Mark Smeaton, Sir Henry Norris, Queen Anne Boleyn and her brother George Boleyn, Lord Rochford, were already imprisoned in the Tower of London and this day in history, 4th May 1536, saw two others being apprehended and added to their number: Sir Francis Weston and William Brereton.
Francis Weston was the son of Sir Richard Weston and Anne Sandys, a former lady-in-waiting to Catherine of Aragon.1 He became a Gentleman of the Privy Chamber in 1532 and was made a Knight of the Bath during the celebrations for Anne Boleyn’s coronation in 1533. He was also made joint governor of Guernsey with his father in 1533. Records show that he was a favourite of both the King and Anne Boleyn, a friend of Lord Rochford (George Boleyn), a member of the rising Boleyn faction and a popular man of the King’s court. He was also a talented lute player, a first class athlete and often played tennis, bowls and cards with the King.2 In 1530, the King paid him sixteen angels after Weston beat him at Tennis four times. He was said to be the King’s favourite page and George Cavendish, Cardinal Wolsey’s gentleman-usher, described Weston as being “daintily nourished under the King’s wing”.3 He was just twenty-five years old at his arrest.
It appears that his arrest was down to Anne Boleyn’s ramblings in the Tower, as she tried to figure out why she had been arrested. Anne had spoken to her attending ladies (some of whom were spies for Kingston) of her fear about what Weston would say about her and Kingston reported the story she told:
“the Quene spake of Wes[ton, saying that she] had spoke to hym bycause he did love hyr kynswoman [Mrs. Skelton, and] sayd he loved not hys wyf, and he made ansere to hyr [again that h]e loved wone in hyr howse better then them bothe. And [the Queen said, Who is] that? It ys yourself. And then she defyed hym, as [she said to me].”4
So Anne had rebuked Weston for loving Mistress Shelton, and not his wife, and he had answered that he actually loved someone better than both his wife and Shelton, and that was Anne. Eric Ives writes of how “all this was evidently part of a cheeky game”5 and it does appear to be nothing more than flattery and part of the ritual of courtly love, where it was the courtier’s job to proposition the lady and flatter her. However innocent this conversation, though, it was ammunition for Cromwell to use against Anne and was also another man, another case of adultery to back up Mark Smeaton’s confession and bolster the case.
William Brereton (or Bryerton) was the sixth son of a leading, landowning Cheshire family. He was born between 1487 and 1490, making him in his late forties at his arrest. Brereton, like three of his brothers, entered royal service and by 1524 (perhaps even 1521) he had become a groom of the privy chamber.6 Historian Eric Ives writes of how Brereton was “the dominant royal servant in Cheshire and north Wales” due to his wealth, his royal grants and his father’s power in Cheshire.7 On his father’s death, he was appointed Chamberlain of Chester. When Henry finally separated from Catherine of Aragon, Brereton was made receiver-general in Cheshire and Flint to Catherine, in her new position as Dowager Princess of Wales, and Ives estimates that Brereton’s gross income in the early 1530s was around £1300 a year, a large amount in those days.8
In 1529/1530, Brereton married Lady Elizabeth Savage, widow of Sir John Savage of Clifton, Cheshire, and daughter of Charles Somerset, 1st Earl of Worcester, the King’s second cousin. Her brother was Henry Somerset who had become the 2nd Earl of Worcester in 1526 on the death of his father. This marriage brought Brereton closer to the King, who trusted Brereton enough in 1531 to give him the job of delivering jewels to Anne Boleyn. He may also have been chosen to be present at the King’s secret marriage, to Anne, in January 1533. Brereton’s name was also on the list of those who attended Anne’s coronation celebrations when Henry VIII dubbed around 50 knights bachelor. Eric Ives also writes of how Brereton was in charge, helped by Thomas Wriothesley, of riding around the country in 1530 to collect signatures from the “elite of England” on a petition begging the Pope for Henry’s divorce. Brereton’s friendship with the King is shown also by the fact that he accompanied the King and Anne on many hunting expeditions and the fact that he enjoyed a multitude of royal grants and Crown offices. He was definitely a royal favourite.
Brereton had a rather colourful reputation. It seems that he used his power and influence for his own gain, just as his father had. George Cavendish, Wolsey’s faithful servant and biographer, describes him as someone who persecuted the innocent and who let personal animosity get in the way when he was doing his job. Cavendish gives the example of John ap Griffith Eyton, Brereton’s former deputy, who was hanged in 1534. Eyton had accused Brereton of being involved in various offences: the robbery of cattle, the murder of a servant, the release of a monk guilty of treason, the murder of Eyton’s uncle (Constable of Chirk) and another relative, and the murder of William Hamner at Bromfield. Brereton denied any involvement in the offences and blamed Eyton for the murder of Hamner. Even though Eyton was acquitted by a London court after complaining to the Star Chamber about Brereton, it is alleged that he was rearrested and imprisoned at Holt Castle in July 1534 and subsequently hanged.
Brereton was not a member of Anne Boleyn’s inner circle and it appears that his arrest and execution were more to do with his activities in Wales and his opposition to Cromwell’s reforms there. Cromwell was planning further administrative reforms for Wales and did not want any obstacles in his path. He was the perfect fall guy for Cromwell, having already garnered a reputation for corruption. He may have been a corrupt character, but, as Norris’s servant, George Constantine said, “yf any of them was innocent, it was he”.9
Notes and Sources
- Weir, Alison (2009) The Lady in the Tower: The Fall of Anne Boleyn, 102–103.
- Hughes, Jonathan (2004) Francis Weston. Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Oxford University Press.
- Cavendish, George. The Life of Cardinal Wolsey, Volume 2, 31.
- Letters and Papers, Foreign and Domestic, Henry VIII, Volume X. 793
- Ives, Eric (2004) The Life and Death of Anne Boleyn, p335.
- Ives, E.W. (1971) Court and County Palatine in the Reign of Henry VIII: The Career of William Brereton of Malpas. Transactions of the Historic Society of Lancashire and Cheshire 123, 5.
- Ives, Eric (2004) William Brereton. Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Oxford University Press.
- Ives, Court and County Palatine in the Reign of Henry VIII: The Career of William Brereton of Malpas, 11
- Constantine, George. Archaeologia, or, Miscellaneous Tracts Relating to Antiquity, Vol 23, p 65
Snippets taken from The Fall of Anne Boleyn: A Countdown by Claire Ridgway.