Soldier, politician and spymaster, Sir William Brereton - perhaps best remembered for besieging Chester during the Civil War - died 350 years ago today. As a youngish man, he travelled abroad, and kept detailed and interesting notes of his journeys, sometimes of local military tactics.
Brereton was born at Handforth, Cheshire, but lost his father when only six. He was educated at Brasenose College, Oxford, and then, when 23, was created a baron by Charles I. A year later he was elected MP for Cheshire but relinquished his seat so as to travel - to Holland, Scotland and Ireland. He married twice, once to Susannah who died in 1637, leaving two sons and two daughters, and once to Cicely, who also bore him two daughters (according to the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography). A staunch Puritan he advocated major reform of the Anglican church.
Brereton was re-elected to Parliament in 1640, and opposed the King on policies in many areas. After the outbreak of civil war in 1642, he was appointed a major-general of Parliament’s forces. He is recorded to have had particular skills in the areas of espionage and siege warfare. His greatest triumph is said to be the siege and capture of Chester, which took over one year to complete.
Brereton was one of very few leaders allowed to retain his military command and his seat in Parliament after the Self-Denying Ordinance. With the war over, Brereton was rewarded with Eccleshall Castle and the tenancy of Croydon Palace, the former home of the Archbishop of Canterbury in 1652. He died on 7 April 1661, according to Wikipedia, and further biographical information is also available from the British Civil Wars website
During his travels, Brereton kept journals, and these were edited by Edward Hawkins and published by the Chetham Society in 1844 under the title, Travels in Holland, the United Provinces, England, Scotland and Ireland, 1634–1635. Parts of the diary were republished in North Country Diaries by the Surtees Society in 1915. Both volumes are freely available at Internet Archive.
It is said that Brereton learned warfaring tactics abroad, in Holland, and there is some evidence of this in his diary, such as when he notes: ‘Mr Goodier told me of a strange deliverance of this town besieged, wherein the famine and pestilence raging, the town not being able to hold out any longer, the country was drowned by drawing up their sluices and cutting the banks, and the night following the wall in one place, convenient for the enemies to enter, fell down and broke down (a great breach); the noise whereof and the sudden eruption of the water took such impression of fear, and occasioned the apprehension of some further danger by some further design; whereupon they broke up their siege, and left the town. For this strange preservation a solemn day of thanksgiving kept yearly in this city.’
Here is Brereton’s first diary entry in 1634 (taken from the 1844 volume), and this is followed by a long entry in 1635 (taken directly from University College Cork website which has the Irish parts of the journal online).
17 May 1634.
‘We departed from London by water; we came to Gravesend about eight of the clock In the evening; we came in a light-horseman [small boat]; took water about three clock in afternoon. A dainty cherry orchard of Captain Lord’s, planted three years ago, near unto Thames, not forty roods distant. The stocks one yard and a half high; prosper well; but I conceive the top will in a short time be disproportionable to the stock. Very many of the trees bear. It is three acres of ground; planted four hundred and forty-odd trees. An old cherry orchard near adjoining nothing well set: this year the cherries sold for £20: it is but an acre of ground: the grass reserved and excepted. A proper ship came from Middleborough on Saturday at noon, 17 May.
Stiff N.W. wind all Sunday; turned E. on 19 Monday morn. Passed by Gravesend on Monday about four. Captain Boare went from Gravesend on 15 May; went to Rotterdam; returned thither 20. Another ship came in twenty-four hours from Brill to Gravesend.
A delicate kiln to burn chalk lime; it is the Duke of Lenox, near Gravesend, upon the river side; it is made of brick, narrow at bottom, round, and wider at top; it is emptied always at the bottom; they hook out so much as is cold, until they pull out fire, and then cease. It is supplied with fire and chalk at top; one basket of sea-coals proportioned to eight of chalk; the fire extinguisheth not from one end of the year to the other. When it is kindled, fire is put to the bottom: it is sold for a groat, one hoop burnt. The pit is in the side of an hill, which is thirty yards high; one of the workmen fell (with whom I conferred) from top to bottom, not slain, but bruised and still sore. An horse stuck by the fore-legs, and held and cried out like a child, and stuck until he was helped up by men.’
21 July 1635
‘We went home about eight hour, and came to Ballihack, a poor little village on this side the passage over the river 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 of Kildare came over, was in danger to be run under water by carrying too much sail, and running foul upon the passage boat. Down this river come all the shipping for Waterford. Here we saw the Ninth Whelp lying at anchor, to guard the fleet which now is ready to go hence to Bristoll fair. Sir Beverley Newcombe is captain of her, and is now at Waterford. They say there are about fifty sail to go to St. James fair at Bristoll. The Irish here use a very presumptuous proverb and speech touching this passage. They always say they must be at Bristoll fair, they must have a wind to Bristoll fair, and indeed it is observed they never fail of a wind to Bristoll fair; yea, though the fair be begun, and the wind still averse, yet still do they retain their confident presumption of a wind. 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 horses. Here is far better coming into the boat and landing than at Port Patricke, but less and worse boats. On Munster side is good lodging and accommodation.
This day we passed over the land of a gentleman whose name is [. . .]. He died about seven days ago of a gangrene; his fingers and hands, toes and feet, rotted off, joint by joint. He was but a young man, of above 1,000£ per annum, and married an old woman, a crabbed piece of flesh, who cheated him with a 1,000£ she brought him, for which he was arrested within three days after his marriage.
We came to Waterford about three hour, and baited at the King’s Head, at Mr Wardes, a good house, and a very complete gentleman-like host. This town is reputed one of the richest towns in Ireland. It stands upon a river (called Watterford River), which maintaineth a sufficiently deep and safe channel even to the very quay, which, indeed, is not only the best and most convenient quay which I found in Ireland, but it is as good a quay as I have known either in England or observed in all my travels. A ship of three hundred may come close to these quays. This quay is made all along the river side without the walls, and divers fair and convenient buttresses made about twenty yards long, which go towards the channel. I saw the river at a spring tide flow even with the top of this quay, and yet near the quay a ship of three hundred ton full loaden may float at a low water. Upon this river stand divers forts and castles which command it. At the mouth of the river is there a fort called Duncannon, wherein lieth my Lord Esmond’s company, consisting of fifty good, expert soldiers. Here is also a company of fifty soldiers, which are under the command of Sir George Flowre, an ancient knight. These are disposed of in the fort, which is placed without the gate towards Caricke, a pretty little hold, which stands on high and commands the town. There stands upon this river the Carick twelve mile, hence, and Clonmell about eight mile thence; hither (as I have heard) the river flows. There is, seated upon this river also Golden Bridge, and there is a passage by water from Cullen [?] and Limbrecke. This is no barred, but a most bold haven, in the mouth whereof is placed an eminent tower, a sea mark, to be discerned at a great distance; yet this river runs so crooked as without a W. or N.W. Hence went a great fleet to Bristoll fair, who stayed long here waiting for a wind.
This city is governed by a mayor, bailiffs, and twelve aldermen. Herein are seven churches; there have been many more. One of these, Christ Church, a cathedral; St. Patrick’s, Holy Ghost, St. Stephen’s, St. John - but none of these are in good repair, not the cathedral, nor indeed are there any churches almost to be found in good repair. Most of the inhabitants Irish, not above forty English, and not one of these Irish goes to church. This town trades much with England, France, and Spain, and that which gives much encouragement hereunto is the goodness of the haven.
This town double-walled, and the walls maintained in good repair. Here we saw women in a most impudent manner treading clothes with their feet; these were naked to the middle almost, for so high were their clothes tucked up about them. Here the women of better rank and quality wear long, high laced caps, turned up round about; these are mighty high; of this sort I gave William Dale money to buy me one. Here is a good, handsome market-place, and a most convenient prison that I ever saw for the women apart, and this is a great distance from the men’s prison. Herein dwells a judicious apothecary, who hath been bred at Antwerpe, and is a traveller; his name is (as I take it) Mr Jarvis Billiard, by whose directions and good advice I found much good, and through God’s mercy recovered from my sickness. After I had dined here, I went about four or five hour towards Caricke, where I stayed at a ferry about a mile from Waterford a whole hour for the boat, wherein we and our six horses were carried over together.
Hence to Caricke is accounted nine miles, good large ones, but very fair way, and very ready to find. We came to Caricke about nine hour. We lodged at the sign of the Three Cuts at Mr Croummer’s, where is a good neat woman. Here my disease increasing, I wanted good accommodation.
Here is my Lord of Ormond’s house, daintily seated on the river bank, which flows even to the walls of his house, which I went to see, and found in the outer court three or four hay-stacks, not far from the stable-door; this court is paved. There are also two other courts; the one a quadrangle. The house was built at twice. If his land were improved and well planted, it would yield him great revenue; for it is said he hath thirty-two manors and manor-houses, and eighteen abbeys. This town of Carick is seated upon the bank of a fine, pleasant, navigable river, but it is a most poor place, and the houses many quite ruinated, others much decayed; here is no trade at all. This hath been a town of strength and defence; it is walled about, and with as strong a wall, and that to walk upon, as is West Chester; the church in no good repair; nor any of the churches in this country, which argues their general disaffection unto religion. Here in this town is the poorest tavern I ever saw - a little low, thatched Irish house, not to be compared unto Jane Kelsall’s of the Green at Handforth. ‘Twixt Waterford and this town are many spacious sheep-pastures, and very fair large sheep as most in England; the greatest part of the land hereabouts is converted unto this use.’