Chances are, if you asked this question (always providing the person had heard of him at all) the answer would be something about a dashing young courtier who was beheaded for having an affair with Henry VIII’s second wife, Anne Boleyn. But who was he, really?
The Breretons (pronounced Brear-ton) originated in Brereton, in east Cheshire, although there were other branches of the family. There were Breretons of Brereton, the Breretons of Malpas, the Breretons of Tatton, the Breretons of Aldford, the Breretons of Ashley, the Breretons of Handforth. For seven hundred years, they spread across the Cheshire plain, leaving memorials of themselves in many ancient churches and chapels. Brereton does have an old Brereton Hall, a Grade I listed Elizabethan mansion, which was later a girls’ school, hotel and home of a pop star (rumoured to be Gary Barlow), but it was started decades after Will was dead. I have not been able to establish if there was an earlier house on the site. Our Will Brereton was one of the Breretons of Malpas, way down in the south-west of the county near its border with Wales. The family crest was a muzzled bear, commemorating the legend that an early Brereton, having murdered a servant in rage, was told by the king his life would be spared if he could invent an effective bear-muzzle in a set period of time. Brereton was left alone with a bear, his new invention worked and he lived to tell the tale. There is a curious emphasis on bears in this part of the word – they were clearly very popular. Neighbouring Congleton, known as ‘bear town’, made history by choosing to have a new dancing bear instead of a Bible, leading to the rhyme which is still current, ‘Congleton rare, Congleton rare, sold the Bible to buy a bear’ (‘rare’ in local dialect meaning fantastic or entertaining). Its brewery is The Beartown Tap. Brereton itself has a splendid old pub called the Bear’s Head.
Anyway, down in Malpas Will’s father, Sir Randal Brereton, was a real bigwig. Knight banneret to Henry VII and Chamberlain of the county of Chester, he was ennobled for conspicuous valour at the battles of Terouanne and Tournai in France; his magnificent tomb, complete with his effigy and that of his wife Lady Eleanor, can still be seen in St Oswald’s church in Malpas. They had the tomb built in 1522, long before either died. Will therefore grew up as the son of an extremely important man, somewhat in the tradition of the old Marcher lords who kept an iron grip on the border counties between England and Wales by dint of a ruthless exercise of power.
Randal had twelve children, all by Lady Eleanor. Will was the sixth. With an allowance of twopence a day (just about enough to get by on, if you were careful), Will’s path was not so very privileged but was smoothed along by his father’s connections at the royal court, and Will eventually became a Groom of the King’s Privy Chamber, waiting upon King Henry VIII himself (his tasks included ‘warming the king’s shirt’). Inevitably, such close proximity to the king led to his being trusted with other important tasks, and, in 1530, when the king was asking the Pope to annul Henry’s marriage with Catherine of Aragon, Brereton was given the job of riding all over the realm collecting signatures for a letter trying to persuade the Pope that all England wanted him to declare the marriage void (the letter still exists, in the Vatican archives in Rome). He rode across to Essex, East Anglia and Lincolnshire, and up to Cumberland and Durham, then down to Shropshire, collecting signatures from the great and the good, including Cardinal Wolsey (who was, at that time, up in Yorkshire having fallen out of the king’s favour). A contemporary account, by Wolsey’s servant, still exists of their meeting. Here is an extract:
‘ …. after long talk they took out of a bundle a certain coffer [a box] covered with green velvet and bound with bars of silver and gilt, with a lock on the same, having a key which was gilt. [They took out] a certain instrument or writing [covering several skins of parchment] having many great seals hanging at it, whereunto they put more wax for my Lord [Wolsey]’s seal, the which my Lord sealed with his own seal and subscribed his name to the same. And that done, they would needs depart.’
Another important errand was taking a consignment of jewels to Anne Boleyn, the king’s prospective second wife. Having proved useful to the king, Brereton amassed quite a pile of wealth, ending up with thirty-six offices (prestigious posts) in Cheshire and North Wales, including controlling several monasteries, taking charge of the ferries crossing the Menai Straits and taking over as Chamberlain of the county of Chester, his father’s old post. He farmed stock and sold expensive woollen blankets and supplied timber to the royal household. He caught hawks in Wales and ventured into moneylending. He also acquired properties in the city of London and in Greenwich, eventually marrying very well, to a rich widow who was a relation of the king himself. He insisted that people favourable to him be appointed to posts in what was almost becoming his personal fiefdom of Cheshire and N. Wales. Ultimately, he controlled a vast swathe of territory from Cardigan Bay in the West to the Peak District in the East – and he wasn’t even a member of the aristocracy. Some might say he was getting too big for his boots. Inevitably, complaints began to circulate: his ruffians were rustling cattle, they robbed the Earl of Arundel’s tenants in Oswestry, they shot (with an arrow) a man who complained about ‘evil rule in a good town’. Brereton blamed one of his deputies, Eyton, for the killing, and they fell out. It landed in court, but the jurors refused to agree, whereupon Brereton or one of his assistants had them imprisoned in Holt Castle. The jury was then changed, and Eyton was found guilty, and sent to London under armed guard: but when he got there, he was acquitted, and freed. Brereton got another warrant for Eyton’s arrest (all sounding a bit Tommy Robinson here) and he ended up in the Tower. Quickly tried, Eyton was soon hanged. This seems to have ruffled quite a few feathers and the injustice of it festered.
Did Brereton commit adultery with Queen Anne Boleyn? It seems very unlikely. He strenuously denied it. He wasn’t arrested at first with the others, but a few days later, almost as an afterthought. Moreover, the dates when he was supposed to have had ‘criminal conversation’ with her were when she was either lying secluded in childbed having given birth to the baby who would later be Elizabeth I, or when the court was not where the accusation said it was. There was no evidence he had ever been unduly close to Anne. His wife did not believe it, either – she honoured his memory after his death (unlikely if the charges were true), leaving a bracelet to her son that was ‘the last gift your father gave me’.
Professor Eric Ives, who has made a study of this, thinks that Brereton had become an inconvenience and was got rid of at a handy moment. The government had decided to clear up the mess in N. Wales and Cheshire, organising the Principality into English-style counties, and at the same time putting a lid on the simmering resentments Brereton’s high-handed rule had caused. He was caught in a sort of mopping-up operation at a moment when he could be disposed of under a different heading, his name hidden somewhere amongst a list of others. It can’t have hurt, either, that, as an executed traitor, all Brereton’s wealth would all be forfeited to the king.
That same year, 1536, an Act was passed ‘turning Wales into shireground’, and ensuring no one man would ever have as much consolidated power in that area as Brereton had held. A system of JPs such as England had was put in place. England and Wales were finally united under the same sort of local government structure.
So how did the BBC portray this grizzled, fifty-year old seasoned campaigner and Marcher lord, Will Brereton, in ‘The Tudors’? Why, as a hot-headed young Catholic emissary straight from the Pope in Rome, charged with the assassination of Anne Boleyn, of course. Er, OK.
A talk by Professor Eric Ives Lecture on William Brereton and the Pork Barrel
© Foxoles 2018