Sir William Brereton from Cheshire has cropped up several times in my reading during the last couple of weeks. Initially it appears that Cheshire tried to sit on the fence. It sent no petitions to the king in the summer of 1642 whilst he was at York. Sir William Brereton, who had been an MP for Cheshire until Charles I dissolved Parliament, was a Deputy Lieutenant for the county and was in receipt of a memorandum from Parliament with regard to the recruitment of soldiers for the Earl of Essex’s army. He turned up at Lichfield, Nantwich and most importantly in Denbigh in 1645 when he was responsible for the defeat of the Royalists there, so who exactly was he?
He was born shortly after James I succeeded to the throne and by the time Charles I was king he had become a baronet. He seems to have travelled in the Low Countries and France. He was married to the daughter of Sir George Booth of Dunham Massey. Booth was well known for his puritanism. It is also apparent from William’s diaries that he leant towards puritanism and that as a JP in Cheshire he closed taverns and fined Catholics. It is perhaps not surprising to discover that by the end of 1642 he had been appointed to the position of commanding officer for the Parliamentarian troops in Cheshire.
An article in History Today reveals why history knows so much about the man. He was an inveterate letter writer. He wrote, it turns out, rather often with requests for assistance and cash in turning Cheshire into a godly Royalist-free county not that his ideal was realised during the 1643 summer of Royalist victories.
Initially Brereton tried to take hold of Chester for Parliament but was unable to capture it. Instead having taken Nantwich for the Parliamentarian cause in 1642 he made that his headquarters. From there he ranged along the Welsh marches on Parliament’s behalf and down through Cheshire to Stafford. He came with Sir John Gell of Hopton in Derbyshire to the siege of Lichfield and was concerned at the later siege of Tutbury that his colleague was far too lenient on the Royalist defenders. Across the region Brereton was only defeated once at the Battle of Middlewich on December 26 1643 but he swiftly recovered from this as he had to return with Sir Thomas Fairfax to Nantwich when Sir George Booth managed to get himself besieged by Lord Byron and Cheshire was more or less completely in the hands of the Royalists not that this stopped Brereton from establishing an impressive network of spies loyal to Parliament.
In January 1644 Sir Thomas Fairfax crossed the Pennines with men from the Eastern Association Army. On the 25th January his men were met by a Royalist army headed by Byron who was defeated. The place where the two armies collided was Necton but the disaster for the royalists has become known in history as the Battle of Nantwich. It meant that the king could not hold the NorthWest. Even worse Royalist artillery and senior commanders were captured along with the baggage train. None of this did any harm to Sir Thomas Fairfax’s reputation nor to Brereton who had command of the Parliamentarian vanguard.
It should be noted that one of his relations, another William Brereton was a Royalist. William Brereton of Brereton Hall at Holmes Chapel was married to the royalist general Goring’s daughter Elizabeth. Parliamentarian William did not hesitate to besiege his own relations who happened to disagree with him. Brereton Hall found itself under siege after the Battle of Nantwich.
In March 1644 Parliament granted him the right to “take subscriptions” in Cheshire to maintain his army not only against the Royalists but most especially against the hated Irish Forces for the “timely prevention of further mischiefs.”
From there Brereton became involved in the siege of Chester – at Nantwich Byron had been outside the town whilst at Chester he was inside the walls. In September 1645 Bristol in the command of Prince Rupert surrendered. The only remaining safe harbour to land troops loyal to the king was Chester. Lord Byron had withdrawn there following his defeat at Nantwich and Brereton had followed him. Byron held the river crossing and in so doing was denying the Parliamentarians a way into North Wales which was Royalist.
Bereton began by trying to scale the walls. When that strategy failed he set up blockades and tried to starve them out. In March the slimline Royalists and disgruntled townsfolk were given some respite by the arrival of Prince Maurice but in April Brereton returned and Chester’s rather lean diet continued. It didn’t help that Maurice had removed more than half of Byron’s men leaving only six hundred soldiers to defend the walls. By September the parliamentarians had pressed forward and were shelling Chester’s inner walls. The king himself set out to relieve the siege and possibly to break out from the Midlands and Wales.
Charles and his men were able to enter the city over the River Dee from the Welsh side of the city as that was still in Royalist hands. The idea was that Chalres and his cavalry would nip around the back of the besiegers and at the appropriate time Byron and his men would come bursting out of Chester squashing Brereton like a slice of meat between two Royalist slices of bread. King Charles took his place in Chester’s Pheonix Tower to watch the action. Unfortunately the Battle of Rowton Heath on 24 September 1645 did not go according to plan. Charles left Chester the following day with rather fewer men than he arrived, returning to the safety of Denbigh. From there he would go to Newark and on 5th May 1546 surrender himself into the custody of the Scots at Southwell.
Meanwhile Byron absolutely refused to surrender so Brereton’s men started mining beneath Chester’s walls, kept up a constant artillery barrage and ultimately encircled the city. It was the mayor of Chester who persuaded Byron that enough was enough. After Chester surrendered in January 1646, Brereton mopped up what royalists there still were in his region and in the course of his endeavours travelled as far south as Stow-on-the-Wold becoming the parliamentarian commander to take the surrender of the last royalist army in the field in 1646. It is perhaps not surprising given his capabilities that like Oliver Cromwell he was excluded from the Self Denying Ordinance that prevented members of Parliament from holding military commissions.
Interestingly after the end of the second, short lived, English Civil War he took no real part in the politics of the period. For instance he refused to sit as one of Charles I’s judges. It is perhaps for this reason that upon the Restoration in 1660 that he was allowed to continue to live in Croydon Palace which had been the home of the Archbishop of Canterbury but which a grateful Parliament had given to Brereton. Brereton had expressed his puritan views about Archbishop Laud, Charles I’s arminian archbishop by having his private chapel turned into a kitchen.
Brereton died the following year and managed with his death to add to the folklore of Cheshire. He died at Croydon Palace on the 7th April 1661 but he wished to be buried in Cheshire at Handforth Chapel near Cheadle where several of the family were buried including Sir Urien Brereton. Unfortunately it would seem that his coffin didn’t get there being swept away by a river in full spate as the funeral cortège was crossing it which is unfortunate to put it mildly although having said that he appears, according to findagrave.com to be safely buried in the church of St John the Baptist, Croydon also known as Croydon Minster.
For reference, and I don’t think I can describe it as a surprising connection given that the name is the same, the family was related to the earlier Sir William Brereton who had a bit of a reputation as a womaniser in Henry VIII’s court which was unfortunate because having delivered jewels to Anne Boleyn from the king and also given her a hound (which she named after Urien Brereton- the one buried At Handforth Chapel) he found himself in the rather unfortunate position of going from one of the king’s most trusted men (even being present at the wedding between Henry and Anne Boleyn) to being accused of being one of Anne Boleyn’s lovers in 1536. He was tried for treason on the 12 May 1536 and was beheaded on the 17th May.
‘March 1644: An Ordinance to enable Sir William Brereton Baronet, one of the Members of the House of Commons, to execute the several Ordinances of Parliament for advance of money within the County of Chester, and County and City of Chester, and to take Subscriptions for the better supply and maintenance of the Forces under his Command, for the security of the said places, and for prevention of the access of the Irish Forces into those parts.’, in Acts and Ordinances of the Interregnum, 1642-1660, ed. C H Firth and R S Rait (London, 1911), pp. 409-413. British History Online http://www.british-history.ac.uk/no-series/acts-ordinances-interregnum/pp409-413 [accessed 24 February 2018].