The Villiers family
The Villiers family resided at Brooksby from 1254 to 1711. They came to England during the Norman Conquest. Soon after the Conquest, members of the Villiers family were living in Notinghamshire and Lancashire. The first reference to a Villiers in connection with Brooksby was in 1235 when Alexander de Villiers paid one mark for half a knight’s fee which he held in Brooksby under the Countess of Chester. Alexander’s son, a soldier, lived in Brooksby in 1254. He took part in the crusades and consequently adopted a new Villiers coat-of-arms: the cross of St George charged with five escallops, in place of the fess and cinquefoils of the previous arms
Notable Brooksby Villiers
Sir William Villiers (c1404-1480)
There is a large incised alabaster slab in the sanctuary of St Michael’s Church. This is now very worn, but shows the engraved figures of William Villiers and his two wives, Joan and Agnes. Sir William, dressed in full armour with a dog at his feet, stands with his wives on either side of him, both dressed in close gowns and belts, with large open-veiled head-dresses. The surrounding inscription is in Latin and can be read with some difficulty. The translation reads: Here lies William Villiers Kt., and his wives Joan and Agnes, William died – day of the month AD 1480. Joan died April 26 1475 and Agnes died 14…. On whose souls God have mercy.
Sir John Villiers (d. 1506) – Brooksby becomes a deserted village
Sir John was accused before a commission for enclosing four farms, 160 acres of land in December 1492 and converting them into sheep pastures. Proceedings began in 1545 after John’s death. His son counter-claimed that the enclosure took place in 1378 when the commission had no power to act on enclosure until after 1488. This proved to be an effective defence. The evidence of extensive manuring during the 15th century shows this claim to be untrue.Therefore the enclosing of the land was more likely the cause of the demise of the Brooksby village rather than attributing the disappearance to the Bubonic Plague of 1348/9
Sir George Villiers (c1544-1606) – the ancestor of Royalty and prime ministers
Sir George was an MP and served as High Sheriff of Leicestershire in 1591. He married twice. Firstly Audrey Saunders of Harrington, Northamptonshire by whom he had two sons and four daughters. Villiers married secondly, about 1590, his “beautiful but penniless first cousin by the half-blood”, Mary Beaumont , daughter of Anthony Beaumont of Glenfield, Leicestershire with whom he had three sons and a daughter:
Sir George is significant in English history as the fountain-head of what Lord Keynes described as “the true blood-royal of this country”. From the moment his second son from his second marriage, George, the future Duke of Buckingham attracted the attention of James I, the die was cast. The leading men or mistresses of the Stuart kings, of William III and of Queen Anne , were all descendants of Sir George. Among his other descendants are sixteen British prime ministers including Anthony Eden, Alec Douglas-Hume, Winston Churchill and David Cameron, Diana, the late Princess of Wales and, via the Earls of Portland, the late Queen Mother and hence Her Majesty the Queen and her family. Many other noble families are also descended from George Villiers of Brooksby Hall.
George Villiers 1st Duke of Buckingham (1592-1628) – a powerful favourite of two kings
Born at Brooksby in 1592, George spent his early years here. At eight years he lost his father and spent time with his mother, Mary at Goadby Marwood and undertook some of his schooling at Billesdon. He completed his education in France and was introduced at the court of James I in August 1614. It is thought that their first meeting may have been at Apethorpe Hall. George was charming and handsome and immediately impressed the king and became his favourite.
He became Master of the Horse in 1616, Earl of Buckingham in 1617, a Marquis in 1618 and Lord High Admiral in 1619. He used his influence to help his relatives to gain status and wealth which did not go down well with the rest of the upper classes.
In 1620 he married Lady Katherine Manners, daughter of the Earl of Rutland.
He accompanied James’s son, the future Charles I, to Madrid in 1623 to arrange a marriage between Charles and Maria, the daughter of the Spanish king, but his display of arrogance contributed to the failure of the negotiations.
Returning to London he was made a Duke and persuaded James to go to war with Spain without the backing of Parliament.
In 1625 the marriage that Buckingham had arranged between Charles and Henrietta Maria of France failed to bring peace with France, and raised the possibility of Roman Catholics coming to the Royal line which made him very unpopular. He arranged a naval and land expedition against Cadiz the Spanish port which was an embarrassing failure. A bill to impeach the Duke was brought before Parliament in May 1626 but he was saved by King Charles dissolving Parliament before he could be tried. The case was brought before the Royal Court instead where, unsurprisingly, the case was dismissed.
The following year Buckingham led 8,000 men to the French port of La Rochelle to help the Huguenots (French Protestants) who were under attack. After a long stand-off and losing many men, he was eventually forced to withdraw – another embarrassing defeat.
Finally in 1628 after Parliament had failed to persuade the King to dismiss Buckingham, on August 17 he went to Portsmouth to arrange another expedition to La Rochelle. On August 22 he was coming out of the Greyhound Inn when Lt. John Felton, who had lost comrades in the previous failed expedition stabbed him to death. Villiers was only 36 years old. Parliament and much of the rest of the country were delighted but the King had Lt. Felton hanged at Tyburn.
Sir William Villiers – the end of the Villiers line at Brooksby
At the east end of the church, on the north side of the chancel is a fine white marble monument to Sir William Villiers and his wife Dame Ann Villiers. Their life-size figures are wearing the dress of the period apart from their Roman style cloaks. The monument is constructed in the style of Grinling Gibbons. Both the arms of the Villiers families are set above the figures. The inscription on the monument reads:
“Sacred to the memory of Sir William Villiers, Bart. Descended from a race of worthy ancestors, upward of 500 years happily enjoying the great revenue of their County, in a right noble and hospitable use thereof; by much lamented death is determined. The male line of the eldest house of that honourable name in Britain; to none of whom he was inferior in all accomplishments requisite to adorn his quality. He departed this life on 27th day of February 1711-12. Near also rests Dame Ann Villiers, wife of Sir William, daughter and heir of Charles Potts, of the county of Norfolk Esq., a lady of singular virtue, piety and charity. She died the 31st day of July 1711.”
Both William and Ann are buried under two large flat stones in the Chancel of the church. You will have noticed that there are two dates given for William Villiers’ death. This is likely to be due to the change from the Julian to the Gregorian calendar.
Nathan Wright – a family of influential lawyers
Also in the chancel are two flat stones to Nathan Wright, the grandson of the more famous Nathan a barrister and Recorder for Leicester, who purchased the Brooksby estate after the Villiers line ended in 1711.
Sir Nathan Wright (1654–1721) was an English judge, Lord Keeper of the Great Seal and Speaker of the House of Lords under King William III and Queen Anne. He offended the House of Commons by his use of habeas corpus in 1704, and lost office in 1705. Nathan married Elizabeth Ashby in 1676 (at the age of 23). She was the daughter of George Ashby who had rebuilt Quemby Hall between 1618 and 1636. Nathan and Elizabeth, rented Brooksby Manor as their first home. During their first year there an incident occurred which was published in the Derby and Nottingham Journal:
” On Thursday last was committed to the gaol at Leicester Thomas Williams, who says he comes from Wells in Somersetshire. He was apprehended in bed at a lodging house the night before and stands charged with having feloniously stolen out of the house of Nathan wright Esq. of Brooksby in that county a silver hilted couteau de chasse (a hunting knife), a shawle and other article to the amount of £50 and upwards.
The audacious robber was committed in the open day on Wednesday se’night; he is supposed to have entered the dining room window, which stands upon the ground floor, from thence he entered and examined the drawing room but finding nothing for his purpose he went upstairs and from Mr Wright’s bedroom stole the articles above, with some wearing apparel, three fine counterpanes, etc. In one of the closets he found a bottle of Arquebusade (gun oil) which he supposed had been a cordial dram, and drank it, but finding his mistake threw it upon the floor.
Wright died at Caldecote his principal estate in Warwickshire on 4 August 1721, and was buried in Caldecote church.
The grandson Nathan died in 1793 and Elizabeth in 1780. It is interesting to note that they were not only man and wife but also first cousins.
The direct line of Nathan came to an end in 1830 with the demise of Miss A B Wright.
It is possible that for most of the Wrights’ ownership, Brooksby Hall was rented out.
The Wyndham family of Cromer inherited the Hall and estate from Miss Wright. The two families were connected by the marriage of John Wyndham to Elizabeth Wright, a great grand daughter of Nathan. George Wyndham, married to Maria Augusta, received the Hall in the early 1830s, When he died his widow married William, the second Earl of Listowel. The estate was held in trust for the daughters of her previous marriage, Maria Anne and Cecilia Wyndham. When they were 21, the land was divided between them so that in 1848 they were the major landowners. Maria Anne became Baroness MacDonald and Cecilia became Lady Alfred Paget. One of the present College’s halls of residence is named Paget Hall.
James Brudenell – from hunting at Brooksby to leading the charge of the Light Brigade
Lord James Brudenell, later to become the 7th Earl of Cardigan, came to live at Brooksby Hall for a brief period in 1830. He was one of the finest horseman in the land and was well aware of this. One of his hunters was called The Dandy. Brudenell had a wager that after a day’s hunting, The Dandy could cross the River Wreake with two men mounted on it. He won the wager but sadly the horse collapsed and died soon afterwards. A plaque can be seen embedded in the wall at the west end of the Hall commemorating the horse: “Under the elm tree near this place lies the Dandy. He died….1831.” The elm tree is long gone but we did find the bones of a horse when students were creating a rock garden near the Hall in 1973. We like to think they were the remains of The Dandy and keep one of the larger bones on display in the Hall.
Brudenell was “an unpleasant, conceited, overbearing bully of a man with a fondness for the opposite sex” but no-one could deny his courage and daring which came to the fore in the hunting field as it would later charging against the battery of Russian guns.
His first wife died in 1858 having deserted Cardigan for another man. He then took the opportunity to marry his mistress Adeline de Horsey, who was twenty seven years his junior. In 1862 Cardigan had a bad fall from his horse from which he never recovered and died in 1868. Adeline lived to a great age at Deene Park and when Brooksby Church was restored in 1879, she gave the pulpit in memory of her husband.
From the late 1850’s to 1863, the Charlton family rented the Hall. They left when Lady Paget had indicated that she wished to sell the estate. After this the Hall was boarded up and deteriorated pending the sale of the estate.
Ernest Chaplin – the popular squire who brought Brooksby Hall back to life and restored Brooksby Church after a lightning strike
Ernest and Sophy Chaplin were tenants of Brooksby Hall from 1865, purchased the estate from Lord and Lady Paget in 1878 for £90,000 and remained there until 1890. Their tenure marked the strengthening of Brooksby Hall’s popularity as a hunting box for followers of the Quorn and other prestigious Leicestershire hunts. For a while Ernest was secretary of the Quorn.
Born in 1831, Ernest was the fourth son of William Jones Chaplin M.P. of Ewhurst Hampshire. A graduate of Oriel College, Oxford, he was a student of Lincoln’s Inn and called to the bar in 1857. On 12 May 1864 he married Sophy (or Sophie) Jane, daughter of Rev. Edward Elmhirst, rector of Showell, Rugby.
He was a popular and conscientious occupant of the Hall and patron of Brooksby Church. When lightning struck the church spire in August 1874, and it collapsed through the nave roof, he raised £800 to rebuild the church. The position of the former shallower pitched roof can be seen today at the west end of the nave. (In 2007 the top of the spire was removed, strengthened and replaced, some of the stones of the tower and spire were replaced and other work carried out to the rainwater goods and this cost some £180,000. Fortunately the Heritage Lottery Fund and other charities gave their support as local fund-raising events would not have achieved what they did in 1874.)
There is a (probably apocryphal) tale that Ernest and Sophy Chaplin arrived at Brooksby with 13 horses and no children and, twenty-five years later they left with 13 children and no horses …
J G Williams
Joseph Grout Williams hailed from a wealthy South Wales mining family and resided at Pendley Manor near Tring in Hertfordshire. He purchased Brooksby Hall and estate in 1891 for £59,642. During his ownership the Hall was renovated and considerably enlarged. This included the addition of the east wing and addition of bay windows to the front and side. The architects were RJ & J Goodacre of Leicester and the builders were T & H Herbert. As a result Brooksby Hall became the building we are familiar with today.
J G Williams never lived at Brooksby and the Hall was occupied by his brother, Captain George Stanley Williams, an officer in the 8th Hussars. The captain was resident with his wife and 5 children at Brooksby until a tragic hunting accident in 1897. Stanley was the grandfather of Dorian Williams, the former show jumping commentator and great grandfather of Robin Knox-Johnson who circumnavigated the world single-handed in 1969, a feat he repeated in 2006 at the age of 67.
Lady Sarah Wilson – aunt of Churchill and the first woman war correspondent
After the Hall was rented for short periods by the Dowager Duchess of Marlborough (another descendant of the Villiers), and H T Barclay, the end of the 19th century saw the arrival of Lt Col Gordon Chesney Wilson and his wife Sarah (nee Sarah Isabella Augusta Spencer Churchill) daughter of the 7th Duke of Marlborough and aunt of Sir Winston Churchill. They moved in in 1897 and remained until 1904.
Sarah, like her famous nephew was made of stern stuff. During the Boer War, her husband was ADC to Col. Robert Baden-Powell and Sarah accompanied her husband eventually getting caught up in the siege of Mafeking. Baden-Powell asked her to leave Mafeking for her own safety after the Boers threatened to storm the British garrison. This she duly did, and set off on a madcap adventure in the company of her maid, travelling through the South African countryside until she was finally captured by the enemy and returned to the town in exchange for a horse thief being held there.
The Daily Mail war correspondent had been arrested by the Boers as he tried to get out of the besieged town to send his dispatch and Sarah replaced him as the first woman war correspondent. Although untrained as a reporter, Sarah soon gained a huge following among Mail readers back in England, who appreciated her matter-of-fact writing style.
The Beatty family
Other monuments in the church include a bronze bust of Earl Beatty of Brooksby and the North Sea, who was tenant at Brooksby from 1906, purchasing it from JG Williams in 1911. There is also a similar bust of Beatty outside the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. The Union flag worn by his flagship, Queen Elizabeth, when he sailed as Admiral of the Fleet to receive the surrender of the German High Seas Fleet hangs on the west wall. You will also find a memorial tablet carved in stone to the officers and men killed at the Battle of Jutland, May 31st 1916. The Jutland Memorial and Union Flag were restored as part of the commemoration of the centenary of The Battle of Jutland in 2016.
The Rev. H.S.T. Gahan, Rector of Brooksby and Thrussington 1923 -1956
As a young man, one of The Revd. Stirling Gahan claims to fame was as the chaplain who prayed with Nurse Edith Cavell on the eve of her execution in Brussels by the German military authorities.
Reproduced below is the account given by Mr. Gahan of that meeting with Nurse Cavell who had been convicted by the German authorities in occupied Belgium of assisting up to 200 Allied prisoners to escape to Holland and Britain from the hospital where she worked in contravention of German wartime law.
In spite of widespread international protest over the sentence Nurse Cavell was duly executed by firing squad on the night of 12 October 1915.
Account by Reverend H. Stirling Gahan on the Execution of Edith Cavell
‘On Monday evening, October 11th, I was admitted by special passport from the German authorities to the prison of St. Gilles, where Miss Edith Cavell had been confined for ten weeks.
The final sentence had been given early that afternoon.
To my astonishment and relief I found my friend perfectly calm and resigned. But this could not lessen the tenderness and intensity of feeling on either part during that last interview of almost an hour.
Her first words to me were upon a matter concerning herself personally, but the solemn asseveration which accompanied them was made expressedly in the light of God and eternity.
She then added that she wished all her friends to know that she willingly gave her life for her country, and said: “I have no fear nor shrinking; I have seen death so often that it is not strange or fearful to me.”
She further said: “I thank God for this ten weeks’ quiet before the end.” “Life has always been hurried and full of difficulty.” “This time of rest has been a great mercy.” “They have all been very kind to me here. But this I would say, standing as I do in view of God and eternity, I realize that patriotism is not enough. I must have no hatred or bitterness towards any one.”
We partook of the Holy Communion together, and she received the Gospel message of consolation with all her heart. At the close of the little service I began to repeat the words, “Abide with me,” and she joined softly in the end.
We sat quietly talking until it was time for me to go. She gave me parting messages for relations and friends. She spoke of her soul’s needs at the moment and she received the assurance of God’s Word as only the Christian can do.
Then I said “Good-bye,” and she smiled and said, “We shall meet again.”
The German military chaplain was with her at the end and afterwards gave her Christian burial.
He told me: “She was brave and bright to the last. She professed her Christian faith and that she was glad to die for her country.” “She died like a heroine.” ’
In later life Mr Gahan was regarded as somewhat eccentric. On Sundays when a cricket match was in progress on the Farm Institute playing field, he would shout “Sabbath breakers” as he cycled past to Brooksby Church. Another tale is that when he was approached about the possibility of a dance being held in Thrussington, he is alleged to have replied “Certainly, provided the young men attend on one evening and the young ladies on a different one”.
Brooksby Church archives contain a lengthy correspondence between the then principal of the farm institute, Mr Gahan, Rev. Thomas Howell Evans, Rector of Hoby and the Bishop of Leicester, Right Rev Guy Vernon Smith when the principal wished to invite Mr Howell Evans to the Farm Institute to conduct a service for the students. Mr Gahan was now an old man and the students apparently identified more closely with the younger Rector of Hoby. The correspondence went backwards and forwards over the course of a year and even though the Bishop was sympathetic and tried to persuade Mr Gahan, it fell on deaf ears and he would not let a young interloper set foot in his parish regardless of any spiritual benefit which might accrue.
Mr Gahan’s grave can be found in Thrussington churchyard close to the south door.