Willughby, Francis

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(b. Middleton, Warwickshire, England, 22 November 1635; d. Middleton, 3 July 1672)

natural history.

Willughby was the third child but only son of Sir Francis Willughby and his wife Cassandra, daughter of Thomas Ridgeway, earl of Londonderry. The Willughbys1 of Wollaton, Nottinghamshire, and Middleton, Warwickshire, were country gentry with estates in many English counties. Francis was educated at Sutton Coldfield School, and in September 1652 entered Trinity College, Cambridge, where John Ray was a lecturer and where their lifelong association began. Upon graduation in 1656, Willughby continued his scientific studies, possibly at Cambridge, in the late 1650’s2; and for a time in 1660 he was reading books on natural history at the Bodleian Library in Oxford. In 1663 he became one of the original fellows of the Royal Society of London.

During the summer of 1660, Willughby and Ray probably carried out their first tour together through northern England and the Isle of Man collecting botanical specimens. Accompanied by Philip Skippon, they made another tour through Wales and the west country in 1662. These tours were the prelude to a more ambitious journey. Their intentions had now widened into a comprehensive consideration of plants, birds, fish, animals, and insects. Sailing from Dover to Calais on 18 April 1663, Willughby, with Ray, Skippon, and Nathaniel Bacon, traveled through the Low Countries and Germany into Italy, where they spent the winter of 1663–1664 at Padua. It was there that they visited the botanical gardens and studied anatomy at the university, where Willughby matriculated in January 1664. At Naples, Willughby left the party and traveled through Spain before returning to England late in 1664. Besides collecting specimens, he purchased paintings or engravings of flowers, birds, fish, small mammals, and reptiles.

While Ray and Skippon were still abroad in March 1665, Willughby tapped birch trees and noted the behavior of the rising sap.3 In 1669 and succeeding years he expanded and continued these experiments with Ray. Willughby reported his observations on leaf-cutting bees and on ichneumon wasps to the Royal Society in 1670 and 1671. When his father died in December 1665, Willughby continued to live with his mother at Middleton, where in the winter of 1666–1667 Ray assisted him in the arrangement and labeling of the collection of specimens. Resuming their field explorations in the summer, they toured southwest England.

In January 1668 Willughby married Emma Barnard, the younger daughter of Sir Henry Barnard; they had two sons and a daughter. Willughby had suffered periods of ill health and was naturally inclined to a studious life, but this did not deter him from undertaking strenuous journeys. At the time of his death he was planning to visit North America to study the animals there.

Willughby’s work in natural history is inseparable from that of Ray, Skippon, and Francis Jessop. His name is associated particularly with birds, fish, animals, and insects, but his surviving collection shows that his botanical work was not insignificant. When Willughby died Ray was at Middleton, and he remained there until the winter of 1675– 1676, ostensibly as a trustee under Willughby’s will and as tutor to his children, but primarily working on his collections. When compiling Willughby’s Ornithologia (1676) and Historia piscium (1686), Ray supplemented Willughby’s material with that of himself and other naturalists. Similarly, Ray’s Historia plantarum and more especially his writings on animals and insects incorporated Willughby’s observations. They were following in the footsteps of Jean and Gaspard Bauhin, Aldrovandi, Gesner, and Rondelet, to whose nomenclature they largely adhered. They consciously adopted a systematic approach, compiling detailed descriptions based on personal observation. Willughby’s contribution was twofold: he gave encouragement and financial support to Ray: and he contributed his own field-work, experiments and observations, and his collection of plants, birds, and fishes. Willughby’s work was incomplete partly on account of his early death, and partly, perhaps, on account of the wideranging interests of the man who could compile notes on the history of his family or gather information on contemporary games with the same assiduity as he collected his specimens.4 It was left to Ray, with the help of Skippon and Jessop, his cotrustees, to assemble the material into a methodical presentable form.


1. There were many variants of the name. The modern spelling “Willoughby” was adopted by the naturalist’s son Thomas, first Baron Middleton.

2. Willughby’s commonplace book on a wide variety of religious, classical, and scientific subjects includes chemical experiments, some headed “Mr. Wrays,” dated 1658 and 1659. Middleton MS MiLM 15.

3.Ibid., botanical notes.

4. Middleton MSS MiLM 13 (notes based on the family archives) and MiLM 14 (a book on games); compare his lists of vocabularies in many languages compiled on the Welsh and continental tours, Mi 4/149a/3.1–16.


I. Original Works. Original MSS of and relating to Willughby, and his botanical specimens, are in the Middleton collection deposited in the Library Manuscripts Department of the University of Nottingham. Reports on the flow of sap in trees, leaf-cutting bees, and ichneumon wasps are in Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London,4 , no. 48 (1669), 963; no. 57 (1670), 1165; 5 , no. 58 (1670), 1199; no. 65 (1670), 2100; 6 , no. 70 (1671), 2125; no. 74 (1671), 2221; no. 76 (1671), 2279.

Other works are Observations, Topographical, Moral and Physical Made in a Journey Through the Low-Countries, Germany, Italy and France . . . by John Ray, Fellow of the Royal Society. Whereunto Is Added a Brief Account of Francis Willughby Esq.; His Voyage Through a Great Part of Spain (London, 1673); Francisci Willughbeü de Middleton in agro Waricensi, armigeri, e Regia Societate, Ornighologiae, libri tres . . . totum optus recognovit, digessit, supplevit Joannes Raius (London, 1676), trans. into English as The Ornithology of Francis Willughby of Middleton in the County of Warwick, Esq., Fellow of the Royal Society in Three Books . . . by John Ray, Fellow of the Royal Society (London, 1678); and Francisci Willughbeü armig. de Historia piscium libri quatuor . . . totum opus recognovit, coaptavit, supplevit, librum etiam primum et secundum integros adjecit Joannes Raius et Societate Regia (Oxford, 1686).

II. Secondary Literature. On Willughby and his work, see W. Blunt, The Art of Botanical Illustration (London, 1950), 68, which describes the book of flower paintings (Middleton MS MiLM22); G. S. Boulger in Dictionary of National Biography, XXI, 525–528; C. Brown, Lives of Nottinghamshire Worthies (London, 1882), 207–211; L. C. Miall, The Early Naturalists, Their Lives and Work (1530–1789) (London, 1912), 99–130; C. E. Raven, John Ray Naturalist, His life and Works (Cambridge, 1942; 2nd ed., 1950); M. A. Welch, “Francis Willoughby, F. R. S.(1635–1672),” in Journal of the Society for the Bibliography of Natural History,6 , pt.2 (1972), 71–85, which includes a descriptive archival list of the material in the Middleton collection; and A. C. Wood, ed., The Continuation of the History of the Willoughby Family by Cassandra Duchess of Chandos (Windsor, 1958), which is a printed edition of the contemporary account by the naturalist’s daughter (Middleton MS MiLM 37).

Mary A. Welch

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