by Frank E Earp
As well as the legendary Fair Maid of Clifton, Nottingham has a second ‘fair maid’. She is Agnes Willoughby, the ‘Maid of Broxtowe’. Unlike her Clifton counterpart, Agnes’s story is supposedly based on actual events. It is the writer Thomas Bailey, in his book ‘Annals of Nottinghamshire’, who gives Agnes the title, ‘Maid of Broxtowe’. In fact Bailey is wrong, she should realy be call the Maid of Aspley and perhaps, Nottingham’s own Juliet. Her story is set amidst the turbulent times of the English Civil War and is the tale of two houses, Broxtowe Hall and Aspley Hall.
The dwelling known as Broxtowe Hall, stood on the site of the ancient manor of Broculeston. Passing through various hands, it was never more than a large country house. It was demolished in 1937 with the building of the Broxtowe estate, to make way for the houses on Broxtowe Hall Close, (off Broxtowe Lane). Although the site at Aspley is not as ancient as Broxtowe, the house has a more interesting history. More correctly known as Aspley Woodhouse, the area was an ancient forest that stretched into Wollaton and Bilborough. The first house on the site was a ‘hunting lodge’ belonging to Lenton Priory, (a sort of country retreat for the prior and his important guests). This building was a ‘tower house’, a stone tower with a wooden hall and kitchen attached.
After the Dissolution, in the reign of Elizabeth I, the lodge become the property of the Blyth family along with the valuable rights to timber and grazing. By 1600 the house had passed into the hands of a branch of the Willoughby family and was greatly remodelled. The tower remained a feature until the house was demolished in 1968. Aspley Hall was located a few hundred yards along Robin’s Wood Road from its junction with Aspley Lane.
During the Civil, Broxtowe Hall was fortified and held for Parliament under the command of a dashing young puritan officer, Captain Thornhaugh. Aspley Hall on the other hand, had been fortified for the King by the devoutly Catholic, Willoughby family. It is said that the two opposing sides eyed each other with a mutual contempt that seldom came to blows. This however, is not quite true, as both properties were damage during the conflict.
Agnes Willoughby was a very beautiful and pious young lady known for her acts of charity and other Christian works. One Sunday morning in 1645, Agnes set out from Aspley to take alms to a poor family who lived close by the church in Bilborough. Later that day, her mission complete, Agnes set-out to return home. At the same time, unbeknown to Agnes, Thornhaugh had set out, clutching his bible in hand, on his usual contemplative walks, and was heading in the direction of Bilborough. A little was out of the village, Agnes was set-upon by three armed rouges. Her screams came to the attention of Thornhaugh, who by this time was close by. He drew his pistol and ran in the direction of the cries. By the time he reached the spot of the affray, Agnes had already been drag from her horse and the men were about to violate her. Thornhaugh shouted a warning and shot dead one of the men. Not eager to tangle the gallant captain, the other two fled. Thornhaugh comforted the frightened girl and at great risk to himself escorted her home to her grateful father.
From that moment there was an instant attraction between the two young people. Thornhaugh, under a flag of truce, returned regularly to Ashley Hall to enquire as to Agnes’s health. When duties prevented such visits, Thornhaugh would write a long letter expressing his concerns for her well-being. Clearly both were in love. It was a love that could not be. The two were not only on opposite sides in a bloody conflict, there political and religious views were diametrically opposed. Agnes prayed for her love’s soul and begged him to renounce his heretical beliefs. Thornhaugh for his part was a good and loyal soldier and puritan to the roots. Despite his aching heart he could not give these things up. Then, one cold November morning Thornaugh received orders from his commander, Coln. Hutchinson, the captain was to take his small force and join the siege of Shelford. This he dutifully did, but whilst engaged in the action he was shot through the chest and mortally wounded. When she heard of his death, Agnes was inconsolable. She took to eating simple foods, dressing plainly and resolved never to marry. Agnes lived for another 60 years and dedicated that time to good works, praying for the soul of her love and believing that God would see fit to unite them in the after-life.