Henry Fitzroy, Duke of Richmond and Brereton's patron
Henry Fitzroy, Duke of Richmond and Brereton's patron

Today I’m going to continue my series of articles on the five men that were executed for adultery with Anne Boleyn by looking at William Brereton.

I’ve really enjoyed researching Brereton because he is a fascinating character and quite different to the other men, in that he was a lot older than men like Rochford, Smeaton and Weston, and he was a bit of a bad boy.

So, who exactly was William Brereton and how did he get caught up in Cromwell’s coup against Anne Boleyn?

“The Tudors” and William Brereton

In the series “The Tudors”, William Brereton is portrayed as a Jesuit priest to whom the Pope gives the job of assassinating Anne Boleyn. In the programme, Brereton tries to shoot Anne Boleyn during her coronation procession and three years later, when Cromwell moves against Anne, he confesses to adultery with the Queen.

This is all complete rubbish and is a fictionalisation of Brereton’s character. The real William Brereton was not a Jesuit priest, he was a groom of the Privy Chamber, and he did not confess to adultery with the Queen, he actually protested his innocence and pleaded innocent at his trial.

So, let’s have a look at who the real Sir William Brereton was.

The Real Life William Brereton

William Brereton (or Bryerton) was the sixth (some say seventh) son of a leading, landowning Cheshire family. His father was Sir Randle Brereton of Ipstones, Shocklach and Malpas, knight Chamberlain of Chester and a man who had been an important knight in Henry VII’s time. His mother was Eleanor Dutton. Brereton, like his brothers, entered royal service and by 1521 he had become a groom of the privy chamber.

Alison Weir writes of how he was promoted from groom to Gentleman of the Privy Chamber, whereas others like Ives note his position at his death as being Groom of the Privy Chamber.

In 1529, Brereton married Lady Elizabeth Savage, a widow who was the daughter of Charles Somerset, 1st Earl of Worcester, the King’s second cousin, and sister of 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 to give him the job of delivering jewels to Anne Boleyn in 1531 and asking him to be a witness at his 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 round the country to collect signatures from the “elite of England” on a petition  begging the Pope for Henry’s divorce, in the interest of the country.

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 royal grants and Crown offices worth £1,200 (£401, 850 in today’s money). He was definitely a royal favourite! It was also Brereton who was responsible for giving Anne her famous and treasured greyhound, Urian, who was named after Brereton’s brother, another of the King’s grooms.

According to historian Josephine Wilkinson, Brereton was the King’s principal royal servant in the Marches of North Wales and Retha Warnicke writes of how he was chamberlain of Chester and steward of Holt Castle. Alison Weir goes into more detail on this and writes of how he was the Duke of Richmond’s (Henry Fitzroy, the illegitimate son of Henry VIII) right hand man and “exercised virtually autonomous territorial power in Cheshire and North Wales” as Richmond’s deputy. Weir also writes of how Brereton enjoyed the patronage of the Duke of Norfolk too – he was a favoured and influential man.

It is obvious from historical evidence that Brereton was an important man, that he was friends with the King and was also a favourite of the Dukes of Richmond and Norfolk, so how could Thomas Cromwell dare move against him?

Brereton the Bad Boy

William Brereton actually had a rather colourful reputation. It seems that he used his power and influence for his own gain. 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 an example, that of John ap Griffith Eyton who was hanged in 1534. Apparently, Brereton believed that Eyton had caused the death of one of Brereton’s retainers and even though the man had been acquitted by a London court Brereton persuaded Anne Boleyn to act on his behalf and get the man rearrested. Cromwell stepped in to try and save the man but his efforts were in vain. Cavendish writes of how Brereton’s malice “by colour of justice” caused the man’s execution.

Years earlier, in 1518, Brereton had actually been interrogated by Cardinal Wolsey and various councillors about his “maintaining and comforting” the murderers of a Master Swettenham. Swettenham had been killed during a bowls match, allegedly by Brereton’s servant and one of Brereton’s relatives. Brereton had been accused of both helping the killers and preventing the Swettenham family from obtaining justice, but he managed to keep both his office and his influence, and was fined 500 marks (£52,150).

This was not an isolated incident, Brereton was allegedly involved in bribery and corruption in the Llangollen Valle Crucis Abbey in 1534, a crime that he was actually meant to be investigating! In 1535, the Bishop of Coventry and Lichfield, Rowland Lee, who was also Cromwell’s agent in the Welsh Marches, reported Brereton’s dubious activities and said that the Duke of Richmond’s honour was being adversely affected by allowing his badge and livery to be  “worn upon strong thieves’ backs”. Again, it seems that Brereton was involved in impeding justice by protecting murderers.

William Brereton also had a bit of a reputation for being a womaniser and Thomas Wyatt’s poem “In Mourning Wise Since Daily I Increase, hints at this when Wyatt says:

“Great was thy love with dyvers as I here”.

Retha Warnicke goes so far as to say that all 5 men were libertines and writes of how “libertines were expected to move in a progression from adultery and fornication to buggery and bestiality”. Most historians do not agree with Warnicke on this, but it may be that Brereton was promiscuous and was not a faithful husband to his wife, Elizabeth.

A womaniser who protected murderers and used his influence for revenge. Hmmm…not such a nice guy then!

But none of this really helps us to understand why Cromwell ordered Brereton to be arrested along with Norris, Weston, Smeaton, Rochord and men like Wyatt and Sir Richard Page. A clue to Cromwell’s actions is the fact that Cromwell was busy trying to make reforms to the way that Wales was governed. Alison Weir writes of how Cromwell was planning to replace the Welsh feudal system with the establishment of English style shires, a plan that Brereton was opposing. By March 1556, Cromwell’s plans to change the Welsh government were well advanced and just one man stood in his way. Weir writes that “the elimination of Brereton, and the breaking of his alliance with Richmond and Norfolk, would certainly remove significant barriers to these reforms”. However, Retha Warnicke disagrees and thinks that this theory is too contrived, arguing that Brereton was not the only powerful courtier in the area, and Josephine Wilkinson thinks that Brereton’s behaviour might be the key – “It was here [the Marches] that his heavy-handed approach might have led to his downfall.” Georne Cavendish believed that Brereton was brought down “shamefully, only of old rancour”

All in all, Brereton was an annoyance, an irritant and, as Weir writes, “the removal of Brereton, another of the Queen’s affinity, would excise a long-chafing thorn in Master Secretary’s side.” But Cromwell was not the only one who wanted rid of him, Weir also writes that it is possible that Sir Anthony Browne, who was helping Cromwell bring down Anne Boleyn, wanted Brereton dead and gone because some of Browne’s lands were held in receivership by Brereton.

Whatever, Cromwell’s reason, whether he was seeking to get rid of opposition to his planned administrative reforms, remove a criminal from office or remove a member of the powerful Boleyn faction from power, framing Brereton was easy. Although he was in his late 40s and not your usual “playboy”, Weir writes of how easy it was for people at court to believe he was a villain and to believe the charges against him. He was the perfect fall guy for Cromwell but Brereton had no idea of the plot that Cromwell was cooking up and just days before his arrest was trying to negotiate with Cromwell and trying to persuade him to give him he spoils from abbeys that had been dissolved in Cheshire. If only Brereton had been able to read Cromwell’s mind he might have chosen to build bridges rather than annoy Cromwell even more!

Whatever he was, did Brereton deserve to die for something that he did not do? He was guilty of many things but there is no evidence that he slept with Anne Boleyn or conspired the King’s death. He did not deserve his end.

In my next post on Brereton, I will look at his fall from favour, his arrest and trial, and his execution.


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19 thoughts on “William Brereton – Part 1”
  1. Great article Claire! I do feel sympathy for him being unjustly convicted, but he certainly sounds like a rough character. Looking forward to part 2!

  2. All these men are interesting, and often overlooked. At least you make them interesting, Claire.
    I am just wondering if there is a common thread running though their lives, other than what they were accused of, that is. ??
    Any views?

  3. They all seem to be part of the Boleyn faction in some sort of way, which is probably a pretty obvious point to make, but thought i’d make it non-the-less since I hardly ever say anything on here haha

  4. Hi Claire,
    Yes, thank you for bringing these men to life as “real people” and not just “the men who were executed” with Anne Bolelyn. It is nice to learn about each person’s positions and personalities.
    How do you think Henry was so trusting in Cromwell? To pretty much take his word on this whole matter….I guess he wanted Anne gone enough to go along with it.

  5. William Brereton was from cheshire where his parents owned the land of the estate in which he and his familly lived.William was the sixth son of Sir Randle Brereton and Eleanor Dutton.Brereton lived with his three brothers also.William at some point in his life joined the royal household of King Henry VIII and by 1521 became part of the kings circle and groom of the kings chamber then in 1524 he became groom of the privy chamber.In 1529 William Brereton had married a widow by the name of Elizabeth Savage.Lady Savage had been a daughter of an Earl and she was also a cousin of the king and this thus made the relationship between Brereton and the King close.

    Henry Fiztroy(al) was the illigitimate son of King Henry VIII and Elizabeth Blount.This portrait of him which is the only one that exists I think was painted after his marriage to Mary Howard who was the daughter of Thomas Howard the 3rd Duke of Norfolk.In this portrait he wears a spood/caul.the majority of the time theese were worn during marriage and shortly afterwards.This item was worn by both men and women.I think that the spoods were worn by women for their buns and cauls were worn to cover the whole head and thus were worn by men.

  6. In reply to julie b’s post, I do not believe for a minute that Henry thought Anne was guilty. As I said on the Francis Weston post Cromwell would not have dared plot against Anne or the men unless Henry was complicit in the plot. It was Henry who wanted to get rid of Anne; Cromwell merely engineered the means of doing so. This is certainly what most historians believe, including Ives. It is only Weir who argues that Henry was completely blameless.

  7. I think that probaly he was too of teams Anne.Just the fact to Anne one time helped him did what happened.I think he was innocent.And inteligent enough to not had something with her.I also agrre with Louise. The only guilt is Henry .

  8. Interesting info. My grandmother was a Brereton from Lodi, Wi.. We watched “A Man For All Seasons” about Sir Thomas More last night and I did a bit of research this morning of our Brereton roots. A number of my family attended a worldwide Brereton family reunion in 2001 in England. We got to see the Brereton castle and they even “rang the bells” for us at the adjoining church!

    Very interesting trip. Yes, it appears some of our relatives were not so good!

  9. Hello Claire
    Interesting info – all conjecture!
    I am a direct descendant of John Brereton, Sir William Brereton’s younger brother and who married Alicia Boleyn. The families were bobviously very close!!
    My great grandfather, Robert Pearson Brereton ( I K Brunel’s chief engineer) traced the family history back through the ages. I have his detailed investigation notes in which he shows we date back to the 1st Saxon King, Egbert, in 839 together with a Scottish link in about 1290 through the marriage of Ada Princess of Scotland to Sir Ranulph Brereton, the 5th Lord of Brereton.
    Hope you go on with your interesting work.
    Robert Ian Brereton

  10. did william brereton ever visit the lesnes abbey or the land in this area and did anne boleyn visit this area to be with him? just curious.

  11. I am married to a Brereton, who is very interested in the family history of his name. We have a book on the Brereton history dating from 1852 when Thomas and Mary Brereton first came from Cheshire to Adelaide, Australia. The book traces the history of the Brereton name in Australia from 1852-1983. We have read about William Brereton, Anne Boleyn, King Henry V111 from the Internet..we even went to Cheshire and saw for ourselves the area of Brereton, the Hall, the Inn, the Church etc. What we would really love now is a family tree from 1852 back, even beyond William Brereton’s time, back as far as the name is mentioned. How do we go about that, where do we start? My husband is a descendant of William Brereton and beyond but to see it on paper in front of our eyes would make the tracing much easier and more interesting and exciting!

  12. William was my 14th great granduncle. His sister, Elizabeth Brereton-Mainwaring was my ancestor on my dad’s mother’s side. Gov. John Webster of Connecticut Colony was my 10th great grandfather and Elizabeth’s great great grandson. Noah Webster (of Webster’s Dictionary fame) was another descendant of John’s.

    It’s interesting to learn about all the treachery that went on between nobles and royalty back then. I felt sorry for William at first, but I see now that he was really just as treacherous as the people who falsely accused and executed him.

    1. William is my 13th great grandfather. I’ve only found this out recently as my uncle is researching our family tree

  13. There’s nothing new under the sun, the rich and powerful act to protect and extend their power and influence, by whatever means. The ambitious and impecunious often do whatever to take what others have. Some of the players end up dead or ruined. You play, you pay.

    They all knew this.

  14. William is my 13th great grandfather. My fathers name is Graham Brierton, his fathers name, my grandfather, is William Brierton. Somewhere along the line our name changed spelling. We have found this out through Ancestry and we have found that we are direct descendants of William Brereton.

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