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.
- “The Lady in the Tower” by Alison Weir
- “The Life and Death of Anne Boleyn” by Eric Ives
- “The Rise and Fall of Anne Boleyn” by Retha Warnicke
- Letters and Papers, Foreign and Domestic, Henry VIII
- “The Early Loves of Anne Boleyn” by Josephine Wilkinson