother Thomas and sister Margaret. They were orphaned while very young.

Thomas, being the eldest, inherited the whole of the substantial Willoughby wealth and sister Margaret could also be seen as a great asset as it was likely that her marriage would include a substantial dowry.

Guardianship of these two young people could be seen to be a worthwhile investment.

Francis however was of no value; worse he could be a financial encumbrance because as the youngest he would inherit nothing and therefore, to help make his way in the world, it would be expected that his guardian provide an education at his own expense.

Whilst Francis's sister and brother took their place in Elizabethan Society, Francis was somewhat sidelined and ignored.

But everything was to change. Thomas dismounted his horse after a day's hunting and died of "exhaustion of heat". Inheritance then passed over Margaret to the younger male heir Francis.

So, after losing his parents, being separated from his brother and sister, Francis now became the controller of the Willoughby wealth, with which he intended to make his mark.

It was a time when all English nobility vied to impress Queen Elizabeth. She was like no other monarch before or after.

She exuded not only power but also manners, culture, and intellect.

Francis knew his status could be substantially improved by inviting Queen Elizabeth to Wollaton, or if not inviting her, at least to have a house capable of holding Elizabeth's court should she travel to this part of her realm.

The original Wollaton Hall was at that time in the village; though nothing really remains of the old house. It is thought that its location was next to the village church, somewhere behind the Admiral Rodney pub.

Francis realised that his present house would not be suitable for the court of Queen Elizabeth, something on a grander scale was required.

Not only did Francis wish to impress the Queen but he also intended to show everyone that he was now a man of considerable education, wealth and substance.

If he were to build a great house there would be little point in tucking it away in the village, it needed to be appreciated by all who visited this part of England.

Near Wollaton Village a gentle slope led to the top of a hill, providing a vantage point over the whole area.

Also from this point, the town of Nottingham could clearly be seen. Upon this hill the house would be built.

Francis, with the builder Smythson, set to work in 1580. The magnificent house took eight years to build, being completed in 1588.

Francis and Smythson created a symmetrical house which could be viewed to advantage from all directions. Many styles of architecture were festooned onto the exterior of the house.

The Ancaster Stone from Lincolnshire with which the house is faced proved a perfect medium for the fine detailing required.

While the house was grand and imposing it was not particularly comfortable for daily life. Also the practicalities of running a great estate required a more pragmatic basic house and buildings.

So it was that for many years the two halls remained, the noble and grand house on the hill, largely empty and unoccupied, and the group of buildings that formed the hall in the village which dealt with the running of the Wollaton Estate. While the old hall has long disappeared, the Dovecote still remains and is now a museum in the village.

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