Our history : What if Mr Bingley had married Mrs Bennett? The Marriage of Sir Francis Willoughby I and Elizabeth Littleton

What if Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice character Mr Bingley had married Mrs Bennett?

This may sound like a nonsense theoretical question but maybe it is closer to reality than anyone might have imagined. Jane Austen is related to the Willoughby family of Middleton Hall and we know that she used the family names as inspiration in her books. Maybe she also used the written family history as a source of inspiration for the characters too?

If that was the case, then in my opinion Sir Francis Willoughby I is very much like Mr Bingley and his wife, Elizabeth Littleton, has elements of Mrs Bennett. Even Francis’ sister Margaret could make an entrance stage right as Caroline Bingley. But what would a marriage of Mr Bingley and Mrs Bennett look like? Probably not too far off the disastrous marriage that Francis and Elizabeth experienced.

Sir Francis Willoughby

Francis wanted to and thought he was marrying a Jane Bennett, someone of a similar sweet character to him who was happy with a quiet life in the country away from politics, high society and did not judge people for their associations. He wanted to avoid high society so much that he regularly slipped out of gatherings before the end. By this action he managed to avoid being knighted for nine years even though the Queen had intended to knight him and it was only her notification that she was going to stay at his house that he was knighted. As a person, from his letters, Francis appears to have had a mild temperament with a sweet disposition who loved to be hospitable but could also be a little too imposed upon by others who sought their own advantage.

Francis shied away from high society due to his traumatic childhood. By the age of three he was an orphan. His mother had died in 1548 and his father had died fighting on behalf of the King at Ketts Rebellion in Norfolk a year later. By the age of eight his uncle, Henry Grey, and his cousin, Lady Jane Grey (9 Days Queen) had both been executed. And at the age of thirteen Francis had become the surprising heir of the substantial Willoughby estates when his elder brother died suddenly at the age of eighteen. Francis had not been raised to be an heir and therefore his interests had focused much more on the arts, particularly music as he loved to play the lute and virginals, and entrepreneurial inventions. When he was not the heir his wardship was not valued. Then overnight he was a prize because it was customary that the ward would marry a child of the guardian.

Francis became the ward of Sir Francis Knollys and had been expected to marry one of his daughters. It had been viewed by society generally as a good match. However, in 1564, when Francis was seventeen, Lord Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester had other ideas. At the house of one of Dudley’s kinsmen, John Littleton of Frankley, Dudley suggested to Francis that he should instead marry John’s daughter Elizabeth. Francis described her in a letter as a young gentlewoman who had received a good education, was descended from a noble house, was well-connected and lived near his country house of Middleton Hall. In other words, not someone who was always in high society and wanted to be at court. By the end of the year the teenagers were married.

Were they ever in love? Possibly. Young whirlwind kind of love very possibly. They definitely had a shared love of music.

Elizabeth Littleton

However, there were two immediate problems. First, in order to marry Elizabeth Littleton Francis had to break his wardship contract. This was very costly. Second, he got engaged without telling his sister Margaret, his only remaining close relative. As elder sister, Margaret was very protective of Francis. She also had an objection to John Littleton as someone who could not be trusted to abide by the marriage contract. Margaret had been placed as a lady-in-waiting to Princess (later Queen) Elizabeth at Hatfield House, she had then married Sir Matthew Arundell-Howard of Wardour Castle. Margaret spent most of her time at court and did judge people by their associations. Whereas Francis could be seen as naïve, Margaret certainly was not and knew how to play the political game very well. However, initially Margaret vowed to give Elizabeth the benefit of the doubt for her brother’s sake. This did not last and the constant conflict between Margaret and Elizabeth, with each one trying by any means to prove that the other was doing bad things was one of the principal continuing problems in the marriage.

Nonetheless, the first few years of the marriage went relatively smoothly. The young newlyweds enjoyed banquets and a good life but they spent the majority of their time at Frankley. This was because until Francis was 21 he could not legally inherit and run his estates. At 21, this was all to change. Francis had to manage many estates that had been left in the care of stewards. Not all of the stewards had taken good care of their estates and Wollaton Old Hall and Woodlands needed considerable repair. As Francis began to manage his estates, setting up the houses running their economies and looking after the tenants, he decided to spend much more time in the country, working and mixing with those of a similar circle. To add to this economic burden, John Littleton failed to pay the dowry. Elizabeth’s dowry was £1,500 (about £350,000 today). John paid only £110 (about £25,000 today) and Francis wrote how that he was fearful that he would have to sue him. Margaret essentially told her brother “I told you so”.

The greater problem for the marriage though was Elizabeth’s character. For she was no Jane, she was much more like Mrs Bennett. Elizabeth wanted high society, to be at court, money, fine things, parties, her friends and above all power. She certainly did not want to be a housewife in a country manor. Unusually for this era, she would not be submissive to her husband either. Elizabeth was described as a woman of wit and virtue but of a turbulent spirit with ungovernable passions who enjoyed provoking, especially Francis, by saying vexatious things.

The final players in this saga were the servants. These were not servants in our Victorian understanding of servants. They were highly educated and often cousins of the Willoughby family. The servants picked sides. Some supported Francis, some supported Elizabeth and some just supported their own self-interest. These servants spied and spread tales about what was happening in the marriage, notably for Elizabeth and Margaret but some servants also connected with other households outside of the family. This turned Francis and Elizabeth’s private issues into a public joke, humiliating Francis.

From a modern perspective, it is likely that Elizabeth was suffering with either post-natal depression or another mental health illness throughout much of the marriage. Over the course of their marriage, despite all the periods of separation, they had 12 children of which only six girls reached maturity. This meant that she was often either pregnant or recovering from being pregnant. She also writes of a time when she swore that she was pregnant and the doctors said she was not. Her temperament was volatile ranging from loving and happiness to rage and suicidal.

The pressure of not having produced a son also played on Elizabeth’s state of mind. At the age of 40 she offered to try again for a son even though it was hazardous for her health. Francis refused. She swore that the servants were against her and trying to murder her. Murder may have been a bit extreme but she probably was not too far wrong in terms of the servants working against her. She blamed Francis for the deaths of the children, saying that the life he was making her live was causing their deaths. Francis wrote that although untrue he could bear that slight if it calmed her. Eventually Elizabeth refused to stay at any of Francis’ houses. Francis wrote how it was unacceptable and she would destroy her own reputation because she was happy to stay in any man’s house except her husband’s. She also left the children in Francis’ care. She sent them away from her to him to take care of at Middleton. At one point she also threatened to do harm to anyone Francis brought in to take care of the children. Letters show the state of desperation he was in when he had to travel to manage his estates and yet had to look after the children at the same time but couldn’t hire anyone because of Elizabeth’s threats to do harm to herself, them or whoever he hired.

Francis’ breaking point came in 1578. He took the family to Coventry and made a set of rules for the household for while he had to be in London. These rules governed what not only what Elizabeth could do and who she could see but also the children and the servants. Two servants were placed in charge and multiple copies of the rules were distributed. The rules concluded that if anyone broke the rules they would be dismissed from the house. It appears that the first person to break the rules was Elizabeth, outraged that the servants had more power than her, she went into town to see her friends. When she tried to return to the house she was denied access. She fell on the kindness of the mayor and aldermen of Coventry who provided her with a house but nothing else. Elizabeth wrote to Francis to explain her state but it appears that Francis, for the first time, ignored her. This left Elizabeth destitute for more than two years. She travelled around the country relying on the kindness of others to allow her to stay with them and support her. Essentially the Elizabethan version of couch-surfing.

Francis’ friends and sister urged him to stay firm. However, Elizabeth created another twist in the tale. She managed to get the support of Robert Dudley and spymaster Francis Walsingham to raise the issue with the Queen. Given that one of the allegations that Elizabeth had said during arguments was that she would not submit to her husband because she was a loyal servant of the Queen and he may order her to behave in a way against the Queen, this must have been a petrifying development for Francis. Margaret tried to assist Francis and secured him an audience with Sir Thomas Bromley, Lord Chancellor, who she wrote she thought would give him a fair hearing. The exact details of what happened are currently unknown. What is known is that by order of the Queen, Francis and Elizabeth were ordered to separate and that Francis was required to give Elizabeth £200 a year (about £41,000 today).

Ironically, Francis and Elizabeth’s relationship actually began to improve after this and they became friends. This was partly due to the fact that the servants were caught doing the same mischief as they had in regard to Elizabeth with Francis’ son-in-law Percival. It was also probably due to the fact that, without the hormonal disruption from constantly having children, Elizabeth calmed. She remained estranged from her daughters who refused to meet with her but she often visited Francis at his houses and wrote to her son-in-laws. Elizabeth died in London in 1594.

Francis had one further problem in 1588, which built on the allegations that Elizabeth had once made. One of the servants, Payne, went to the Privy Council and Queen with allegations that Francis was in league with the Spanish Armada. Given that the Willoughby family had a number of ships fighting the Armada the allegation is believed to be very firmly spurious. Francis was definitely summoned to appear by the Lord Chancellor but the exact proceedings are unknown. It is assumed that these allegations were rightly dismissed. It is unknown what happened to Payne.

After Elizabeth died, Francis remarried. That, however, is another story as it appears that his second marriage could possibly be classified as worse than his first …

So, what would have happened if Mr Bingley had married Mrs Bennett? A disaster and certainly not a happy love story.

Debbie Jordan, Middleton Hall Trust Volunteer & Historian