Mystery surrounding the lost coffin of Sir William Brereton

SUNDAY SUPPLEMENT: One of the heroes of Oliver Cromwell’s Parliamentarian army in the English Civil War was given Croydon Palace as a reward for his efforts. But no one seems to know the location of his last resting place, as DAVID MORGAN explains

Lost en route: Sr William Brereton’s fate, post-death, was unusual, even by standards of the turbulent 1600s

“You’ve done what?! You’ve lost it?

“But you can’t have. You can’t lose a coffin,” said Sir William’s steward, his ghast obviously flabbered.

“We are sorry, sir, truly we are.”

“It just floated away?” the steward asked, still disbelieving what he had just been told.

“Yes sir. And then it just slipped under the water and sank. We couldn’t reach it; the current was too strong.”

“Wasn’t it secure on the cart?

“Oh it was, sir. Most secure. But the horse slipped and stumbled as we were crossing the ford. The cart was overturned and we were thrown out. The ropes came undone and the coffin… well, it just sort of… floated away.

“Before we could grab it, your lordship was swept away in the waters.”

Let us confirm that today is April 2, 2023. This is no April Fool.

But this is a conversation that might have taken place in April 1661 at Brereton House in Cheshire, between the house’s senior staff waiting for the return of their master on his last journey, and those men who had been paid to transport the body of Sir William Brereton from Croydon to his family home and what was meant to have been his final resting place.

Sir William Brereton was supposed to be interred in the Handforth chapel in the nearby Cheadle Church. He had died in Croydon, in the Archbishop’s Palace, on April 7.

Brereton was a Parliamentarian who had lived through the English Civil War, the Regicide of Charles I and then the Restoration. He was a man whose life was recorded in many places and who kept a most detailed diary about significant periods in his lifetime. Yet his final earthly journey was shrouded in mystery.

Home from home: Brereton had been given property, including Croydon Palace, for his service to Parliament. But Brereton House was always regarded as his home

Nothing was recorded either in Croydon nor in Handforth except his date of death.

The story was that his body was lost in a flood, with the coffin being swept away. Nobody could confirm the details.

Brereton was, by turn, a Puritan magistrate during the 1630s and a Parliamentarian activist who was elected MP for Cheshire in 1628, though he never got to attend Parliament very much; Charles I dissolved Parliament in 1629 and did not recall it until 1640, a period known as “the 11-year Tyranny”. Brereton was then a Cheshire and Staffordshire military commander during the Civil War.

He was rewarded for his loyalty and devotion to Oliver Cromwell by being given grants of money and lands sequestered by Parliament. One of these grants was the Archbishop’s Palace in Croydon, seized from the church.

Brereton stayed here regularly but it was during one of these visits that he was taken ill and died. He was 56. His will was written on April 6, the day before his death. His only surviving son and heir, Sir Thomas Brereton, who was 29 years old at the death of his father, took over the running of Brereton Hall. But when he died in 1674 with no children, this ended the male line who had run the Handford estates for nearly 150 years.

Stunning: the stained glass window in St Chad’s, Farndon in Cheshire, where Brereton’s unit was stationed, entitled The Civil War window

Following the impeachment and eventual execution of the Archbishop of Canterbury William Laud, there was a 20-year gap between 1640 and 1660 before an archbishop would again reside in the Croydon Palace. For the earlier part of that time the building and lands were leased to Charles Howard, 2nd Earl of Nottingham. It was later that the estate was granted by the Parliamentary Commissioners to Brereton.

Depending on your politics, Brereton was a figure who was both loved and loathed over his lifetime. He was lauded by the Roundheads for his successful military campaigns. After the outbreak of the Civil War, he tried to take Chester from the Royalists, but was beaten back. In January 1643, he defeated Sir Thomas Aston at the Battle of Nantwich, which he then fortified and held as Parliament’s headquarters in Cheshire.

He was appointed as the commander-in-chief of the Parliamentarian forces throughout Cheshire, Shropshire, Lancashire and Staffordshire. He developed a vast network of spies and informers to help him in his campaign against the Royalists.

Working with Sir Thomas Myddleton, Brereton gained territory in Shropshire in September and October 1643, before advancing into North Wales capturing Wrexham and several castles. A defeat at the Battle of Middlewich in December 1643 proved only a temporary setback.

His victory at Nantwich in January 1644 was followed by the long siege of Chester which was taken a year later. So valuable was Brereton’s tactical nous as a military commander that he was one of the very few who Cromwell allowed to retain both their military command and their seat as a Member of Parliament.

Sir Jacob Astley surrendered the last Royalist army in the field to Brereton in March 1646 at Stow-on-the-Wold.

Despite this glittering military period in his life, Brereton seemed to lose interest in the cause during Cromwell’s Protectorate, stepping back from public life, refusing even to attend the trial of Charles I in 1649. He was elected to the English Council of State in 1652 and 1653, but rarely attended.

After the Battle of Nantwich, he approached Brereton Hall, then the home of a Royalist relative, to lay siege to it.

A nephew is said to have scratched this poem in the house:

“On yonder hill my uncle stands
But he will not come near,
For he is a Roundhead
And I am a Cavalier.”

A stunning stained glass window in St Chad’s, Farndon in Cheshire, is entitled The Civil War window. It contains amazing detail of the military figures and equipment of the day. Brereton and his soldiers were barracked in the church in 1643.

Before commanding the militias in Cheshire, Brereton spent time in Ireland. He was appointed by Parliament to oversee the transport of troops and supplies and then to suppress in the Irish Uprising of 1641. In his early years in Ireland, he kept a diary which is a rich source of information for historians. His descriptions tell of the small details of everyday life.

17 May 1634: We departed London from water; we came to Gravesend about eight of the clock in the evening; we came in a small horseman [small boat]; we took water about three o’clock in the afternoon. A dainty cherry orchard of Capt Lord’s planted three years ago, near unto the Thames, not 40 roods distant… very many of the trees bear. It is three acres of ground, planted 400 and 40 odd trees.

21 May 1635: We came to Ballihack, a poor little village on this side of the passage over the water of Waterford, which here is the broadest passage said to be in Ireland and a most rough troubled passage when the wind is anything high. Here, last day, the boat wherein my Lord Kildare came over was in danger to be run under water by carrying too much sail and running foul upon the passage boat… It is most safe here to hire a boat to pass over in, not with horses, which is rowed over with four oars. I paid for the hire of it 2s. This is a full mile over. The passage boat which carries your horses will not carry at one time more than two or three… On Munster side is good lodging and accommodation.

8 July 1635: We lodged at Wexford at the sign of the windmill at the house of Paul Bennett… Trade much decayeth in this town and it is very poor by reason of herring fishing failing. They report here of an incredible multitude of herrings taken ordinarily in one night… sometimes to the value of £20, sometimes £40, sometimes more… Now of latter times the herring have forsaken this coast, this town is much impoverished and decayed. Their quays are in ruin and are in no good repair.

Brereton even included the description of the cure he took for “the flux” or sickness: “cinnamon in burnt claret wine, also the syrup and conserve of sloes, well boiled, after they have been strained and mingled according to discretion with sugar…”.

Victor: the Battle of Nantwich, where Brereton made his name as a Civil War commander

Although achieving great popularity in Cheshire, Brereton had few supporters in Croydon.

He treated the Archbishop’s Palace poorly, smashing some of the stained glass and removing religious paintings. Thankfully the building escaped demolition, unlike other similar properties sequestered by Parliament at that time.

Sir William – he was made a baronet, a form of hereditary knighthood rarely awarded today – was mocked in a pamphlet which was published after his death in 1663 entitled The Mysteries of the Good Old Cause.

Sir William Brereton was “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.”

As well as turning the chapel into a kitchen, Brereton was at other times accused of stabling horses there, too.

In a pageant performed by pupils at Old Palace School in 1931 about the history of their building, Brereton was played for comic effect, with the actor blustering through the sketch, in contrast to the saintly archbishops.

Poor Brereton. In the prime of his life, he supported the cause in which he truly believed. He helped the cause achieve its aims. But then he saw Cromwell’s Protectorate crumble quickly and collapse. Did he see that coming? Did the bloodshed of a Civil War change him? Despite the comforts that his loyalty and support to Cromwell brought him, together with his wealth and status, his last few years seem troubled.

In his younger days, he was the model Puritan Justice of the Peace, displaying great zeal in suppressing ale houses and pursuing Catholic recusants. In his military days he was the great strategist and campaigner. In his later years, life was much harder for him.

‘Valiant commander and patriot’: Sir William faded from public life after the war

He was charged with corruption by his nephew, young George Booth, for seizing Eccleshall Castle for himself rather than to hand it over to Parliament. He was also charged with handing Dudley Castle back to its Royalist owners for considerations which linked him to certain London goldsmiths. Although the charges were refuted, his popular image was tainted.

Even his religious ideals never came to fruition. In his early career he searched for religious freedom through good order and discipline. His later notion of creating a perfection in people by developing perfect institutions never happened. His semi-retirement in Croydon was filled with thoughts of what-might-have-been.

Some online references have Sir William buried in Croydon, but this seems not to be the case and is disputed. There is no trace of his burial in the parish records at the Minster.

So if the stories about his lost coffin are true, he never even got a final and peaceful resting place.

Previous articles by David Morgan:

  • David Morgan, pictured right, is a former Croydon headteacher, now the volunteer education officer at Croydon Minster, who offers tours or illustrated talks on the history around the Minster for local community groups

To read all his previous articles on the history of Croydon Minster and the people connected with it, click here

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2 Responses to Mystery surrounding the lost coffin of Sir William Brereton

  1. Stephen Ede-Borrett says:

    Fascinating legend – although I would point out that Brereton at no point served in any Army commanded by Cromwell and, for his time as a General Brereton was Cromwell’s senior. There is also no evidence that he supported Cromwell since he refused to sit on the Council of State and didn’t sit in the Cromwellian Parliaments.
    The Parish records show he was actually buried, peacefully in St John Baptist Churchyard, Croydon Minster.

    • We would point out that nowhere in this article does it state that Brereton served in any army commanded by Cromwell.

      And if you have parish records that show that Brereton was buried at Croydon Parish Church, rather than just what Wikipedia says, then we’d love to see them. David Morgan is the Croydon Minster archivist, and he has never found any such record, and Corbett Anderson, writing in the 19th Century and listing all the worthies buried at Croydon Parish Church, does not include Brereton.

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