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Brereton Wealth and Scheming at the Time of James I
By Derek P. Brereton

One of the stops on our reunion tour was St. Oswald's Church in Malpas to see the handsomely carved tomb and inscription of Sir Randal Brereton IV (d. 1530). This and the tenor bell Sir Randal donated to the church in 1508 are all that remain of his considerable estate and charity. He not only gave much to the church, but also established both a school and a hospital in Malpas. These are now gone, as is the Brereton Malpas mansion which succumbed to fire about two hundred years ago. This Sir Randal's son, Sir William Brereton, had first the good fortune to be Groom of the Privy Chamber to Henry VIII, and later the misfortune to have his consequent access to Queen Anne Boleyn used as a pretext for accusations of adultery. The charges cost both their lives, and no doubt had something to do with the Malpas and related Handforth Hall branches of the family siding with the Roundheads in the English Civil War.

The Malpas branch was founded by Randle Brereton I, son of Sir William Brereton of Brereton. This William had received from King Edward III in 1369 the right to hold a market fair on Brereton Green every August 1, the date we have selected for our banquet at Brereton Hall. The last of the Malpas line, Sir Randal Brereton VII, was said by local tradition to have been able to ride from Malpas to Cheshire, a distance of about fifteen miles, without overstepping his own property. His estate was involved in a dispute upon his death, and was the subject of an interesting article by Fred Crossley, F.S.A., A Disputed Will of the Early 17th Century from the Star Chamber Proceedings, in the Chester Archaeological Society Journal, v. 37, pt. 1, 1948. Mr. Anthony Wolley Dod, whose father, Mr. J. C. Wolley Dod, had a hand in preparing the article, kindly forwarded us a copy after we visited him three years ago at Edge Hall. What follows is a summary of that article.

Sir Randal Brereton VII married Frances Throckmorton and had but one child, Mary, christened in 1576. Mary herself married Sir Richard Egerton, whose ancestor Sir Ralphe Egerton was knighted at the battles of Terouanne and Tournay along with Randal Brereton IV, mentioned above. This Mary Brereton stood to inherit her wealthy father's entire estate, meaning it would pass out of the Brereton family and to the Egertons when she died. Her uncles, Sir Randal's brothers, Richard, William, and Thomas, had no enthusiasm for such a prospect, and conspired to induce the elderly and failing Sir Randal to alter his will. Their method was seduction, their accomplice the forty year old Lady Dorothy Townsend, wife of Sir Henry Townsend, aged 73. The charming Lady Townsend was so confident of her persuasions that she had her twenty-two year old niece marry Richard Brereton on the strength of the prospect of inheriting the Brereton estates through him if Lady Townsend met with success.

Sir Randal died on May 8th, 1611, at the home of Lady Townsend, having recently burned his original will. Some say the Townsend conspirators burned it for him. As he lay dying another will was concocted, and became the subject of the trial. On May 9th his daughter, Mary, went into labor. On May 11th Sir Randall was buried during the night at St. Oswald's. On the 15th Star Chamber awarded Mary and Richard Egerton the inheritance on condition that they prosecute before November 14. They did, and the case, involving several witnesses, consumed 106 large sheets of parchment.

Mary Brereton Egerton won her case against her scheming uncles by accusing Lady Townsend of "insynuatinge herself into greate familiaritie" with Sir Randal in order to alienate him from Mary. Lady Townsend's plot was not complete by the time Sir Randal became unconscious, however, so the culprits evidently composed a new will-quite favorable to themselves-placed a pen in Sir Randal's hand, and signed the will by guiding his hand across the page. The defendants also bribed a ne'er-do-well, who later confessed, to testify that he had witnessed the proper signing of the will. The worst, however, was still ahead of them. It was the custom in those days to remove the viscera from a body so the remains could be preserved, with resins and bran, until the funeral. But the connivers seem to have been a bit overhasty. Dr. Davies testified at the trial that the body was disturbingly warm, bloody, in fact, when he began to perform his services.

Did the brothers murder Sir Randal to prevent any possible recovery, and the discovery of the forged will? They apparently never faced trial, but neither did they succeed in their scheme to deprive Mary of her inheritance. She died, probably in childbirth, in 1618, just about the time her third son, Richard, came to his majority-and promptly gambled away his entire patrimony.

All this, however, was but act one of a two act drama. Though the scandal itself may be most personally interesting to Breretons, the legal aftermath had the greater impact in terms of the development of English law. It has been described by Thomas G. Barnes (1981), "A Cheshire Seductress, Precedent, and a 'Sore Blow' to Star Chamber", in On the Laws and Customs of England, Morris S. Arnold, ed. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press. I am indebted to Professor John Morrill of Selwyn College, Cambridge University for bringing this article to my attention.

The dispute between Mary Brereton Egerton and the Townsends turns out to have been of considerable importance to English courts in defining the role of precedent in adjudication. Star Chamber had been instituted in the middle ages to allow the court to adjudicate on its own terms, guided by fairness instead of precedence as in courts of common law. In Brereton's Case Star Chamber held Lord Townsend liable for damages resulting from the crime of which his wife had been convicted. The Townsends appealed on grounds of lack of precedence for such indirect liability. The state's case was argued by no less a personage than Sir Francis Bacon, Attorney General and author of Novum Organum (1620), the treatise that launched the scientific revolution. (This, too, had implications for the Breretons, albeit this time of the Sandbach branch, for in 1660 William Brereton III helped found the Royal Society which was organized expressly for the implementation of Bacon's inductive methodology.)

First, Lady Townsend refused to cooperate with the court, and sat out her subpoena in Fleet Prison. Then her husband, himself a judge in a different court, opted to do the same. The counsel for Mary Brereton Egerton then moved that damages and costs be levied against the Townsend properties. The defendants' counsel argued that the court had no jurisdiction to grant such unusual relief, but the court took this as a challenge to its own power and authority. The sides were to argue their respective positions on 29 June, 1614. As Barnes puts it, "Bacon had been attorney general for eight months. He had trounced duelers, seditioners, and slanderers of the great, but had not yet found an issue where he could vaunt the greatness of Star Chamber and establish the magnitude of his power-and that by a display of erudition and oratorical splendor. This was his object in Brereton's Case."

The court had framed the issue as one of precedent. Bacon, for his own reasons, cast it as high as possible, asserting that the king himself, were he present, had the right to sit on the bench. As strategy Bacon cited three cases which, in a different trial, one of the judges before whom he now argued had held up as establishing precedent. But the cases he cited were old, related to fines not damages, and pertained to courts other than Star Chamber. Bacon's argument was far from overwhelming. Against him the defense hinged its case on the fact that a husband could not suffer corporal punishment for crimes of his wife, and thus could not be imprisoned to compel payment of her debt.

The ensuing judicial debate resulted in a close, 6-4 victory for Bacon, in which the day was carried, ironically, not by any argument concerning precedent. Judge Ellesmere opined, instead, from policy: a court that could give judgment of damages ought also to have the means to execute its own judgment. Townsend could be imprisoned.

The court could have avoided such debate and challenge to royal authority by referring the case to a referee, and though Bacon won, he never again risked allowing issues of institutional moment to be debated openly in Star Chamber. Two years later, in 1616, King James I himself appeared before the court to voice his concern for its continued integrity, and referred specifically to the threat that had been posed by the issues in Brereton's Case. Royal pleading notwithstanding, Star Chamber was abolished at the outbreak of the Puritan revolt, in 1641. It had originally been established precisely as a judicial vessel which could dodge the weeds of precedent that snagged courts of common law. Yet it eventually foundered partly because of its own foregrounding, in Brereton's Case, of precedent. Star Chamber had cast doubt on its own legitimacy.

 

 
 

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