William Brereton

William Brereton was one of Anne Boleyn’s accused lovers, who met his end on the scaffold.

Brereton was born between 1487 and 1490, the sixth or seventh son of one of Henry's servitors. Three of those sons served at Henry VIII's court. Brereton started as one of Henry's grooms, and was promoted to groom of the privy chamber, meaning he was one of the servants who cared for Henry's person, dressing him, bathing him, etc. It was a coveted position, for Henry was often very generous with his favored courtiers.

In 1529, Brereton married Dame Elizabeth Savage, daughter of an earl who was one of King Henry’s second cousins, which made Brereton even closer to the king. Elizabeth's first husband had been imprisoned for debt and murder, and Brereton had been put in charge of overseeing his lands for the crown. After his death, Brereton married his widow, keeping control of the lands, and gaining a closer relationship to the king through his marriage.

Serving Henry made Brereton a very wealthy man. Brereton was given property in the Welsh marshes which brought him an income of £10,000 per year - a staggering sum in those days. (Contrast this with the pension of £100 per year given to Mary Boleyn after her husband died!) He was one of those who traveled the country to collect signatures in support of Henry's annulment from Katharine of Aragon, and was trusted enough by the king to convey jewels to Anne Boleyn in 1531. Brereton was also one of the handful of witnesses at the king's second "secret" wedding to Anne in January, 1533.

From the scanty records we have, Brereton doesn’t come across as a very nice person. He ruled over his lands - and those of Henry FitzRoy, who had made him a deputy - with an iron fist, and was involved in bribery, extortion, and scandals. His actions were so distasteful that Rowland Lee (who officiated at Henry's second wedding,) told the king that FitzRoy's name was being sullied by allowing his livery to be seen upon the backs of the "thieves" working for Brereton.

In 1518, he had been called before the council on charges of "mayntenaunce of murderers, theves and misruled persons and bering of ill factes and dedes." Specifically, a pair of men who had murdered another while playing bowls. One of the killers was a relative of Brereton's, and the other was one of his servants. Brereton was accused of obstructing the justice sought by the dead man's family. Brereton was assessed a fine of five hundred marks for his actions, but kept his office and position.

Supposedly, he once enlisted the help of Anne Boleyn in getting Henry to re-open charges against a man charged with killing one of his hired thugs. We don't know what he said to convince her. Maybe he said the man had escaped justice through a biased jury, or maybe he impressed upon her the outrage of a commoner lifting a hand against a knight. In any case, the charges were re-instated and the man hanged. Cromwell tried to intervene, but wasn't successful in saving him.

Brereton was the one who gave Urian the greyhound to Anne Boleyn, and named the dog after one of his brothers. Urian was the dog which escaped its keepers while the court was on progress and ripped out the throat of a cow grazing beside the road. Henry's accounts record compensating the owner of the cow.

There's an old story that Henry's jealous rage was set off at the tournament on May 2, 1536 when Anne flirtatiously dropped a handkerchief to Brereton, which he gallantly retrieved for her. But Brereton had never much figured in Anne Boleyn's court. As an older man, he hung back on the periphery and mostly sought the attention of the king, not his wife.

He was arrested at dawn on May 4, 1536 and  charged with “illicit intercourse” with the queen. He was the oldest of the men accused, at about fifty years of age. His wife's sister-in-law was Elizabeth Browne Somerset, Countess of Worcester - who was supposedly the "chief ground" from which the accusations about Anne had come.

 Like many of the other counts on the indictment, the dates on which these activities supposedly occurred can be proven to be dates on which the court was elsewhere, or Anne Boleyn was still in seclusion after childbirth, etc. 

It’s thought by some that Brereton was charged simply because he was a pesky problem on Cromwell's desk. He was standing in the way of some of Cromwell’s governmental reforms in the north, and Cromwell probably had never forgotten how Brereton bulldozed over his objections to execute the man who had been accused of killing one of Brereton's retainers.

Sir Anthony Browne, assisting Cromwell in the “investigation,” had his own fish to fry in this matter. He was a religious conservative who championed the cause of Princess Mary. He had disputed with Brereton over ownership of some land. The foreman of the jury owed Brereton a small fortune - a debt which would vanish if he just so happened to be found guilty.

Like the others, Brereton never had a chance. Eustace Chapuys, the imperial ambassador, summed it up neatly:
The others were condemned upon presumption and certain indications, without valid proof or confession.

Brereton went to the scaffold with George Boleyn, Henry Norris, Francis Weston, and Mark Smeaton. He didn't attempt a long, flowery speech like George.

George Constantine wrote about his execution:
What was layed against hym I know not nor never hearde. But at his deeth these were his wordes: I have deserved to dye if it were a thousand deethes, But the cause wherfore I dye judge not: But yf ye judge, judge the best. This he spake iii or foure tymes. If he were gyltie, I saye therfore that he dyed worst of them all.

He was buried in the same grave as Mark Smeaton, in a graveyard where the Waterloo block now stands. When it was built in the 19th century, any human remains discovered were re-interred in the Chapel of St. Peter ad Vincula.

Brereton’s widow believed in his innocence until her dying day, leaving to her son in her will the “last token,” a bracelet, that her husband had given her. His brother Urian, and Brereton’s widow, inherited the remainder of his estate—after some choice properties had been distributed to Cromwell’s friends, of course.

Thomas Wyatt memorialized Brereton in verse, though he admits in the first line he didn't know him well:
Brereton, farewell, as one that least I knew.
Great was thy love with divers, as I hear,
But common voice doth not so sore thee rue 
As other twain that doth before appear;
And yet no doubt but thy friends thee lament
And other hear their piteous cry and moan.
So doth each heart for thee likewise relent
That thou givest cause thus to be dead and gone.

George Cavendish was less flattering in his:
Lo, here is the end of murder and tyranny!
Lo, here is the end of envious affection!
Lo, here is the end of false conspiracy!
Lo, here is the end of false detection
Done to the innocent by cruel correction
Although in office I thought myself strong
Yet here is mine end for ministering wrong.

Click here for a fascinating transcript of a lecture given by Professor Eric Ives about William Brereton.

No comments:

Post a Comment