Wednesday, 2 September 2015

The Rise of Sir William Brereton

Daniel Cheswis, the lead character in my novels, The Winter Siege and A Soldier of Substance is one of the petty constables in the Cheshire town of Nantwich at a time when the established structures of local government had collapsed during the early part of the First Civil War. In creating an environment for him to operate in, it was necessary for me to carry out considerable research into local Cheshire politics at that time, and what I found was a fascinating story of one man’s rise to prominence against the established social order and the creation of a political structure which allowed him to maintain power, almost unchallenged, until after the conclusion of the Siege of Chester.

On the face of it, Sir William Brereton was not the obvious choice to assume undisputed command of the war effort in Cheshire. Although he was from a gentry background, he was the social inferior of the local barons and of leading local families such as the Booths, Delves, Mainwarings and Wilbrahams. Brereton was extremely active socially during the 1630s, but his prominence and position of influence in Cheshire politics largely came about due to the fact that he was the only Cheshire MP to continually sit in the Commons after July 1642.

During the period leading up to the start of the First Civil War Cheshire MPs and the county elite were essentially moderate in nature, looking to avoid conflict as much as possible with a view to avoiding the risk of a collapse in social structures. At this time, however, Brereton began to be viewed as something of a political and religious radical, attracting the support of local Puritans. He was also influential on many government committees at the time.

It is not known for certain, but it is likely that his change in image was a reason why Brereton was not chosen as a candidate for election to the Long Parliament. Instead he stood as an independent, defeating the candidates chosen by the local barons and baronets.

 He was elected to the Long Parliament as an independent having been chosen by neither the barons nor the baronets, including the likes of Sir George Booth, whose daughter Brereton had been married to before her death in 1637. Brereton also sat on numerous parliamentary committees in the period leading up to the war, increasing his influence still further.

Brereton’s continuing involvement in Westminster politics gave him a personal influence he would not otherwise have been able to secure, and to the surprise and dismay of many of his political opponents, he was promoted by parliamentary ordinance to positions of significant power from where he could control the military operations of Parliament in Cheshire.

Brereton’s overwhelming control of events in Cheshire can be ascribed to two key ordinances.

The first, in March 1643, gave him supreme military command in Cheshire, including the sole right to make military appointments and the ability to take control of troops raised by his social superiors, including Sir George’s grandson, also called George Booth, who was in command of the Nantwich garrison during the 1644 Battle of Nantwich described in The Winter Siege. Gradually, over a period, many of the county elite stepped down or were removed from military command to be replaced by professional soldiers who had Brereton to thank for their advancement. Examples of this are James Lothian and Thomas Croxton, both of whom make appearances in The Winter Siege and A Soldier of Substance

The second major ordinance was in March 1644. Prior to this date administrative powers in the county were in the hands of five or more Deputy Lieutenants. The new ordinance, however, stipulated that power could be exercised by Brereton together with any two or more of the Deputy Lieutenants. Brereton therefore not only had a veto on any local decisions, since he knew he could always find at least two people to support him, he was able to set up a network of committees all dominated by his own chosen followers. Moderates such as Sir George Booth, Philip Mainwaring of Peover and others were shut out of any influence in local politics until almost the end of the First Civil War.

This blog post was originally written for Andrea Zuvich's blog site 17th Century Lady

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