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One of the sculptures at the Town Hall depicts "Sir William Brereton before the Mayor's court". The story around the sculpture starts in 1485 and runs on into the Civil War and the siege of Chester. It ends, so far as Brereton is concerned, with his body, in his coffin, dissappearing down a river in flood. For the previous William Brereton see Dutton.
Chester typifies the experience of many besieged cities during the Civil Wars. Its citizens endured a lengthy siege but had little say over which side the city declared for. Chester is a good example of 'powerlessness' in that the richer merchants, to whom the King had granted lucrative rights for the production and import of goods, declared the city for the Royalist side. Almost a Royalist coup, this decision resulted in the siege - a siege in which the city's poor suffered considerable hardship. The primary sources - although mainly written by the rich - are plentiful and Chester suffered particular deprivation as it endured one of the longest sieges of the war.
Brereton, the besieger, has been portrayed as a vengeful religious bigot and a cowardly soldier, but he was also a noted diarist and has left around fifteen hundred extant letters. He took a stand against King Charles by organising a petition, said to contain over 1000 signatures, directed against episcopacy - rule of the Church by bishops. During the Civil War, Brereton was only defeated once at the Battle of Middlewich on December 26 1643 but he swiftly recovered from this as he had to return with Sir Thomas Fairfax to Nantwich when his father-in-law Sir George Booth managed to get himself besieged by Lord Byron and Cheshire was more or less completely in the hands of the Royalists. As Fairfax approached, a sudden thaw caused the River Weaver to rise in spate, dividing Byron's cavalry from his infantry and artillery, who were overrun and destroyed by Fairfax. One of his relations, another William Brereton was a Royalist. William Brereton of Brereton Hall at Holmes Chapel was married to the royalist general Goring’s daughter Elizabeth. Parliamentarian William did not hesitate to besiege his own relations who happened to disagree with him. Brereton Hall found itself under siege after the Battle of Nantwich. One of the sons of the occupant of Brereton Hall is said to have scratched on the window:
- "On yonder hill my uncle stands, but he will not come near, for he is a Roundhead, and I am a Cavalier."
- "..more influential - he had more influence on the outcome of the First English Civil War than Oliver Cromwell..."
He also, of course, had the distinction of capturing Chester. He besieged the city three times, and in the end he captured it in February 1646. This article concentrates on Brereton's involvement as regards Chester/Cheshire in what was in fact a much larger series of events.
- 1 The Charter of Henry VII
- 2 The lead-up to the Civil War
- 3 Francis Gamull
- 4 Sir William Brereton
- 4.1 - Religion
- 4.2 - Disputes with Chester
- 4.3 Brereton and the Civil War
- 4.3.1 Headquarters at Nantwich (September 1642 - March 1643)
- 4.3.2 Success and Failure at Middlewich (March 1643 - December 1643)
- 4.3.3 Siege of Nantwich (December 1643 - January 1644)
- 4.3.4 Advance to Christleton - the Siege of Chester Resumed (January 1644 - April 1645)
- 4.3.5 Return to Westminster (April 1645 - October 1645)
- 4.3.6 Rowton Moor (September 1645)
- 4.3.7 The end of the Siege of Chester (October 1645 - February 1646)
- 4.3.8 Stow-on-the-Wold
- 4.4 After the War
- 5 Conclusions
- 6 Sources and Links
The Charter of Henry VII
The Stanleys were one of Chester's most influential families. Through their connection with the earls of Derby, they held custody of the nearby Watergate. Thomas Stanley the first earl of Derby, managed to remain in favour with successive kings throughout the Wars of the Roses until his death in 1504. His estates included what is now Tatton Park in Cheshire, Lathom House in Lancashire, and Derby House in the City of London, now the site of the College of Arms. At Bosworth Field Thomas, Lord Stanley (he was the stepfather of Henry Tudor following his marriage to Margaret Beaufort) and Sir William Stanley brought a force to the battlefield, but held back while they decided which side it would be more advantageous to support. Richard III gambled everything on personally leading a charge across the battlefield to kill Henry Tudor and end the fight - Richard almost succeeded. However, seeing the king's knights separated from his army - perhaps not more than 100 in all - and open to attack, the Stanleys intervened; Sir William led his men to Henry's aid, surrounding and killing Richard. Richard III's last words were apparently "Treason! Treason! Treason!".
No sooner was the new Henry VII on his throne, the citizens of Chester were writing to him:
- "The humble supplication and lamentable information of the Mayor, Sheriffs, Citizens, and Commonalty.. [pleaded that Chester had been] ..one of the ancient cities of the kingdom of England, and built for the holding and safeguard of the Marches and the parts adjacent, and the Port of the same City with so crowded a concourse of foreign traders landing there at a gate called the Watergate of the same City, and others bringing their merchandise,"
In 1506 got its reward for betrayal of Richard III: The GREAT CHARTER of Henry VII (1506) proceeds:
- "know Ye that we, for the great affection which we have and bear to our City of Chester, the Citizens and Commonalty of the same City, and in consideration of the good behaviour and great expenses of the inhabitants of the same City, as also of the voluntary service many ways rendered by them against our adversaries and rebels, willing the better estate of the same City, and especially to provide for the convenience and quiet of the said Citizens, their heirs and successors, of our especial grace and certain knowledge, and mere motion, have given and granted, and do give and grant, and by these presents have confirmed for us and our heirs to the aforesaid Citizens and commonalty, their heirs and successors for ever, that the said City, and all the ground within the said City, with the suburbs and hamlets within the precinct and compass of the same, and all the ground within the precinct and compass of the said City of Chester and the aforesaid suburbs and hamlets, (wholly excepting our castle within the walls of the said City), be exempted and separated, as well by land as by water, from our shire of Chester; and that the said City, and the suburbs and hamlets of the same, and all the ground within the precinct and compass of them, (except as before excepted), be henceforth a County by and in itself distinct and separate from our County of Chester, and that from henceforth it shall be called and named the 'County of the City of Chester.'"
The charter next provided for the election of a Mayor, two Sheriffs, twenty-four Aldermen, and forty Common-Councilmen, and one Alderman was to be appointed Recorder of the City. The Charter laid out the process for electing the Mayor. Every year the freemen were to vote for aldermen and councilmen, who made up the Assembly, the ancestor of the present day City Council. The aldermen then voted for the Mayor. In practice, from a very early period after 1506, the Assembly itself elected men to fill any vacancies. There was a brief period of semi-democracy from 1693 to 1698, when the city returned to the old, "closed" system. It was not until 1761 that the freemen got to vote again, and the popular vote (for men) had to wait until 1835. In brief, the City of Chester became separate from the County of Cheshire and its effective rulership was placed with the Mayor and Aldermen granting them the power to exclude non-guild members from trading there.
The lead-up to the Civil War
The split between royalist and parliamentarian in Chester in 1642 was essentially a split between the most prominent members of the City Assembly and was consequence under a national lable of the local political struggle which had already gone on throughout the 17th century, where politics in the city were much disturbed and factionalised. The markets and fairs were closely supervised respectively by the mayor and sheriffs. Concessions to merchants who were not freemen were rare, but in 1607 non-free importers of Irish yarn were permitted to sell it without restriction in an attempt to divert them from Liverpool. At fair times London dealers were accused of abusing the privilege of unrestricted trading, but local traders apparently benefited from the willingness of some Londoners to extend credit from fair to fair. In the retail markets new regulations reflected continuing concerns to keep basic foodstuffs freely available, reasonably priced, and wholesome, especially when bad harvests or the presence of expeditions bound for Ireland in the 1580s and 1590s threatened to raise prices.
The mayors during this period were:
- 1633/4: Randle Holme I;
- 1634/5: Francis Gamul - of Gamul House;
- 1635/6: Thomas Knowles (ironmonger);
- 1636/7: William Edwardes (ironmonger);
- 1637/8: Thomas Throppe (merchant);
- 1638/9: Robert Sproston (feltmaker);
- 1639/40: Robert Harvie (ironmonger);
- 1640/1: Thomas Aldersley (ironmonger);
- 1641/2: Thomas Cowper (ironmonger);
- 1642/3: William Ince (yeoman);
- 1643/4: Randle Holme II - the Assembly apparently did not meet between December 1643 and April 1644, and when it did, attendance had to be enforced;
- 1644/5: Charles Walley (inn-holder) - a reluctant candidate who held no military or political post and was likely to put local interests first;
- 1645/6: None;
- 1646/7: William Edwardes (ironmonger);
Close supervision of the sale of ale, bread, and meat brought the mayor and Assembly into conflict with brewers, bakers, and butchers. In 1557, after a year of tight price regulation, the Bakers' company defied the assize of bread and refused to bake, whereupon the mayor threw the trade open, confiscated the guild's charter, and briefly disfranchised its members. Disputes continued until 1586, when finally the Assembly allowed anyone to sell bread on the two market days. The bakers continued to be aggrieved about innkeepers who baked their own bread and about unfree bakers at Gloverstone, an enclave of the County of Cheshire in front of Chester Castle which lay outside the city's jursidiction. Butchers were frequently in trouble for bad meat and high prices. In 1578 the Assembly therefore opened a new flesh shambles for country butchers, and kept it open in the face of persistent hostility from the city butchers. There was also conflict about brewers breaching the assize of ale.
Chester's own merchants regularly handled 90 per cent of the cloth and calfskins exported to the Continent and up to 70 per cent of the iron and wine imported. During the later 16th century a small number of merchants came to predominate: 31 traded with France and Spain in 1565-6, for example, but only 15 in 1602-3, and the share taken by the biggest operators grew. Some of the smaller merchants spent time on the Continent as factors for richer ones. Two local families were pre-eminent. Six Alderseys traded with the Continent between 1558 and 1603, and family members owned property in and near the city and held civic office. Their wealth became largely concentrated in the hands of the third William Aldersey (d. 1625), who left a personal estate worth over £2,300 and credits of £1,700. The Gamulls, not quite as wealthy, also held civic office and had interests in the Dee Mills and a salt-works. Another rich overseas merchant was Richard Bavand, mayor and M.P., who died in 1603 owning goods worth c. £400, more than 20 properties in the city, and land outside.
"Prisage" was the right of the crown under old English law to take one tun of wine from every ship importing from ten to twenty tuns and two tuns from every ship importing twenty or more. In 1605 Chester's exemption from prisage on imported wines was deemed to have ended, and competition ensued for the right to collect the tax, on behalf of the Crown, in return for a fixed fee: so-called "fee farming". This guaranteed an expected income for the Crown irrespective of variations in trade due perhaps to war or weather. As long as the Crown was paid, the right to collect the taxes could be further traded in a somewhat sophisticated system of "futures" trading.
At first the corporation was allowed to "farm" it from the royal grantee, with William Gamull and other prominent merchants as its "sub-farmers" from 1611. In 1624 a new farmer of prisage instead sublet his rights for £650 a year exclusively to five major wine merchants, William and Andrew Gamull, William Aldersey, Thomas Thropp, and William Glegg. The arrangement had been secured in secret and was challenged by William Edwards, a new councilman already embattled against Gamull's clique for preventing his admission to the Merchants' company. In 1629 the dispute took another twist when William Gamull and his friends, supposedly negotiating a renewal of the licence to export calfskins on behalf of the city generally, instead secured a monopoly for themselves. The privy council finally ruled that all merchants should benefit, though perhaps only on Gamull's terms. In 1630 Gamull and others were still allegedly refusing to allow Edwards to share in the freighting of ships, and two years later Edwards and his associates were accused of diverting cargoes of wine of Beaumaris in order to avoid paying prisage at Chester. Edwards's campaign seems to have won him support, however, for he became sheriff in 1627, an alderman in 1631 and was mayor in 1636-7. By 1640 conflict among the merchants within Chester had somewhat died down: the corporation had resumed the right to levy the prisage on wines, and negotiations for a new licence to export calfskins were conducted in the name of the mayor and citizens. The Merchants' company remained in being, with 46 members in 1639. In summary, the income of a major clique within the City Assembly was dependent on royal grants of rights.
Other relations with the Crown were complex. Attempts to secure reductions in the city's tax assessment failed in 1611 and 1625-6. There were also problems over a voluntary gift for a projected expedition against Barbary pirates in 1618-19, and over the corporation's attempt to make the inhabitants of Gloverstone liable to tax. Conversely, the forced loan of 1626-7 was paid quickly, perhaps because the various factions in the Assembly hoped to win privy council favour in their disputes. More serious arguments arose about the assessments for Ship Money.
There was conflict between the counties of Cheshire and Chester. At the outset Chester was aggrieved at having to pay a quarter of the county's total under the first writ of 1634, a proportion later reduced. The city authorities then exempted citizens who had contributed to its own assessment from payment for property held in Cheshire, provoking the county to complain successfully to the privy council. Chester retaliated in 1635 by assessing the sheriff of Cheshire, Sir Thomas Aston, Bt., on profits received in the city from his farm of duties on French wine imports. The county of Cheshire backed Aston, and by 1636 also supported the dean and chapter, the inhabitants of Gloverstone (a part of Cheshire), and Sir William Brereton, in their disputes with the city over liability. In 1638 the privy council ordered Aston to pay with the city and declared Gloverstone exempt, and in 1639 the dean and chapter paid with the county. The arguments allowed both county and corporation to protect their interests without openly challenging the king. The dispute was mostly about jurisdiction and did not seriously disrupt collection. Chester's contributions were fully paid at first, though delays began in 1636, and by 1640 the privy council was upbraiding the corporation for widespread resistance.
Sir Francis Gamull, 1st Baronet (1606–1654) was an English politician who sat in the House of Commons from 1640 to 1644. He supported the Royalist side in the English Civil War and was active in the defence of Chester. Gamull was the son of Thomas Gamull. The family was of Buerton, Chester. He entered Inner Temple in November 1622. In 1634 he became mayor of Chester. He was elected Member of Parliament for City of Chester for the Long Parliament in November 1640. Their residence in Chester, Gamul House, still stands in Lower Bridge Street.
The Gamull's were involved in a curious dispute involving the latest technology of the time. In 1632 Tyrer sold his interest in the Bridgegate Waterworks by the Old Dee Bridge to a consortium headed by Sir Randle Mainwaring (1367-1456), but a dispute with Francis Gamull, who controlled the Dee Mills and causeway, led to Gamull's cutting off the supply - Tyrer had leased the site of his waterworks from the Gamull family, who owned the Dee Mills and an arrangement was devised by which no premises could have water unless they purchased all their flour from the mill. The matter went before the privy council who decided that Gamull must allow the supply to continue.
During the Civil War, Gamull was very active in the defence of Chester. In June 1643 he established a town guard, of which he was colonel, and enlisted all able-bodied men between 16 and 60. After the governor, Sir Nicholas Byron, was captured in March 1644, King Charles proposed Gamull in his place, but Gamull was rejected because he was unpopular with the citizens and opposed by other royalist leaders. Gamull was disabled from sitting in parliament on 22 January 1644, but was created in the baronet of Chester in April 1644. He was nominated as mayor in 1644 but was rejected. By April 1645 there were signs of popular antagonism towards Gamull and his Welsh soldiers, as conditions under the siege became increasingly difficult. Gamull entertained King Charles at Gamul House in Chester and was with him on the Phoenix Tower when they watched the defeat of the Royalist army at the Battle of Rowton Heath.
After the siege was ended Gamull and other Royalists were dismissed from the town's administration in October 1646, and he was fined £940. Gamull died at the age of 48 after an abortive uprising for the future Charles II (Booth's Uprising, 1659). His son-in-law stated that he was executed at Exeter (Petition of Thomas Weston M.A. 4 August 1660'; Calendars of State Papers Domestic: Volume X: p. 179. British National Archives). The Parish Register of St. Mary-on-the-Hill in Chester states that he was buried there on 27 November 1654 (folio 85 in the year 1654: "Sr Francis Gamull buied in his own vault 27th November").
Sir William Brereton
Sir William Brereton (13 September 1604 – 7 April 1661) was the eldest son of William Brereton of Handforth in Cheshire, he inherited substantial estates in Cheshire on the death of his parents around 1610. The first mention of him 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."
The inheritance included Handforth Hall, a house in Chester called the Nuns and approximately 3,000 acres. The Nuns was near the site of the convent of the Benedictine Nuns of St.Mary’s which during the dissolution of the monasteries (between 1536 and 1541), came into the ownership of the Brereton family, the building and site being granted to Uriah Brereton (William's great-grandfather) in 1542. The site is now occupied by the pub and restaurant called "The Architect". Originally "St Martin's Villa" this was constructed around 1820 by Thomas Harrison as his own home.
It is worth noting that by the 17th Century the Brerewood's had split into several different branches. The Brerewoods of Brerewood Hall were quite distinct from the Brerewoods of of Handforth and, indeed, fought on the opposite sides during the Civil War.
His wardship was granted to his grandfather, Richard Holland an ardent Protestant, at whose residence of Denton Hall he evidently spent part of his childhood. After attending Oxford and Gray's Inn, Brereton emerged as an energetic magistrate in Cheshire during the 1620s and '30s. He was made a baronet in 1627, travelled extensively in Europe and, like many Puritans, acquired property in New England where there was much enthusiasm for the founding of a Puritan colony far from Charles and his bishops. Although Brereton failed to win a seat in the election for the Parliament of 1625, he was elected MP for Cheshire in 1628 and 1640. As a staunch Puritan, he advocated root and branch reform of the Anglican church. When in Cheshire, Brereton was the most active of the county’s JP's, attending over 80 per cent of all quarter sessions. A ‘model puritan magistrate’, he enthusiastically suppressed alehouses and searched out Catholic recusants. Brereton was commissioned by Parliament to supervise the transportation of troops and supplies from Cheshire to Ireland to suppress the Irish Uprising in 1641. Brereton's reasons for siding with the Parliamentarians appear to be twofold:
Brereton was evidently a very staunch Puritan. As noted above he came under the influence of Richard Holland. In 1592 Holland was listed by the Council as one of those ‘meet for his fidelity and soundness in religion’ to be employed against recusants. Indeed, the Council had long known Holland to be one of their strongest arms in the county. Already in 1582, when Holland was sheriff, they had thanked him for his diligence in proceeding against recusants, and commanded him to admonish some of the justices who showed slackness and partiality. Brereton married the daughter of Sir George Booth of Dunham Massey. Booth was well known for his puritanism.
During the "Personal Rule", Charles aroused most antagonism through his religious measures: he believed in High Anglicanism, a sacramental version of the Church of England, theologically based upon Arminianism, a creed shared with his main political advisor, Archbishop William Laud. In 1625, shortly before the opening of the new parliament, Charles was married by proxy to Henrietta Maria of France, the Catholic daughter of Henry IV of France. In diplomatic terms this implied alliance with France in preparation for war against Spain, but Puritan MPs openly claimed that Charles was preparing to restrict the recusancy laws. The king had indeed agreed to do so in the secret marriage treaty he negotiated with Louis XIII of France. In 1633, Charles appointed Laud as Archbishop of Canterbury and started making the Church more ceremonial, replacing the wooden communion tables with stone altars. Puritans accused Laud of reintroducing Catholicism; when they complained, he had them arrested. In 1637, John Bastwick, Henry Burton, and William Prynne had their ears cut off for writing pamphlets attacking Laud's views — a rare penalty for gentlemen, and one that aroused anger. Moreover, the Church authorities revived the statutes passed in the time of Elizabeth I about church attendance and fined Puritans for not attending Anglican church services.
- Disputes with Chester
As also noted above, Brereton (together with his ally Edwards - or Edwardes) had long-standing disputes with the Corporation and Assembly of the City of Chester, particularly (in common with Edwards) with the Gamulls. Parts of the income of the Gamulls were dependent on royal grants of the monopoly on calf-skins and the farm of duty on wine as well as rights to collect taxes and duty, hence their sometimes dubious support for the Royalist cause. Brereton 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 the City Walls.
Brereton and the Civil War
The prevailing mood in Chester in summer 1642 was a wish for accommodation between Charles I and parliament, reflected in the city's neutralist petition in August and in its reaction to the parliamentary commission of lieutenancy and the royal commission of array. The Assembly stood fast against both an attempt by James Stanley, Lord Strange, to secure the county magazine in the castle for the royalists, and Alderman William Edwards's and Sir William Brereton's effort to take control of the city's trained bands for parliament. Nevertheless, Bishop of Chester John Bridgeman, his son Orlando Bridgeman (vice-chamberlain of Chester), other lawyers, and prominent figures were apparently trying to encourage royalist sympathies among leading citizens. On 6 September Mayor Thomas Cowper secured a majority vote in the Assembly for an immediate assessment of 100 marks to fortify the city. The decisive event, however, was the arrival of the king himself in Chester on 23 September. In an upsurge of loyalty he was greeted with popular enthusiasm, pageantry, bellringing, and a loyal address. The king's supporters seized their opportunity. The houses of known opponents, such as Brereton and Aldermen Edwards and Aldersey, were searched for arms; county gentlemen favourable to parliament were rounded up; and parliamentary supporters in the corporation left. When the king departed five days later, with a gift of money from the corporation, the parliamentarian presence in the city had all but gone, and the royalist hold on Chester had finally been consolidated.
These events illustrate how the Civil War, especially as regards the officer classes, and especially in Cheshire and some other counties, was fought between people who knew each other well, may well have done business together or were even quite closely related. Just prior to the outbreak of Civil War in England (22nd August 1642), Brereton tried to seize Chester for Parliament (8th August, 1642), but was driven out by the Royalist faction. According to Frank Simpson, mayor Cowper ordered the constables to arrest the leaders of this "treasonable" gathering, but they failed to do so. At this point Cowper stepped-in and seized one of the leaders by the collar, delivering him to the civil officers. He also wrested a broadsword from another of the party, which which he cut the drum to pieces. Thomas Hughes in the Journal of the Architectural, Archaeological, and Historic Society, Volume 2 is recorded as reporting a follows:
- Mr T HUGHES volunteered some remarks on the Cowper Family of Overleigh and especially on those members of it connected with the siege of Chester He exhibited an old portrait in oil colour of Alderman Thomas Cowper Mayor of Chester in 1641 which had been recently presented by Mr J Edisbury of Bersham near Wrexham to the Water Tower Museum Chester. Mr Cowper was Mayor of this city the very year in which a drum was beaten for the Parliament at the instigation of Sir William Brereton and Mr Hughes quoted the following passage from Hemingway's History of Chester to show how boldly and bravely his Worship put down the first symptom of rebellion: Information of this treason having been given to the Mayor Mr Thomas Cowper this intrepid magistrate immediately directed some constables to apprehend the leaders of the tumult but the latter forcibly resisted and compelled the constables to retire upon which the Mayor stepped forward in person to expostulate with them on their conduct and upon being disrespectfully treated he boldly advanced up to one of the Parliamentarians and seizing him by the collar delivered him to the civil officers at the same time wresting a broad sword from another of the party with which he instantly cut the drum to pieces securing the drummer and several others This firm and manly demeanour on the part of the Mayor effectually put an end to the tumult and finally repressed it During this affray the common bell was rung the citizens lent their cheerful aid to the chief magistrate and when they had seen him in a state of personal security the city was restored to peace Sir William Brereton a gentleman of competent fortune in the county and knight for the shire and who was a strong partizan for the Parliament was brought before the magistrates at the Pentice to answer for the part he had taken in the above disturbance though he owed his rescue from the popular fury to the personal interference of the Mayor he was however discharged.
As for why the "constables" would not arrest Brereton it could be that they believed (perhaps wrongly) that Brereton, as an MP, enjoyed the benefit of freedom from arrest on civil matters.
Brereton became a deputy lieutenant for the "County of Chester" (sic) on the parliamentary side 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."
There survives the:
- "Advice and Direction of Both Houses of Parliament to Sir William Brereton and to the rest of the Deputy Lieutenants for the County of Chester with orders of the Lords and Commons Assembled in Parliament for the regulating of those Souldiers that are gon or shall goe under the Command of His Excellency Robert Earle of Essex Lord Generall for this Expedition,"
and was printed in London under date 19 August, 1642, by order of both Houses. Commencing with the argumentative preamble that the King,
- "Seduced by Wicked Counsell intends to make War against the Parliament",
it proceeds to give in six pages:
- "highly practical orders and instructions both as to the discipline of the forces, and as to the action to be taken against the Popish Recusants in Cheshire who did not confine themselves to their dwellings according to the Statute in that case provided,"
Headquarters at Nantwich (September 1642 - March 1643)
On 26th September 1642, while King Charles was paying his often forgotten visit to Chester, he issued an order for the seizure of arms and horses from those people who had carried out Parliament's Militia Ordinance in Cheshire. At around the same time Brereton was commissioned as a captain of horse, following which his rise through the ranks was rapid. Parliament also realised how important Cheshire was and sent Brereton to raise support for its cause. Geographically Cheshire lies between the Pennines and the Welsh hills and so whoever controlled Cheshire controlled the north – south corridor. For Parliament the control of Cheshire would mean separating the King's northern supporters from the King and his army at Oxford. It would also stop the King bringing in reinforcements from his "Irish army" through the port of Chester.
However once the King left Chester there was not much enthusiasm in Cheshire for fighting and something of a stalemate ensued. There were even meetings between member of the county elite at Tarporley and Bunbury with a view to signing a peace treaty. At these meetings the Royalists were represented by Lords Kilmorey and Cholmondeley and the Parliamentarians by Henry Mainwaring and William Marbury (with Orlando Bridgeman replacing the latter at Bunbury). A Bunbury treaty of sorts was actually signed on the 23rd December 1642 which envisaged a cessation of conflict, exchange of prisoners and destruction of the fortifications of Chester. Unfotunately there was too much local distrust for the treaty to last and it was entirely unsupported by either the King or Parliament.
Brereton had powerful support at Westminster from Lord Saye and Henry Vane, in particular, and he was granted command of the county’s forces by parliamentary ordinances of January and March 1643. This gave him authority over men regarded as his social superiors such as Philip Mainwaring, who had worked diligently to raise his own horse troop, and Booth, his former guardian and father-in-law.
Brereton started his military activities at Congleton where he arrived on the evening of 27 January 1643 with his own troop of horse and three companies of dragoons: evidently non-Cheshire men brought up from London by Brereton. He was joined in Congleton by the former mayor of Chester andd long-time ally, William Edwards, with another troop of horse. However, his whole force could not have amounted to more than about 500 men. His mission, however, was not to conquer Cheshire but to rouse and organize the Parliamentary sympathizers in it. He had with him the cadre of a foot regiment, a case of drakes (small cannon about 7½ feet long) and 700 muskets in his baggage train as well as an experienced Scottish professional, Major James Lothian, to train recruits. He had wide powers to construct fortifications and raise more men and was to finance the whole enterprise by voluntary payment and distraint upon the rent and goods of local Royalists. The first fighting in Cheshire took place in the southern parts of the county. After the still relatively inexperienced Sir William Brereton returned to Cheshire in January 1643 he defeated Sir Thomas Aston (who was not a particularly good commander) at Nantwich on 28 January, which he then fortified and held as Parliament's headquarters in Cheshire. The battle was something of a farce with Brereton and Aston, together with their amateur armies, blundering into each other in a narrow lane down Hospital Street.
Appointed commander-in-chief of Parliament's forces in Cheshire, Shropshire, Lancashire and Staffordshire, Brereton developed an effective network of spies and agents and conducted a relentless military campaign against the Royalists in the region. Brereton was attacked (February, 1643) at Tarporley by the king's troops who had marched out from Chester. Entrenchments were thrown up near the church, but the severest fighting was at the neighbouring hamlet of Tiverton, where both sides lost heavily. The Royalist troops retired to Chester and the Parliamentarians to Nantwich, which, as noted, Brereton made his first headquarters.
Brereton's next task was the capture Chester, in order to prevent assistance reaching the king from Ireland. To this end he placed troops on the principal roads leading to the city. The roads from the south were watched by the Nantwich forces, who captured and occupied Beeston Castle (20th Feb 1643). On the north Warrington Bridge was seized to prevent help coming from Lancashire or from Scotland, which remained loyal to Charles. Norton Priory and the Norman castle of Halton, already in ruins, were fortified and held by the Roundheads. A strong force was posted at Northwich which commanded the main road through Delamere Forest, thus completing a chain of garrisons along the valley of the Weaver from Nantwich to the Mersey. On the Welsh side the border castles of Holt on the Dee and Hawarden in the county of Flint were attacked and occupied by the Parliamentarians, who thus prevented the arrival of reinforcements from the west.
Success and Failure at Middlewich (March 1643 - December 1643)
In 1643 Brereton won his first great victory by again defeating Sir Thomas Aston, the Royalist leader, at the First Battle of Middlewich (13th March 1643), capturing two cannon, four barrels of powder, four hundred soldiers, and arms for five hundred men. Sir Thomas Aston marched out from Chester with a strong force of Royalists one Sunday morning in March. Brereton, with only a small body of horse, was at Northwich at the time, and word was sent to him that the king's forces were at Middlewich and taking up a strong position there.
Brereton and his horses hurried southwards, but had not sufficient ammunition to take the town - they were soon running out of gunpowder. A fresh supply was sent for, and on Monday afternoon Sir Thomas Aston found himself between two fires, for foot troops from Nantwich (under Lothian) also arrived on the scene, marching up Booth Lane. The Royalists were driven into the narrow streets of the town by Brereton's horse, where the Royalist cavalry were penned like sheep and quite useless. The foot-soldiers fled into the church, where (after Lothian blew in the main church doors with a petard) they laid down their arms or were slain. The church steeples, like the keeps of the Norman castles, were usually the last places of refuge for the defenders of a town, and many of them suffered great damage in consequence during the war. Aston escaped down Kinderton Lane with a mere remnant of his cavalry, leaving the infantry to their fate - mainly holed up in the church of St Michael, where they eventually surrendered. Aston laid the blame for his defeat upon his Welsh allies, who were sent to line the hedges of the roads by which the Roundheads advanced, but who threw away their arms and fled at the first approach of the enemy. Brereton declared God responsible for him winning the battle:
- "I desire the whole praise and glory may be attributed to Almighty God, who infused courage into them that stood for His cause, and struck the enemy with terror and amazement."
One of the Royalist prisoners taken at Middlewich was Sir Edward Mosley, ancestor of Chester ex-MP Stephen Mosley.
Ii is worth noting that as well as having "God on his side" Brereton also had the highly experienced professional soldier Lothian. As will be seen, Brereton's Puritan fervour, spy network and probably a very good grasp of paperwork needed the support of experienced military support fron others to achieve success. Brereton's victory at Middlewich was complete, but some months afterwards Sir Thomas Aston had his revenge and turned the tables on his enemy. He was reinforced by troops from Ireland and joined by Lord Byron by whose aid he was able to drive the Parliamentarian general out of Middlewich and bring about the loss of Northwich to the Royalists.
Also in March 1643, on the 14th, the first military governor of Chester was appointed. This was Sir Nicholas Byron (not to be confused with his nephew Lord John Byron). Sir Nicholas Byron led regiments of foot in both Bishops' Wars and joined the Royalists in the First Civil War. He was Colonel-General of Cheshire and Shropshire in 1642, then Governor of Chester. He was based at Chester Castle.
However in July 1643 William Brereton had led the first attack on Chester - two Royalist youths jeered from the City Walls and are shot dead.
In alliance with Sir Thomas Myddelton, Brereton seized territory in Shropshire during September and October 1643, defeated the inept Royalist commander Lord Capel and confined his forces in Shrewsbury. Brereton and Myddelton then advanced into north Wales, capturing Wrexham and several castles on the western side of the Dee estuary, thus threatening to blockade the Royalist stronghold of Chester. On the 9 Nov grenades were used at Holt Bridge at Farndon - Sir William Brereton, attacking the bridge for the Parliamentarians stated:
- "for which end they had also made a towre and drawbridge and strong gates upon the bridge soe as they and wee coceived it difficult if not altogether ympossible to make way for our passage".
Despite this he, Thomas Myddelton and their forces took the bridge when they cast "some grenados amongst the Welshmen" (this may be the first ever recorded use of grenades). In the same month Brereton captured Hawarden Castle for Parliament.
Brereton was a long-term advocate of carrying the war into Royalist north Wales. However the Parliamentary High Command in London did not accord the Cheshire campaign a particularly high priority and were more concerned with the defeat of the King's main field armies in the South or the Midlands. Hence while Brereton was not starved of resources and his operations against Chester and Beeston Castle were never put on hold, the High Command did not provide the significant numbers of extra mean, money and other resources that an effective Welsh campaign would have required. On the other hand, Chester was considered far more important by the Royalists, who saw it as providing an important defence for north Wales as well as a key port for the import of troops from Ireland. The Royalists sent field armies north to Cheshire in each of 1643, '44 and '45. It is notable that these armies were commanded either by the King himself or by his nephews Rupert and Maurice.
Things then turned against Brereton. On 13th December 1643 Captain Thomas Sandford and eight Royalist soldiers sneaked into Beeston Castle at night and persuaded the much larger parliamentary force commanded by Captain Thomas Steele to surrender. Captain Steel, the Puritan commander, was later tried for cowardice in yielding to so small a force, and condemned to be shot. In the same month Hawarden Castle was re-captured. Brereton's forces were driven back into Cheshire by the arrival of the first wave of the King's reinforcements from Ireland. In December 1643, on the recommendation of Prince Rupert, Lord Byron was commissioned field-marshal of Royalist forces in Cheshire, Lancashire and north Wales. Lord Capel, the King's ineffectual lieutenant-general in the region, was recalled to Oxford. Although the Marquis of Ormond was appointed lieutenant-general in Capel's place, Ormond was instructed to remain in Ireland and to delegate military command in north Wales and the Marches to John Byron, who arrived at Chester on 6 December 1643 with reinforcements of 1,000 horse and 300 foot drawn from the Oxford army. Byron joined forces with Sir Michael Erneley's regiments that had already arrived from Ireland.
The King ordered Lord Byron (then the governor of Chester, and an ancestor of the poet Byron) to secure Cheshire for the Royalists. Byron launched an offensive from the south with 5,000 men against the Parliamentarian garrisons in Cheshire, most of which were quickly captured. The troops recently returned from Ireland behaved with a degree of ruthlessness not previously displayed in the English Civil War. At Barthomley Church on 26 December, the Parliamentarian garrison surrendered after the Royalists (under a Major Connaught) lit a fire against the doors to smoke them out. At least twelve of the prisoners, mostly local militia, were executed with Byron's approval. He earned himself the nickname of the "Bloody Braggadoccio" when the letter was intercepted. Accounts vary but one such account was used as evidence against King Charles I in 1649 when on trial for his life in the first war crimes trial. Also, Major Connaught was tried for murdering several people in the church. His trial focussed on the death of just one of these villagers: John Fowler. It is said that the Major struck a battleaxe across the left side of John Fowler's head, a fatal blow. The Major was found guilty and he was hung at Boughton, Chester on the afternoon of Tuesday 17th October 1654. He went to the scaffold protesting his innocence.
In late December, Brereton, attempted to concentrate his forces to confront Byron but Brereton was defeated at the Second Battle of Middlewich on 26 December 1643. Brereton fled to Manchester and sent an urgent message to Parliament requesting help before the whole of Cheshire was lost. Notably, Lothian had been captured in Dec 1643 and Brereton had fought without the benefit of his experience.
Siege of Nantwich (December 1643 - January 1644)
The Royalists now appeared to be getting the upper hand, and they actually laid siege to Nantwich, which was defended by Sir George Booth during the temporary absence of Brereton (and Lothian - still a prisoner). The River Weaver formed a natural defence at the western approach; the town was further fortified with a circuit of earthworks, ditches and barricades. The besiegers were commanded by Sir Nicholas Byron. The strong Parliamentary garrison at Northwich was attacked by Aston, at first without success. Among the dead was Captain Sandford, who had captured Beeston Castle for the Royalists.
The following month, however, Sir Thomas Fairfax an adept and talented commander, led a force of Yorkshire Parliamentarians across the Pennines to join forces with Brereton and defeat Byron's Royalists at the Battle of Nantwich (25 January 1644). By the time Fairfax arrived at Nantwich with a combined force of around 3,000 foot and 1,800 horse from Lancashire, Cheshire and Yorkshire, he discovered that the Royalist force stationed there had been reduced due to the bad weather. He probably faced no more than 2,400 foot and less than 1,000 horse. After holding a Council of War, Fairfax decided to fight just outside of Nantwich where his horse would be more effective. As Fairfax approached, a sudden thaw caused the River Weaver to rise in spate, destroying the Beam Bridge over which Byron needed to move his cavalry and thus dividing Byron's cavalry from his infantry and artillery, who were overrun and destroyed by Fairfax. The Shropshire Union Canal has cut through the battlefield but otherwise the site remains largely undeveloped. St Mary’s church in Acton, where the Royalists made their last stand, can be visited and still bears the scars of the fighting. The victory was to mark the beginning of the recovery of the parliamentarian cause in the North of England. It also served to enhance the military reputation of Sir Thomas Fairfax and made him an obvious choice as commander-in-chief of the New Model Army a year later, the formation of which led to ultimate victory for Parliament.
Byron retreated to Chester. Although he had enough forces for the defence of the city, and had established a Royalist garrison at Beeston Castle, there was no question of another Royalist offensive in the region for some time. Sir Thomas Fairfax's victory at Nantwich had effectively neutralised the first wave of Royalist reinforcements from Ireland. Brereton had another victory, but again he was assisted by very able support and a good deal of luck as regards the sudden thaw. Fortunately for Brereton, after the battle of Nantwich (25th Jan 1644) Major Lothian was exchanged - date unknown. The governor of Chester, Sir Nicholas Byron, was caputred in March 1644. The king recommended in his place the colonel of the town guard, Francis Gamull, but he was highly unpopular with the citizens and opposed by other royalist leaders, and Byron was replaced by his nephew John, Lord Byron.
Advance to Christleton - the Siege of Chester Resumed (January 1644 - April 1645)
In March 1644 Parliament approved:
- "An Ordinance to enable Sir William Brereton Baronet, one of the Members of the House of Commons, to execute the several Ordinances of Parliament for advance of money within the County of Chester, and County and City of Chester, and to take Subscriptions for the better supply and maintenance of the Forces under his Command, for the security of the said places, and for prevention of the access of the Irish Forces into those parts.", in Acts and Ordinances of the Interregnum, 1642-1660, ed. C H Firth and R S Rait (London, 1911), pp. 409-413.
The event which had most effect on the war in Cheshire was Brereton's victory in August, 1644, at Tarvin on the road from Chester to Northwich. Prince Rupert and Prince Maurice, nephews of the king, were attempting to reach Chester with a relieving column. Brereton attacked and routed them and posted himself astride the main road. Tarvin Church still shows traces of the fighting here, for a bullet is buried deep in a brass plate in the chancel. Byron was forced to retreat to Chester. After this success Brereton advanced his head-quarters to Christleton, only two miles from the gates of Chester
From the autumn of 1644, Sir William Brereton was occupied with the long-drawn-out siege of Chester, which was defended by Lord Byron. On the 18th January 1645 the Royalists were defeated at Chrisleton in an unsuccessful attack on the Parliamentary headquarters. Parliamentarians attacked Chester once more but were repulsed. In February 1645 Brereton's forces attacked Chester again and failed in their attempt to scale the walls near the Northgate.
On 3rd April 1645, Brereton learnt (through his spies) of a convoy of ammunition from Anglesey was on its way to Chester. He marched into Flintshire to capture it, but the royalist’s hearing of his approach took the convoy into Hawarden castle. Lothian was left to capture the castle by under mining in the hope of securing the good store of ammunition within, as it would be of great use in the siege of Chester. Lothian was at the siege of Hawarden castle, which stood on sandy soil, for several weeks mining the place, which must have caused some problems shoring up the mine.
Return to Westminster (April 1645 - October 1645)
That same 3rd April 1645 also saw the passage of the "Self-denying Ordinance". At the outset of the English Civil War, Parliament had given command of its main armies to often inept commanders who were members of the aristocracy, but as the Civil War dragged on Members of Parliament, notably Oliver Cromwell and Sir William Waller, saw the need for radical reform of the army. The ordinance required any MP who held military command to resign it. The ordinance solidified the power of Cromwell and his “war party” faction. Cromwell was a member of the House of Commons, so he was obliged to resign his post as well. However, the Committee of Both Kingdoms, which oversaw the war, found his talents as a soldier indispensable and he was excepted. Military reforms helped usher in Cromwell’s New Model Army which contributed to the decisive victory over Royalist forces at the battle of Naseby on 14 June 1645.
Prior to Naseby, a report by Brereton to Parliament at the end of May 1645 reported that the sieges of Chester and Beeston was progressing well, and that he had high hopes as long as there was no outside Royalist aid. The sieges continued until the king was at Market Drayton. The Parliamentarian in the area around Cheshire and Shropshire now manned their garrisons, awaiting the storm that must follow and Brereton, with his remaining troops, withdrew behind the Mersey River. But Charles turned towards Leicester and his subsequent defeat at Naseby 14th June. Brereton now reinvested Beeston Castle and concentrated on the outright besieging of Chester.
At this time Brereton was recalled to Westminster, but the siege of Chesster was so important to the Parliamentarian cause that Brereton was one of the few commanders allowed to retain both his military command and his seat in Parliament after the Self-Denying Ordinance. However he was absent from Cheshire until October 1645, when he was restored to his command by Parliament. There was a personal element to all this - as it seems that Brereton’s determination in the early phase of the war to secure control of the various units recruited and organised by prominent Cheshire gentlemen, including Philip Mainwaring, had caused immediate friction. This worsened in September 1645 when Sir George Booth and the other deputy lieutenants responded assertively to Brereton’s supporters’ attempts to denigrate their efforts and marginalise them. According to Booth, the deputy lieutenants had found the county’s forces:
- "in a mutinous condition, for want of pay, and the country quite exhausted … yet it hath pleased God so to render our endeavours prosperous that the country and forces are now reduced to a cheerful and obedient condition, ready and capable of any proportionable design that can be presented them for the service of the parliament… Nevertheless we are informed there are some factious petitions presented to you [the Speaker, William Lenthall], bearing the character of the whole county, but indeed being the act of a few … intimating a necessity of Sir William Brereton’s return and so insinuating an odium and scandal upon us and our actions to the disturbance of the present condition we are in and the hazard of the great attempts now in agitation"
Clearly, Booth had come to the view that only Brereton could hold things together in Cheshire - however he was Brereton's father in law. The impression that Brereton’s presence was vital to the success of parliamentarian actions did not just cause resentment among the Cheshire gentry. The able Scottish soldier, Sir John Meldrum, responded angrily to printed accounts in which:
- Sir Wm Brereton is highly extolled for the overthrow given [to the enemy] at Ormskirk, when he was at least 30 miles from the place, and where there were none of the Cheshire forces but such as came to Ormskirk by my order and against his will.
Rowton Moor (September 1645)
September 1645 saw a series of setbacks for the Royalist cause. On the 10th September Prince Rupert surrendered at Bristol, ending the siege and depriving Charles of one of his major ports for reinforcement from Ireland. The petulant King sacked Prince Rupert (who demanded, and got, a Court Marshall to clear his name). On the 18th September King Charles (then at Raglan in Monmouthshire) set out to the north. His objective was to relieve Chester and link up with his remaining allies. One can only speculate as to whether Charles was influenced by the absence of Brereton. On the 20th September Parliamentarian Colonel Michael Jones led a determined assault on Chester's outer defences with 700 infantry and 700 horse and dragoons and stormed the eastern suburbs of Boughton. Many of the dead from this skirmish and are buried in St Giles Cemetery. The "mayor's house" on the corner of Dee Lane and Foregate Street was captured (and with it the civic sword and mace - the mayor fled in his nightshirt reaching the Eastgate just before it was locked) and became Brereton's third headquarters after his return. Following this, cannon are set up near St Johns (including in the tower) and a steady pounding of the walls begins. On the 22nd September a breach some 25 feet wide was made near the Roman Gardens with thirty-two cannon shot. The subsequent Parliamentary assault on the city walls was only just repulsed by Lord Byron.
Charles, then at Chirk Castle, learned that Chester might soon fall and led his army north on a relief mission. Charles entered Chester on the 23rd September with his "Lifeguard of Horse". On the same day, 1,500 Royalist cavalry arrived at Rowton Heath. At dawn the next day the main Royalist force crossed Holt Bridge. By nightfall, the Royalists were defeated before the walls of Chester in what was to be one of the last battles of the first civil war. Charles spent the night at Gamul House then left Chester in retreat to Denbigh, along an undefended road, accompanied by only 500 horse. Due to the discussions at Westminster about the "Self-denying Ordinance" Brereton was not present in Cheshire during the Battle of Rowton Moor and the events surrounding it. In his absence matters had been handled very capably by Lothian and Michael Jones.
However, the absence of Brereton clearly had some effect. His supporters clamoured for his return and there seems to have been a lack of fervour amongst the Parliamentarians in Cheshire. Brereton may not have been the most adept military comander as regards the actual fighting, but given adequate support, he appears to have gained a very positive reputation.
The end of the Siege of Chester (October 1645 - February 1646)
With the return of Brereton, the noose around Chester tightened. Dodleston Hall, to the south-west of the city, was occupied by Brereton to prevent any further escapes into Wales. The Roundheads made a floating bridge across the river Dee, which was, however, destroyed by fireships which were turned adrift and were carried up the river by a strong spring tide. Scaling-ladders were fixed on the walls, but the Royalists dragged them up into the city in the night-time. The besiegers planted four large pieces of ordinance against the walls, close to Morgan's Mount between the Northgate and the Water Tower and battered the walls so fiercely that they beat down a portion of the walls and compelled the Royalist garrison to retreat from the walls. However the Parliamentary forces did not succeed in entering the City as during the bombardment the garrison had entrenched Lady Barrow's Hey (the Infirmary Field - now a housing estate) and so prevented the attackers from exploiting their breach. Within the city the hardships were now very severe. Fires were frequent, especially in the night-time.
- "..eleven huge grenados like so many tumbling demi-phaetons threaten the city, if not the world, on fire. This was a terrible night indeed, our houses like so many split vessels crash their supporters and burt themselvs in sunder through the very violence of these descending fire-brands. The Talbott, an house adjoining to the Eastgate, flames outright; our hands are busy quenching this, while the law of nature bids us leave and seek our own security. Being thus distracted another Thunder-crack invites our eye to the most miserable spectacle spite could possibly present us with - two houses in the Watergate skippe joynt from joynt, the main posts josell each other, while the frightened casements (windows) fly for fear. In a word the whole fabrick is a perfect chaos lively set forth in this metamorphosis. The grandmother and three children are struck stark dead in the ruins of this humble edifice, a sepulcher well worth the enemies remembrance..."
"Grenados" were metal containers filled with gun-powder and fired on a high arcing path from a mortar, such as the one surviving as "Roaring Meg". This had a 15.5 inch caliber barrel and fired a 100kg hollow ball filled with powder. It has been suggested that "Roaring Meg" was actually used in Chester, but no actual evidence for that appears to exist.
Cold and bleak December days increased the suffering, and, worst of all, food was getting scarce, and the pinch of hunger began to be felt. At length the inhabitants were reduced to eating the flesh of horses and dogs, and still Sir Nicholas Byron held out, waiting daily for the help that never came. Famine did its work at last. Brereton wrote several letters to Chester stating that further resistance was futile and even offering to maintain "privileges" if surrender was forthcoming - showing that he well understood the initial motivations of Gamul, Holme et al. However, by this time power sat firmly with the military authorities in Chester and even if they had wished, Gamul et al could probably do nothing.
In Januaty 1646 an agreement for surrender of Chester was reached. The sick and wounded were allowed to stay in the city until they recovered, and the able bodied could leave in safety. On the 3rd February Lord Byron at Chester finally surrendered. The Parliamentary leaders had promised to respect ancient buildings and Churches in Chester. But when their soldiers marched through the City Gates in triumph, they ran wild. During the Parliamentary occupation of Chester many Churches were damaged, and the High Cross where Brerewood had beaten the drum to recruit for Parliament and been arrested by Cowper was destroyed. Sir Francis Gamull, now the mayor, bargained with the Roundheads that the tombs of his family should not be harmed, and this explains the fact that the Gamull monuments in St Mary on the Hill are almost the only relics of the kind in Chester that escaped destruction.
After the surrender of Chester, Brereton was involved in mopping up Royalist resistance in his region. Sir Jacob Astley surrendered the last Royalist field army to Brereton at Stow-on-the-Wold in March 1646. The last Royalist army to take the field was a force of 3,000 troops raised by Lord Astley from Wales and the Midlands: the 700 horse were mostly survivors of veteran cavalier regiments, the foot were experienced troops released from local garrisons or from those which had surrendered. In mid-March 1646, Astley marched from Bridgnorth to Worcester, intending to join forces with the King and 1,500 horse stationed at Oxford. Colonel Thomas Morgan and Colonel John Birch joined forces at Gloucester on 15 March and marched with 2,300 Parliamentarians to block Astley's advance. Meanwhile, Sir William Brereton was cautiously approaching from Lichfield to join Morgan and Birch with a further 1,000 horse from Cheshire and the Midlands.
Astley outmanoeuvred his pursuers and crossed the River Avon by setting up a bridge of boats near Bidford. He marched into the Cotswolds where his progress was delayed by Parliamentarian skirmishers, though Morgan was reluctant to commit to a full-scale attack until Brereton's forces came up. Having marched his troops 25 miles without resting, Astley halted at the village of Donnington, about two miles from Stow-on-the-Wold, during the evening of 20 March. During the night, Brereton's cavalry finally joined up with Morgan. Realising that he could not avoid battle, Astley drew up his army on a steep hillside to the north of Stow. The Parliamentarians formed up facing them.
The final battle of the English Civil War began at dawn on 21 March 1646. The two armies were conventionally deployed with foot in the centre and horse on the flanks, the Parliamentarians outnumbering the Royalists. Lord Astley commanded the Royalist centre, with Sir Charles Lucas on the right flank and Sir William Vaughan on the left. Sir William Brereton commanded the Parliamentarian right flank, with Colonel Birch in the centre and Colonel Morgan on the left. Morgan led the initial Parliamentarian attack on the left but was twice thrown back when Lucas counter-attacked. A fierce struggle developed in the centre with neither side prevailing. The battle was decided by Sir William Brereton's cavalry on the Parliamentarian right flank. Outnumbered nearly two-to-one, Vaughan's cavalry were unable to withstand Brereton's attack and were routed. Brereton then turned against the flank of Astley's infantry in the centre. When Lucas's cavalry also broke and fled, Astley withdrew his infantry into Stow-on-the-Wold where, after fighting through the streets and a gallant stand in the market square, he finally ordered his men to lay down their arms.
After the War
After the First Civil War was over, Brereton was richly rewarded for his services to Parliament. He was given Eccleshall Castle in Staffordshire and acquired Croydon Palace, the former summer residence of the Archbishop of Canterbury. Now known as "Old Palace", the buildings are still in use as the Old Palace School, an independent girls' school. However, Brereton's enthusiasm for public life seems to have rapidly waned. He declined to sit as one of the King's judges in January 1649 and played little part in events during the Commonwealth and Protectorate. Brereton has been described as "an increasingly disillusioned honest radical from 1646 and especially from 1653". He later argued that the Earl of Derby should not be executed. In an old pamphlet published in 1663, called "The Mysteries of the Good Old Cause," Sir William Brereton is described as:
- "a notable man at a thanksgiving dinner, having terrible long teeth and a prodigious stomach, to turn the Archbishop's chapel at Croydon into a kitchen also to swallow up that palace and lands at a morsel."
Sir William Brereton married as his first wife Susanna, daughter of Sir George Booth (first Bt) of Dunham Massey, Baronet. By her Brereton had Sir Thomas, his only son and successor in the baronetcy, and three daughters: Frances, wife of Edward Ward, 10th Baron Dudley and 2nd Baron Ward; Susanna, who married Edmund Lenthall, son of Sir John Lenthall; and Catherine, who died unmarried. Brereton's second wife was Cicely, daughter of Sir William Skeffington, Baronet, of Staffordshire. They had a daughter, Cicely, who became the wife of Edward, 4th Earl of Meath. Sir Thomas died in 1673 without male issue ; he was buried in thhe Handforth chapel of Cheadle church. With him ended the direct male line of this family, which had held the Handforth estates for nearly one hundred and fifty years.
Sir William died at the Archepiscopal Palace at Croydon, Surrey, of which he had received the grant from Parliament for his brilliant military services. At the Restoration, Croydon Palace was returned to Archbishop Juxon, but Brereton was allowed to remain there as a tenant until his death in April 1661. According to tradition, his body was taken to Handford for burial, but was lost in a flood en route, with the coffin being last seen disappearing downstream. There is found no record of any burial in the Cheadle Church registers, only a mention of his death. What became of his body is often said to be unknown, although there are suggestions that it was recovered and buried either at Cheadle or at Croydon.
Brereton perhaps appears as a better strategist than tactician, and one who brought a popular Puritan fervour to his leadership. He performed best, if not brilliantly, when supported by able field commanders or against unskilled opponents. As a diarist, spymaster and a man of many letters he was capable of bringing planning and continuity to his campaigns, but could suffer defeat when acting alone or with less able help. Despite not being a career soldier he was one of the few to survive as a commander following Cromwell's re-organisation of the Parliamentary forces to remove MP's and aristocrats as commanders and establish his "New Model Army". He was cautious, but probably not the coward that Byron drew him as. He was sometimes at odds with the military officers drawn from the leading Cheshire families, who were probably fairly inept at warfare and were his social superiors but placed under his command. It is also clear that even during his military career his supporters were "boosting" his reputation by attribution of victories in which he took no, or little, part.
As for his vengeful nature, he was not a long-standing enemy of Chester as a whole, but perhaps bore some grudges against the Royalists of Chester. It should not be forgotten that these very Royalists (Gamul and his clique) had not only thwarted him in the past but to some extent were only Royalists for the sake of profit. "Honest reactionary" sums him up rather than "vengeful bigot" - but he did not hesitate to bombard the city with a grenade-throwing mortar which was the indiscriminate terror-weapon of the day.
Sources and Links
- Cheshire, by Charles E. Kelsey;
- Sir William Brereton on Wikipedia;
- The Breretons of Cheshire (e-book);
- Brereton Hall (e-book);
- Historic Sites of Lancashire and Cheshire;
- Sir William Brereton's diary;
- Sir William Brereton at the BCW Project;
- Sir William Brereton’s Regiment of Horse;
- Sir William Brereton’s Regiment of Foot;
- CHESHIRE IN THE GREAT CIVIL WAR.;
- A Journal of the English Civil War: The Letter Book of Sir William Brereton;
- World Military Leaders: A Biographical Dictionary;
- Sir William Brereton and England's Wars of Religion;
- Historic Sites of Lancashire and Cheshire;
- Brereton at History of Parliament Online;
- Crisis and Order in English Towns 1500-1700;
- ON HANDFOBD OLD HALL, in CHESHIRE, FORMERLY THE RESIDENCE of THE ANCIENT FAMILY OF BREBETON, WITH AN ACCOUNT OF CHEADLE CHURCH, IN THAT COUNTY, AND OF THE MONUMENTS OF THE BRERETONS IN IT Transactions of the Historic Society of Lancashire and Cheshire, 2, 1850, 41-54;
- The Breretons of Cheshire by Faye Brereton-Goodwin;
- The Overseas Trade of Chester;
- Major James Lothian;
- FOUR CHURCHES AND A RIVER aspects of the Civil War in Cheshire (Prof Peter Gaunt);
- The English Civil War: A Military History (Prof Peter Gaunt);
- History of the siege of Chester, during the civil wars in the time of king Charles - free e-book;