Lecture on Sir William Brereton of Handforth

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Harold Forster M.B.E.

To the Worldwide Brereton Family Reunion
St. Mary’s Church, Nantwich, Cheshire
31 July 2001

Once again, let me repeat for the record what the Rector said: it’s a joy to have you, because we love sharing this place with as many people as possible. In a way, I suppose, there is a connection between this town, this church, and the Brereton family of Cheshire, for both owe something to the event that took place on the 14th of October, 1066, when the invading Norman army led by William defeated the Saxon King Harold at Senlac, in Sussex. I always feel sorry for that, because they christened me Harold too.

To subdue the unruly Saxons, in the north of what was now his realm, William appointed, very wisely, his nephew Hugh Lupus, to be the Norman Earl of Chester. And he in turn appointed eight barons to take up residence in parts of the area now under his control. One of these, William Malbank, came to Nantwich, here to build his castle and to rule the town and the surrounding countryside, developing the salt-producing town of Nantwich in the process. He also built a church in the town.

It seems very likely that there was a Brereton – or Breton, as then known – amongst that victorious Norman force. And maybe it was in honor of the leader of that invasion, William of Normandy, that so many of the subsequent male members of the Brereton family were christened William – a fact that has caused so much confusion to historians.

It is recorded that the manor of Brereton was held under the Baron of Kinderton, another of the barons appointed by Earl William – held by the Brereton family from shortly after the Norman Conquest until 1722, when the last Lord Brereton died. So for almost 700 years, the Breretons were an important family in this area.

And as an indication of how they spread across the Cheshire plain, there are Brereton monuments or memorial tablets in a number of churches, including Astbury, Bowdon, Brereton, Harthill, Mobberley, Shocklach, and of course, here in Nantwich, as well as Brereton chancelry chapels in the churches at Malpas and Cheadle. Additionally, there are of course the ancestral homes, especially perhaps, the ones at Brereton and Handforth.

It’s interesting to note that, when in 1571, Sir William Brereton married the daughter of John Savage, he rebuilt the ancestral home at Brereton after the style of the Rock Savage home at Runcorn, the home of his bride, and that in the construction of the home at Brereton, he used bricks instead of the then-customary timber frame – probably the first brick-built house in Cheshire.

So, in the history books of Cheshire, we read of the Breretons of Brereton, the Breretons of Malpas, the Breretons of Tatton, the Breretons of Aldford, the Breretons of Ashley, the Breretons of Handforth. They really got around.

And it’s from the latter branch of the family that came Sir William Brereton, baronet, General of the Parliamentary forces in the Civil War, and he was heavily involved with the defense of this town of Nantwich. And it is probably this member of the family that had the closest links with this town.

So what of him? The first mention of this well-known member of the Brereton family appears in the register of christenings at Manchester Collegiate Church, now Manchester Cathedral, for 1604, with the entry "William, son of William Brereton of Handforth."

When only six years of age, William’s father died, but he developed into a worthy descendant of the many illustrious ancestors he had, receiving his education at Brasenose College, Oxford. In 1627, when he was only 23 years of age, he was created a baron by King Charles I, the monarch he was later to so vigorously oppose in armed conflict.

In 1628, he was elected Member of Parliament for Cheshire, but he relinquished his seat in order to travel. And his grand tour took him to Scotland, Ireland and Holland. Whilst in Holland, he took a great interest in military matters, being especially intrigued with the art of siege warfare – an interest that was to serve him well in later days.

In 1639, he was re-elected as a Member of Parliament and came under the notice of several leading politicians who looked upon him as a born leader.

He married twice. His first wife, Susannah, the daughter of Sir George Booth of Dunham Massey, in Cheshire, died in 1637, leaving one son, Thomas. Sir William’s second wife was Cecily, the daughter of Sir William Skeffington of Leicestershire. She was the widow of Edward Mytton of Weston in Staffordshire.  William and Cecily had two daughters.

Well, Sir William had very decided views on what was called the "Divine Right of Kings." And he objected very strongly to certain tax demands – there’s nothing new – especially the so-called ship tax. He was also in continuous dispute with the Mayor and Corporation of the City of Chester for refusing to pay the murage tax, a tax levied on all property owners in that city for the repair and maintenance of its walls. He owned a town house in Chester.

And when in 1642, Charles raised his standard at Nottingham, declaring the Civil War, Sir William was in Chester, trying to drum up support for the Parliamentary army. For this, he was chased out of the city by the city fathers – an action that they were later to regret.

As the Civil War spread across the county, Sir William was given command of the Parliamentary forces being mustered in Cheshire, and later he was appointed Major General of Cheshire, Shropshire, Lancashire and Staffordshire.  His strong point was not so much as a leader in the field but in the plans he initiated to obtain information about enemy movements, and of course, in seige warfare, gained from the knowledge he obtained during his visit to Holland.  It was said that Brereton "had spies under every hedge and friends in every village."

His greatest triumph was his seige and capture of the city of Chester, a project that took over 12 months.

In 1643, he came to this town of Nantwich, arriving just ahead of a Royalist army led by Sir Thomas Aston.  The town was considered very important by both sides because of the road system. The road at that time going through Nantwich was the main road from London to North Wales and Ireland. Making the town their headquarters, the leaders of the Parliamentary forces quickly surrounded the place with earthworks and trenches sufficient to keep out the assault of the Royalist army, now encamped in the surrounding area.

The town was under siege from December 1643 until January 1644, but in the Battle of Nantwich, on the 25th of January 1644, the Royalist army under Lord Byron was soundly defeated by the Parliamentary forces under Sir Thomas Fairfax.

After the war, Sir William Brereton was well rewarded for his efforts. Among other gifts, he received the Chief Forestership – that means he was the boss of the forest - at Macclesfield, and also the Seneschalship of the Hundred at Macclesfield, both of which would provide him with considerable monetary benefits.

In 1652, he was given the tenancy of Croydon Palace, the former home of the Archbishop of Canterbury. He spent the last nine years of his life commuting between his newly acquired London home and his ancestral home at Handforth, in Cheshire.

He died at Croydon in 1661. The story is told of how the body, when being brought back to Cheadle for burial, when crossing the river, was lost. But it is now generally assumed that it did reach Cheadle, and that he was buried in the family vault in that Cheshire town church.

In the Civil War, the church here at Nantwich was for a period used as a prison for captured Royalist troops. But the memorial in this church is to a Smith - the Smith Memorial, now in this church.

Smith_Memorial_Detail_01.jpg (126724 bytes)
Photo by the editor.

Well, Sir Thomas Smith was Lord of the Manor at Hough, nearby, and the owner of considerable lands in this area. He was Mayor of Chester in 1596, and Sheriff of that city in 1614. He married Anne, daughter of Sir William Brereton of Brereton. He died in 1614 and was laid to rest in the next parish at Wybunbury, where his wife Anne provided a magnificent canopied monument with figures of Sir Thomas, of his wife, together with those of their son and daughter, represented as weepers. But it’s interesting to note that the son had got a beard.

Smith_Memorial_01.jpg (78883 bytes)
Photo courtesy of The Sealed Knot.

In 1978, Wybunbury church was demolished because it was unsafe, and the tomb was dismantled and placed in store, where it suffered some damage. Later, after restoration, it was re-erected in the south transept of this church of St. Mary, here at Nantwich.

The Sir William Brereton who held Nantwich for the Parliamentary forces during the war was a relative of Dame Anne.

There is a story that after the Battle of Nantwich, Sir William Brereton, the supporter of the Parliamentary cause, organized a siege of Brereton Hall, the home of his Royalist relative, whose young son allegedly scratched on a window pane

"On yonder hill my uncle stands,
but he will not come near,
for he is a Roundhead,
and I am a Cavalier."

The four unmarried daughters of this Lord Brereton, the victim of his relative’s military activity, came to live in Nantwich, and here they died – Frances in 1712, Mary in 1716, Anne in 1719, and Jane in 1720. Now, they are buried in the Wilbraham vault, under the south transept, where now stands the Smith memorial.

From Cheshire, where they made their home in the eleventh century, the Breretons have spread all over the world, many of them, no doubt, achieving fame and renown, relying at all times on the Brereton motto, "Opitulante Deo," - "God Being My Helper."

Thank you.

Transcribed and edited by Thomas F. Brereton, San Antonio, Texas (t.brereton@sbcglobal.net)


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