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‘Cassandra’: a new exhibition in the making

At Middleton Hall, we would like to showcase the histories of women who have lived and worked here.We are currently in the process of creating a new exhibition about Cassandra Willoughby, Duchess of Chandos. The Willoughby family first came to live at Middleton Hall after the death of Margaret de Freville in 1493, and owned it until 1925, alongside Wollaton Hall in Nottingham and Birdsall Hall in North Yorkshire.

She stands out due to the independence that she was granted throughout her adult life, which was unusual for a woman during this time period. She has left behind diaries, letters and her genealogy of the Willoughby family, which means we have been able to find out lots about Cassandra’s interesting life.

Cassandra Willoughby was born at Middleton Hall on the 23rd of April, 1670, the daughter of naturalist Francis Willughby. He died when Cassandra and her two brothers, Francis and Thomas, were young. Following this, the siblings moved away from Middleton Hall with their mother to live with their step-father, Josiah Child. However, Cassandra, Francis and Thomas did not get along with Josiah, and decided to leave the home to live at Wollaton Hall.

She took on the role of overseeing the running of the house, including the restoration of the Hall following a fire in 1642 and the death of her great-grandfather Percival Willoughby in the 1643. Alongside her brother Francis (until he died at the age of twenty) and then her brother Thomas she had a very active role in the restoration. As their step-father forbade Cassandra and her brothers from taking any furniture from Middleton Hall to Wollaton Hall, they had the responsibility of building the Hall and gardens up again from scratch.

She also had many other pursuits. She enjoyed writing, which was a fashionable hobby for both men and women at the end of the seventeenth century and the beginning of the eighteenth century. One prominent piece of work by Cassandra was her history of the Willoughby family.

Recorded in her diaries were also her travels, which took her from the Southern counties right up to Yorkshire. She enjoyed visiting other grand estates, and would also regularly visit spas in hopes of a cure for her long-term poor health.

After retrieving her father’s collection of specimens from Middleton Hall, she spent time going through this, sorting and labelling the many items Francis Willughby had collected during his life time. Before her father’s death Cassandra and her brothers had been taught by his friend, fellow naturalist John Ray who lived at Middleton Hall alongside them.

Her independence was prolonged by her marrying particularly late in life, in comparison to other women. She married Duke of Chandos, James Brydges, in 1713. Cassandra was forty-three at the time, and during her marriage she enjoyed both playing and listening to music alongside her husband. Her health worsened during the last ten years of her life, and she died at the age of sixty-five in 1735.

We are going to transform the music room, which is upstairs in the main hall, into a room that will tell visitors about Cassandra’s life, her interests and her role at Wollaton Hall. This is currently a work in progress, but we hope that soon visitors will be able to enjoy learning much more about Cassandra Willoughby’s fascinating life. This project is being led by two interns, Tabitha and Jess, who are spending their summer at Middleton Hall learning about the heritage industry and enhancing their skill set. We would welcome your ideas about what you would like to see in the exhibition through this survey.

By Tabitha Lambert-Bramwell, Heritage Intern at Middleton Hall

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