The History of Parliament’s biographical approach to studying the Lords and Commons frequently throws up unexpected personal details, sometimes in the least promising places. The surviving archive for the Jacobean barons Willoughby of Parham is small, and the individuals concerned were of little note even in their own day. With limited resources and mounting debts, they avoided Court, and contented themselves with the drudgery of local administration. Most historians have ignored them. In this procession of nonentities, the prize for least memorable family member would seem to go to Henry, 4th Lord Willoughby. According to the Complete Peerage, he inherited his title in 1617, aged just four years and eleven months, and died shortly afterwards, his brother Francis succeeding him as 5th baron sometime around 1618. And yet, one quite remarkable fact has emerged about Henry which gives him a very special status in the annals of the English peerage. He never actually existed.
Unsurprisingly, the earliest historical accounts of the Willoughby family do not mention Henry. Indeed, he seems not to have featured in their pedigree until the 1756 edition of Arthur Collins’ Peerage of England. Just a few years earlier, the Harleian manuscripts had been acquired for the newly-founded British Museum. In this collection Collins found a transcript of the official survey made of the 3rd Lord Willoughby’s estates after his death, including the all-important details of his heir. Collins duly summarized this survey in the Peerage, citing the transcript as his evidence for Henry’s brief career, and his account has remained unchallenged down to the present day. But everything rests on that 1617 survey. No other evidence for Henry’s life has ever emerged. And Collins was mistaken. The surviving copies of the original survey all state quite clearly that the 3rd Lord Willoughby’s heir, aged four years and eleven months, was his son Francis. Moreover, this information was also recorded accurately in the Harleian manuscript used by Collins. In other words, Henry Willoughby owes his existence to an eighteenth-century transcription error.
How, then, do we explain Henry’s striking longevity? Three factors seem relevant here. First, the Willoughby title fell dormant in 1779, and the demise of the barony plunged the family into even greater historical obscurity, reducing the likelihood of further detailed research which might have revealed Collins’ error. Second, from the mid-eighteenth century it became standard practice for histories of the peerage to assign numbers to the successive holders of aristocratic titles, rather than simply listing them in order of descent. Thus, within a decade or so of Henry’s first appearance, he was identified in print specifically as the 4th Lord Willoughby. Being embedded in a numerical list made his place in the family’s pedigree more secure, as his removal would leave an inconvenient gap, a consideration which almost certainly discouraged subsequent historians from inquiring too closely into Henry’s insignificant life.
The third, and most important factor, is scholarly reputation. Collins’ Peerage was widely regarded as the most reliable work of its kind prior to the publication of the Complete Peerage in the twentieth century. As Collins not only provided a reference for the 1617 survey, but reproduced much of its contents, this evidently satisfied subsequent historians about the truth of Henry’s existence. Noted nineteenth-century authorities on the peerage, such as Nicholas Harris Nicolas and William Courthope, endorsed Collins’ findings in their own publications. When the great C.H. Firth contributed a lengthy biography of Francis, 5th Lord Willoughby to the Dictionary of National Biography, he also mentioned Henry’s brief tenure of the barony, confidently citing Collins as his source. By the 1950s the editors of the Complete Peerage had, to be fair, developed doubts about the veracity of the Willoughby pedigree, going so far as to speculate that the name in the 1617 survey might be a mistake. However, they then dismissed this idea, appealing to the judgment of Nicolas and Courthope to justify their decision, and drawing a veil over the vital issue that they too had copied Collins rather than checking his facts. That, in effect, was Henry’s final seal of approval. The Complete Peerage is nowadays the acknowledged arbiter in the arcane field of aristocratic titles, and the way was clear for Henry to make a final leap into the twenty-first century. With Collins, Firth and the Complete Peerage all affirming his existence, in 2004 he duly featured in the 5th Lord Willoughby’s revised entry in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.
Does any of this matter? Henry’s deletion from the Willoughby pedigree is a very minor act of historical infanticide. The family’s annals barely look any different with or without his presence. There is indeed a comedic aspect to the persistence of a ‘false fact’ through two-and-a-half centuries, and I can’t deny that I’ve enjoyed following Henry’s trail since uncovering Collins’ mistake. And yet, this is also a cautionary tale. In an era when revisionist analysis and new interdisciplinary approaches are all the rage in historical circles, Henry Willoughby is a tiny but timely reminder that we still need to get our facts right.