Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Brereton, William (1604-1661)

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BRERETON, Sir WILLIAM (1604–1661), parliamentary commander, son of William Brereton of Handforth, Cheshire, and Margaret, daughter and coheiress of Richard Holland of Denton, Lancashire, was baptised at the collegiate church, Manchester, in 1604. On 10 March 1626-7 he was created a baronet. In 1634-5 he travelled through a large part of Great Britain and Ireland, and crossed over into Holland and the United Provinces. He kept a 'Diary' of his travels, which was published by the Chetham Society in 1844, and affords various interesting information regarding the social condition of Scotland and England; it also manifests a serious and religious cast of thought. Brereton's natural bias towards puritanism was doubtless further confirmed by his marriage to Susanna, fourth daughter of Sir George Booth of Dunham Massey, and by intercourse with his near neighbours, Henry Bradshaw and Colonel Dukenfield. He was elected to represent his native county in parliament in 1627-8 and 1639-40. The name of William Brereton occurs in the parish register of Wanstead, Essex, attached to a document signed by fifty of the principal inhabitants, expressive of their attachment to the church of England and abhorrence of papal innovations, but there is no evidence to support the supposition of Lysons (Environs of London, iv. 243) that the name was that of Sir William Brereton of Handforth. According to Clarendon, he was 'most considerable for a known averseness to the government of the church' (History, vi. 270). On the first symptoms of the approaching civil war he put himself at the head of the movement in Cheshire. In August 1642 the houses of parliament drew up instructions to him as one of the deputy-lieutenants of the county (Advice and Directions of both Houses of Parliament to Sir William Brereton and the rest of the Deputy-lieutenants of the County of Chester, published at London on 19 Aug. 1642). Subsequently he was appointed commander-in-chief of the forces in Cheshire and the neighbouring counties to the south. Having entered Cheshire from London with one troop of horse and a regiment of dragoons, Brereton, after a severe conflict, completely defeated Sir Thomas Aston near Nantwich on 28 Jan. 1642-3, the accidental explosion of a piece of the royalists' cannon greatly aiding his victory. This enabled him to occupy Nantwich, which became the headquarters of the parliamentary party, while Chester was fortified by the royalists. From these places the two parties 'contended,' in the words of Clarendon, 'which should most prevail upon, that is, most subdue, the affections of the county to declare for and join them' (History, vi. 270). Clarendon states that the lower orders were specially devoted to Brereton, and that he obtained much advantage from their readiness to supply him with intelligence. For a considerable time it required his utmost energy to enable him to hold his own. He again inflicted a severe defeat, 13 March 1642-3, on Sir Thomas Aston, who attempted to hold Middlewich on behalf of the king, but after the royalists had been strengthened by troops from Ireland, Brereton was himself worsted at the same place. Meanwhile, in the summer of 1643, he captured successively Stafford, Wolverhampton, and Whitchurch, besides various strongholds. During his absence Nantwich, while held by Sir George Booth, was closely besieged by Lord Byron, but, with the assistance of Sir Thomas Fairfax, Brereton, on 14 Feb. 1643-4, totally routed the besieging forces, the greater part of them escaping to Chester, while large numbers surrendered. Having parted from Sir Thomas Fairfax, he proceeded towards Chester, and in August 1644 defeated at Tarvin Prince Rupert, who was marching to its relief. Following on this came the capture of the town and castle of Liverpool, and the town and castle of Shrewsbury. After their defeat at Rowton Heath in September 1645, the royalists could make no further stand in Cheshire, and Beeston Castle and Chester were closely invested. Brereton obtained a complete victory over the king's forces under Sir William Vaughan on 1 Nov. at Denbigh, and all hope of succour being cut off, the garrison at Beeston Castle surrendered the same month, and that of Chester in February 1645-6. Immediately advancing southwards against Prince Maurice with 1,000 foot, Brereton found that the enemy had disappeared. On 6 March he captured Lichfield, and on 12 May Dudley Castle. On the 22nd of the latter month he dispersed near Stow-in-the-Wold the forces of Lord Ashley, the last important body of the royalists in arms. After the conclusion of the war he received the chief forestership of Macclesfield forest, and the seneschalship of the hundred of Macclesfield. He also obtained various grants of moneys and lands, among other properties which came into his possession being that of the archiepiscopal palace of Croydon. In an old pamphlet, 'The Mysteries of the Good Old Cause' (1663), which mentions his possession of the palace, he 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.' He died at Croydon on 7 April 1661. His body was removed thence to be interred in the Handforth chapel in Cheadle church, but there is a tradition that in crossing a river the coffin was swept away by a flood, and this is confirmed by the fact that there is no entry of the burial, but only of the death, in the Cheadle registers. By his first wife he had two sons and two daughters, and by his second wife two daughters. There are rude portraits of Brereton in Ricraft's 'England's Champions' and Vicars's 'England's Worthies.' In the Sutherland collection of portraits in the Bodleian Library there is an illustration of him on horseback drawn by Robert Cooper.

[Ricraft's Survey of England's Champions, 1647; Vicars's England's Worthies, 1647; Clarendon's History; Binghall's Providence Improved, written 1628-73, published at Chester in 1778, containing an account of the siege of Nantwich; Cheshire Successes, 1642; Magnalia Dei, a Relation of some of the many remarkable Passages in Cheshire before the Siege of Namptwich ... and at the happy Raising of it by ... Sir Tho. Fairfax and Sir William Brereton, &c., London, 1643; History of the Siege of Chester, 1793; Sir William Brereton's Letter sent to the Hon, William Lenthall, Esq., Speaker of the Hon. House of Commons, concerning ... the Siege ... of Chester, 5 March 1645; Chester's Enlargement after Three Years' Bondage, 1645; the various contemporary accounts which were published of his more remarkable victories. Dr. Gower, in Account of Cheshire Collections (p. 43), mentions the Journals of Sir Wm. Brereton in five folio volumes, written in a small hand, describing every circumstance that occurred during the four years he was general. The only document now known to be in existence, corresponding in any degree to this description, is his letter-book from April to June 1642, and from December 1644 to December 1646; Add. MSS. 11331-3. Detailed accounts of Brereton's career are contained in Archæologia, vol. xxxiii., Ormerod's Cheshire, and Earwaker's East Cheshire.]

T. F. H.

Dictionary of National Biography, Errata (1904), p.36
N.B.— f.e. stands for from end and l.l. for last line

Page Col. Line  
271 i 12 f.e. Brereton, Sir William (1604-61): for 1639-40 read to the short and to the long parliaments in 1640