Willoughby Surname Meaning, History & Origin

Willoughby Surname Meaning

The Willoughby surname has its origin in the place-name Willoughby found in various counties – Lincolnshire, Leicestershire, Nottinghamshire, and Warwickshire – in the English Midlands.

The root of the name is the Old English word willig meaning “willow” plus byr a settlement or homestead. The name appeared as Wilgebiin the Domesday Book of 1086.

Willoughby Surname Resources on The Internet

Willoughby Surname Ancestry

  • from England (Lincolnshire and Derbyshire)
  • to Ireland, America, Caribs (Antigua), Canada, Australia and New Zealand

England. One Willoughby family had its origin in Lincolnshire. Ralph de Wilebi was recorded there around the year 1200.

Eresby Barons.  His great grandson Sir William de Willoughby married the heiress to the Baron of Eresby and from that union, around 1313, sprang the Barons Willoughby of Eresby who distinguished themselves in the French wars.  Katherine Willoughby, heiress to the 11th Baron, became the Duchess of Suffolk in 1533. 

From the Eresby line also came:

  • the Barons Willoughby de Broke, first established in Wiltshire in 1491
  • the Barons Willoughby of Parham, first established in Suffolk in 1547
  • whilst there were other descendants in Kent.

In 1626 the Eresby Barons were made the Earls of Lindsey. Since that time they have been associated with the hereditary office of the Lord Great Chamberlain.

Nottinghamshire.  Another Willoughby family can trace their descent back to a Nottingham merchant Ralph Bugge who had bought lands in Willoughby-on-the-Wolds in the 13th century. Sir Richard Willoughby, a lawyer, was Chief Justice of the Common Pleas in the 1330’s.

“In 1332 Sir Richard was kidnapped by the Folville gang who wanted 1,300 marks for his release. He was able to raise the money and was compensated by the Government with an annual payment of 100 marks.”  

These Willoughbys acquired the Wollaton estate in Nottinghamshire and later the Middleton estate in Warwickshire. Sir Francis Willoughby built Wollaton Hall in 1585. His heir Percival then established the family presence at Middleton and his descendants became Barons Middleton in 1711. They held Wollaton and Middleton Halls until their sale in the 1920’s.

A subsidiary line, which began in the 14th century, was the Willoughby family at Risley in Derbyshire. Sir Hugh Willoughby was an early Arctic explorer who died on his ship off Murmansk in the winter of 1554. Later came Sir Nesbit Willoughby, a British naval officer who was naval aide-de-camp to Queen Victoria in 1841.

Elsewhere.  By the 19th century the Willoughby name had extended south to London and as far west as Cornwall. The Willoughbys in Cornwall appeared to have come there in the 1640’s from Essex. In the latter part of the 18th and the early 19th century many of them were involved in copper and tin mining. As that industry declined, a number emigrated.  

Ireland. Sir Francis Willoughby from Middleton was a Major General in the army of Charles I and was made Governor of Dublin Castle in the early 1600’s. He had descendants in Ireland, the most prominent being Dr. Charles Willoughby, an eminent Dublin physician of the late 1600’s.

Another Willoughby family, supposedly related to the Eresby Willoughbys, established itself in Monaghan and Fermanagh in the early 1600’s. Nicholas Willoughby was High Sheriff of Fermanagh in the 1650’s. This family later became the Willoughby-Montgomerys.

America. There were early Willoughbys in New England and Virginia.

New England. Captain Francis Willoughby, descended from the Eresby Willoughbys, was a London shipwright and merchant who immigrated to Charlestown, Massachusetts in 1638. He was married three times and served as Deputy Governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony from 1665 to 1670. His story was recounted in Isaac Greenwood’s 1876 booklet The Willoughby Family of New England.

One descendant line via his son Nehemiah in Boston led to Goshen, Connecticut and then to Herkimer county, New York. Westel Willoughby was a distinguished medical practitioner in the early 1800’s after whom the town of Willoughby in Ohio was named. His son Westel was a lawyer in Virginia, his grandsons Westel and William noted academics. Another line via Nehemiah led to Bennington, Vermont and then, after the Revolutionary War, across the border into Canada.           

Virginia. Willoughby Bay was named after an early settler, Thomas Willoughby, who had arrived in Virginia in 1610. His descendants became major landowners by the time of the Revolutionary War. In 1794 Captain William Willoughby built in Norfolk county what is now known as the Willoughby-Baylor townhouse.     

“When William Willoughby died in 1800 at the age of 42, his estate included fourteen slaves and six dwellings. He was survived by his wife and two daughters. Daughter Eliza married Dr. Baynham Baylor and the house remained under the Baylor family name until it was sold in 1890.”

A Thomas Willoughby, believed to have been related to Percival Willoughby, received a land grant at Elizabeth City in 1628. He later settled in Lower Norfolk county at his plantation Willoughby’s Hope. His descendant Benjamin Willoughby moved to Greene county, Tennessee in the 1790’s.               

John Willoughby – either from Virginia or the Caribbean – was to be found in North Carolina (then called Albemarle) in the 1650’s. He was a member of the Albemarle Council in the 1670’s before being involved in Culpeper’s Rebellion.

Caribbean. Francis Lord Willoughby of Parham had commanded the Royal fleet in the Caribbean in 1650. Twelve years later, after the Restoration, he established himself as the Governor of Antigua. Although he died childless, his brother William and son Henry succeeded him as Governors and accumulated large land holdings there.

Canada. Percival Willoughby was one of the promoters in England of the colony in Newfoundland, even sending his son Thomas out to the early settlement there in 1612. Thomas was clearly the black sheep of the family and he stayed out of favor with his father.

Some Irish Willoughby immigrants came to Ontario. Thomas Willoughby from Cavan arrived in Lambton county sometime in the 1840’s. Charles Willoughby and his family from Wexford settled in Wellington county in the late 1840’s.

Australia.  The family story was that Richard Willoughby had been banished by his family in England and had come out to Australia sometime in the 1850’s where he and his wife Catherine raised three children.

New Zealand.  Frederick Willoughby and his family from Oxfordshire came to Tasmania in 1857 and moved onto New Zealand a few years later, settling in Hokitiki on the NZ West Coast.

Willoughby Surname Miscellany

Willoughby Locations in the English Midlands.  Four  locations are extant today;

  • Willoughby is a village in the East Lindsey district of Lincolnshire, some three miles south of the market town of Alford and on the edge of the Lincolnshire Wolds
  • Willoughby Waterleys, formerly known as Willoughby Waterless, a small village in the Harborough district of Leicestershire
  • Willoughby on the Wolds a small village in Nottinghamshire on the border with Leicestershire
  • while Willoughby is a village about five miles south of Rugby in Warwickshire.

The two main Willoughby family lines came from Willoughby in Lincolnshire and Willoughby in Nottinghamshire.

Katherine Willoughby in Tudor Times.  Born in 1519, Katherine was the daughter of the 11th Baron Willoughby of Eresby.  When she was just seven years old, her father died and – with no male son surviving – Katherine was his heir.

Events then took an unusual turn.  She came under the wardship of the King (Henry VIII) who promptly sold her to Charles Brandon, the Duke of Suffolk, for a huge sum.  In 1533 the Duke married Katherine.  He was forty-nine and she just fourteen at the time and no doubt she had no say in the matter.  They made their home at Grimsthorpe castle in Lincolnshire.

The Duke died in 1545, leaving Katherine a widow at just twenty-six.  However, as the Duchess of Suffolk and the mistress of Grimsthorpe, she was a powerful woman in her own right.  She married Richard Bertie, her gentleman usher, in 1552.

But there were scary times ahead.  Both Katherine and her husband were devout Protestants and prominent ones at that.  When Queen Mary, a Catholic, ascended the throne in 1553, they felt they had to flee for their lives.

They were on the run on the Continent for three years with agents pursuing them.  During that time their son was born.  He received the name of Peregrine because of their nomadic lifestyle.  Only with the accession of Queen Elizabeth in 1558 could they safely return to England.

The line from Peregrine had two very notable descendants:

  • Peregrine Maitland, a hero at the Battle of Waterloo in 1815
  • and Andrew Lloyd Webber, the famous present-day composer and impresario of musical theater.

Sir Francis Willoughby of Wollaton.  Francis’s father, Sir Henry Willoughby, had inherited Wollaton and other properties at the death of his uncle in January 1549.  However, only a few months later Sir Henry was slain on Mousehold Heath in the suppression of Kett’s rebellion against landowners in Norfolk.

In 1559 Francis’s elder brother Thomas died, leaving no issue, and Francis inherited the family estates.  He developed coal mines on his estate at Wollaton in the 1560’s and 1570’s. This enabled him to maintain a lordly lifestyle, maintaining a number of gentleman retainers.  He employed Robert Smythson who had previously worked at Longleat to build him a mansion.  Wollaton Hall was completed in 1585.

Francis’s latter life was not so happy.  At the age of seventeen, he had married Elizabeth Littleton.  This proved to be a turbulent marriage and produced only daughters.  By 1580, when his one male heir died aged six, he became separated from his wife.  He then decided to make Percival Willoughby of Bore Place in Kent who had married his eldest daughter Bridget his principal heir.

Francis had entered into a number of speculative ventures, including growing and processing woad at Wollaton and a plantation in Ireland.  These took capital, as did his various ironworks.  He borrowed. And he found he was unable to pay his debts as well as providing dowries for his daughters.

Francis died under mysterious circumstances in London in 1596.  He left Percival an estate encumbered with debt.

The Willoughbys in Cornwall.  The forebear of this family was Thomas Willoughby who was born in Essex.  He seems to have left that county in something of a hurry and headed for Cornwall, marrying Margaret Nicholas in Wendron in 1647.

The main line descended from his son Thomas, born in 1649, who was married twice and was the father of eleven children.  Thomas was buried in Ilogan, which was where both his wives seems to have come.

In the latter part of the 18th and the early 19th century many of these Willoughbys were involved ln copper and tin mining. As that industry declined, a number emigrated – notably to the US, Canada and Australia.

Robert Willoughby joined the Texas militia warring against Mexican border posts in 1842, later settled in Texas, but ended up being killed in New Orleans in 1864 during the Civil War.

Thomas Willoughby was a miner who arrived in Pennsylvania in the 1860’s and later migrated west to Raton, New Mexico where he died in 1892.

Charles Willoughby ordained as a Congregational minister and was sent by the London Missionary Society to Central Africa in 1882.  He remained in Bechuanaland (now Botswana) until 1918 and then taught in America for a dozen years before his retirement.

The Ancestry of Francis Willoughby, New England Immigrant 

Thomas Willoughby, born 1486 in Eresby, Lincolnshire, married Bridget Read

  • – Christopher Willoughby, born 1513 in Surrey, married Margaret Tottishurst
  • — Christopher Willoughby, born 1538 in Kent, married Martha
  • — William Willoughby, born 1588 in Kent, married Elizabeth Locke
  • —- Francis Willoughby, born 1612 in London, married (first wife) Sarah Taylor
  • —– Nehemiah Willoughby, born 1644 in Boston, married Susanna Lynde.

Captain Francis Willoughby first arrived in Boston in 1638.  One family relic is the old Wiiloughby chest which was given to Nehemiah Willoughby and Susanna Lynde on their wedding in 1683.

Early Willoughbys in Virginia.  Thomas Willoughby from Lincolnshire came to Virginia at the age of twenty-three as early as 1610.

Thanks to a carrot offered by the London Society for Colonizing Virginia, anyone who imported a person into the colony at their own expense received 50 acres of land.  Willoughby apparently brought four servants, thus qualifying him for a few hundred acres.

Willoughby, a merchant, eventually married and had a family.  His son Thomas was born in Virginia in 1632.   He went on to serve in the House of Burgesses in Williamsburg, was a judge in the monthly court system, and became a Justice of the Peace when Lower Norfolk county was formed in 1637.  His name is perpetuated by Willoughby Bay along the Virginia coastline.

The family stayed put and enlarged its holdings over the years.  By the time of the Revolutionary War the Willoughby family’s holdings had grown to 12,000 acres. Much of this land stayed in family hands until the late 1800’s.

Legend has it that seven generations of Willoughbys were buried at a site that fell victim to rising sea waters.  One friend of the family said that the location of the cemetery was lost and then rediscovered inadvertently.  Someone swimming in about twenty feet of water in Willoughby Bay came across some rocks.  With his toe he was able to trace the indentations.   It was the name Willoughby, inscribed upon a tombstone.

Richard Willoughby and Catherine Hayes.  Richard Willoughby was born near Bristol in 1832 and raised in a lordly Willoughby family, probably the Willoughbys de Broke.  It appears that Richard was found in a compromising position with the Irish scullery maid Catherine Hayes.

One story has Catherine sent packing to Australia on the Pekin in 1853.  Richard was cut off from the family and then banished there a few years later.  Richard and Catherine had three children in Australia – Hugh born in 1861, Mary born in 1863 and George born in 1865.  Another story had them being sent to Ireland instead.

Willoughby Names

  • Sir Richard Willoughby was Chief Justice of the Common Pleas in the 1330’s. 
  • Sir Hugh Willoughby was an early Arctic explorer who died on his ship in 1554. 
  • Francis Lord Willoughby of Parham commanded the Royal fleet in the Caribbean in 1650 and resurfaced as the Governor of Antigua in 1663. 
  • Westel Willoughby was a prominent physician in New York in the early 1800’s.
  • Holly Willoughby has been a popular presenter on ITV’s This Morning on British TV since 2009.

Willoughby Numbers Today

  • 6,000 in the UK (most numerous in Warwickshire)
  • 6,000 in America (most numerous in Kentucky)
  • 4,000 elsewhere (most numerous in Australia)

Willoughby and Like Surnames

Some surnames have originated from the English Midlands – the swathe of countryside which covers such counties as Warwickshire, Leicestershire, Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire.  These are some of the noteworthy surnames that you can check out.


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Written by Colin Shelley

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