Tag Archives: Sir John Gell

Sir William Brereton (1604-1661) – Parliamentarian Commander of Cheshire

sir william brereton

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.

 

Sir_John_Gell_originalInitially 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.

 

thomas fairfaxIn 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.”

 

Lord John ByronFrom 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.

Porter, Stephen. http://www.historytoday.com/stephen-porter/letter-books-sir-william-brereton

http://www.historyofparliamentonline.org/volume/1604-1629/member/brereton-sir-william-1604-1661

https://www.hslc.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2017/06/47-8-Robinson.pdf

 

‘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].

 

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Sir John Gell – Parliamentarian

Sir_John_Gell_original.jpgOne of the things I like about the summer is the opportunity to get sidetracked, which is exactly what I’ve done in this post. I mentioned in my last post that Sir John Gell besieged Royalists holed up in Lichfield Cathedral in March 1643. John Gell was born at Hopton Hall, near Wirksworth in Derbyshire. Hopton Hall today is known for its snowdrops, its roses and its undulating crinklecrankle garden walls.

The Gells were a wealthy family with their flocks of sheep and lead mines. John was born in 1593. Shortly after John’s birth his father died and his mother Millicent, pregnant with John’s brother Thomas, married John Curzon of Kedleston Hall. In addition to John’s younger brother Millicent also provided a half-brother rather confusingly also called John. Gell raised at Kedleston followed the career path of a young gentleman of his era. He went to university but did not take a degree. He married into the local gentry and then proceeded to create a family and get a reputation for womanizing. He is recorded as saying that he never meddled with women unless they were handsome! No one thought to ask his wife her opinion on the subject nor did it seem to interfere with Gell’s Presbyterianism.

 

Our story really starts in 1635 when Gell was appointed sheriff of Derbyshire and given the unpleasant task of collecting Charles I’s ship money. This tax was usually raised in coastal locations to build, outfit and crew ships to fend off pirates….there isn’t much call for sea-going vessels in Derbyshire which rather explains why Charles I’s little wheeze to raise taxes without having to call a Parliament caused consternation across the country. Gell collected the money in Derbyshire rather enthusiastically. It caused huge resentment not least when Sir John Stanhope was charged twenty-four pounds ship money which he refused to pay. Stanhope happened to be the brother of the Earl of Chesterfield. This together with some earlier cause for dislike resulted in a long-standing feud between Gell with Sir John Stanhope and his brother the earl of Chesterfield.

 

Gell became a baronet in January 1642 presumably for his efficient way with the collection of taxes but supported Parliament on the outbreak of civil war when the king raised his standard in Nottingham that same year. It might be possible that it wasn’t religion that caused Gell to side with Parliament, or his connection with Parliamentarian inclined Derby (as a general rule of thumb, to which there are exceptions, towns tended to be more Parliamentarian in outlook whilst the countryside was more Royalist). What else could it be? Well, it could have been concern that Parliament might have wanted a word about those pesky ship taxes or it could have been the fact that the Stanhopes declared for the king – and Gell, if you recall, did not like the Stanhopes one little bit.

 

Gell threw himself into his new role when he was commissioned by the Earl of Essex to secure Derbyshire for Parliament. He went to Hull where he took charge of a company of London volunteers. They returned with Gell to Derby which became a center for infantry and cavalry regiments. Unfortunately, Derby had no castle or walls. It was Gell who ordered the construction of defensive earthworks.

 

One of the first things that Gell did was to order the siege of Bretbey House – it was owned by Philip Stanhope, Earl of Chesterfield. More famously he also besieged Wingfield Manor but by then he had settled his squabble with Stanhope. Lord Chesterfield took Lichfield for the king in 1643. Gell and his men joined Lord Brooke there in March. Brooke was killed early in the siege so Gell took over command and when the Royalists surrendered a few days later, the rank and file were permitted to leave without their weapons but Philip Stanhope, Lord Chesterfield was dispatched to London in chains where he remained in captivity until his death in 1656.

 

Many of the Royalists who were allowed to march away from Lichfield sought a new army to join. They made for Stafford which was at that time in Royalist hands under the command of the earl of Northampton.  Gell joined forces with Sir William Bereton of Cheshire. The resulting battle at Hopton Heath near Stafford which has nothing to do with Hopton in Derbyshire was indecisive but the Earl of Northampton was killed.

 

Gell now did something that would earn him the lasting enmity of Charles I. Gell asked for the artillery that he had lost at Hopton Heath to be returned. He also asked the earl’s son for the money that Gell had laid out to have the earl embalmed. Both requests were declined. In response, Gell who had removed the earl’s body from the battlefield had Northampton’s body paraded through the streets of Derby before it was buried.

 

The following year, and after the death of his first wife in October 1644, he married Mary Stanhope, the widow Sir John Stanhope. The marriage was swiftly dissolved. Your guess is as good as mine as to whether that was a match made in Heaven.

 

Gell seems to have become a steadily more  loose canon after 1644. He appointed his friends and family to important positions; allowed his troops to plunder and ignored Fairfax’s order that his troops should join with Fairfax at Naseby. His actions were so suspicious that Parliament believed that Gell was thinking of changing his allegiance. This thought was probably also voiced the following year at the siege of Tutbury Castle when Gell offered different, and rather more lenient, surrender terms than those offered by his fellow commander – Bereton who you will recall had been with Gell at the Battle of Hopton Heath.

 

Rather bizarrely Gell tried to gain a pardon for his role in the war from Charles I during his imprisonment at Carisbrooke Castle by offering to lend him £900 in gold.  In 1650, he was found guilty of plotting against the Commonwealth. Charles II planned to return to his kingdom via Scotland but wanted to be sure of having an army to command.  His council wanted to ensure that parliament didn’t know where the king was going to pop up.   Blank commissions were sent secretly to England with a view to raising divisions of men but the Commonwealth tracked many of these commissions and in so doing unearthed more than one royalist sympathiser. Gell was lucky not to be hanged like the unfortunate Dr Lewen who was found with several of these commissions. Instead, Gell was imprisoned in the Tower of London until 1652 when he was freed. He lived in London rather than returning to Derbyshire.

 

Charles II pardoned him for his role in the civil war and granted him a position at court, where he remained until his death in October 1671. His body was returned to Derbyshire. He is buried in Wirksworth.

 

 

Brighton, Trevor (2004) Sir John Gell. Oxford DNB.

Stone, Brian (1992) Derbyshire in the Civil War. Cromford: Scarthin Books

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Lichfield Cathedral: a prince and duchess and rather a lot of gunpowder

DSC_0049Lichfield Cathedral was besieged not once, not twice but thrice during the English Civil War.

On the first occasion in March 1643 the Royalists found themselves holed up in the cathedral surrounded by a parliamentarian force. Lord Brooke, Parliamentarian in charge of dislodging them went to take a look at the close and was shot and killed by a sniper firing from the central spire of the cathedral – a remarkable feat of marksmanship by John “Dumb” Dyott – so called because he was deaf and dumb. It was remarkably unlucky for Brooke who had only recently arrived in Lichfield.  Depending on your viewpoint Brooke died, shot through the eye,  either at the hands of a thoroughly bad lot or expired still spouting hatred with his last breath.  The event is recorded on a plaque on Dam Street.

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The Parliamentarians were reinforced by Derbyshire men led by Sir John Gell of Hopton Hall near Wirksworth in Derbyshire. In addition artillery arrived and in a decidedly dastardly gesture the Parliamentarians used the relations of the Royalists as a human shield. The first siege came to a close when the royalists negotiated surrender. Their leader the Earl of Chesterfield found himself in the Tower whilst his men, although disarmed, were free to go and find themselves another army.

 

It was at this point that the Parliamentarians demonstrated their thuggish tendencies by destroying much of DSCF2382.jpgthe stained glass, defacing the sculpture and destroying much Lichfield Cathedral’s library. Together with the destruction of the third siege in 1646 the only text that remains of the original cathedral library is one volume of the eighth century Lichfield Gospels which was either found or given into the care of Frances, Duchess of Somerset who owned property in the area (her father was Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex and former favourite of Elizabeth I executed for treason in 1601. Her mother was Frances Walsingham daughter of Francis Walsingham.) She returned the gospels along with a further thousand books from her husband’s collection.  Today the gospels are on display in the Chapter House together with the Lichfield Angel, a wonderful piece of eighth century carving.

 

If I had been describing a football match I would describe the lull after the first siege as a half time interval with a change of ends. The Parliamentarians made the most of their time when not breaking glass and sharpening their swords on centuries old grotesques to strengthen their defences and make good some of the holes in cathedral’s medieval close walls.

 

The match resumed on 7 April 1643 with the arrival of Prince Rupert of the Rhine. The Parliamentarians withdrew from the town of Lichfield to the cathedral and the close. Rupert and his men bounced cannonballs from the cathedral, attempted to scale the walls with ladders and then mined the fortified close. The cannon weren’t really up to the job and it can’t have helped Rupert’s temper when the commander of the Parliamentarians offered to lend him a barrel of powder. Rupert is described as “bellowing at the defenders like a lion” (Gaunt: 138). The prince turned to his mining tactics and the Parliamentarians counter-mined.  A tower in the wall collapsed.  The defenders ultimately negotiated terms and marched off into the sunset leaving a rather sadly battered Lichfield Cathedral in the hands of the royalists for the next three years.

 

In March 1646 that all changed. The war wasn’t going well for the royalists who prepared for a siege. The parliamentarians duly arrived along with their artillery and duly blew up the central spire that fell into the nave and the choir. The garrison didn’t surrender until July when they received a letter from the king telling them to make what terms they could.

The Royalists marched out with their heads held high but the cathedral was in, what can only be described as, a right state.  The local Roundheads decided that the best use for the building was as a pigpen, a calf was baptised and Parliament decided that the best thing to do was to demolish the cathedral given that it was so badly damaged.  It was suggested that if the lead was removed from the roof it wouldn’t take long for the whole structure to collapse (Spraggon: 197).  It was the eighteenth century before the cathedral was restored.

 

Gaunt, Peter. (2014) The English Civil War: A Military History. London: Tauris & Co

Spraggon, Julie. (2003) Puritan Iconoclasm During the English Civil War. Woodbridge: Boydell Press

Double click on the picture below for a new window and a much more detail insight to the three sieges of Lichfield Cathedral as well as the people who were involved with events.

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