William Brereton: Here Is Mine End For Ministering Wrong
Of the quintet of men executed on May 17 1536, William Brereton has had by far the lowest fictional profile. Considering what’s been wreaked on some of the other four in order to spice up a plotline, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing; Brereton has so far been spared depiction as a rapist (George Boleyn in The Boleyn Wife, 2007) an attempted rapist (Henry Norris, At The Mercy Of The Queen, 2012) having an affair unknown to their long-suffering wives and also committing incest (George Boleyn and Francis Weston, The Other Boleyn Girl, 2001) being raped by George Boleyn (Mark Smeaton, The Boleyn Wife again, 2007), creeping on Anne Boleyn, George Boleyn, King Henry VIII, or some combination of the three (Mark Smeaton, in a lot of books) — well, you get the idea. But Brereton himself, while often depicted as tagging along with Weston, Norris, and George Boleyn, very seldom or never gets his own subplot, in fact, he’s usually lucky to get two lines of dialogue. Part of this is likely due to the fact that until recently, comparatively little accessible information about him was out there, and the other part to the fact that he’s hard to pigeonhole. The others are easy: Norris, the King’s best friend. George Boleyn, witty and supportive brother. Weston, young, handsome, and flirtatious. Smeaton, young, musical and lovelorn. Brereton, none of the above. So who was he really, and why has he been so difficult to translate into fiction?
The first thing to note about Brereton is that, of all the men arrested, he was the real outsider — Mark Smeaton was socially inferior, but he also saw and spoke to Anne very frequently. Brereton, who was about fifty years old when he died, has been described by Ives as “not a prominent courtier”, although he was wealthy enough, a power to be reckoned with in Wales, and moved in prominent circles. (You can read an entertaining talk Ives gave about Brereton here.) He seems to have had comparatively little contact with Anne Boleyn, and after her arrest she didn’t mention him at all — certainly he wasn’t present for any flirtatiously risky conversations about looking to dead men’s shoes. Thomas Wyatt’s verse about him in his memorial poem In Mourning Wise Since Daily I Increase underlines this with his description of Brereton as “the one that least I knew” as well as the modified rapture of the following lines:
Brereton, farewell, as one that least I knew.
Great was thy love with divers, as I hear,
But common voice doth not so sore thee rue
As other twain that doth before appear;
And yet no doubt but thy friends thee lament
And other hear their piteous cry and moan.
So doth each heart for thee likewise relent
That thou givest cause thus to be dead and gone.
So if Brereton was an outsider, only slightly known to Anne, socially inferior to the other three noblemen who were caught up in Cromwell’s net, what was he doing there? Ives has an interesting and plausible hypothesis — that Brereton, who had been a thorn in Cromwell’s side for some time, ended up being thrown in with the other men arrested in order to kill an extra bird with a very heavy stone. In The Life and Death of Anne Boleyn, he writes that “Using his place at court, William Brereton had secured a virtual monopoly of royal appointments in Cheshire and North Wales. He exploited this authority to further Brereton interests, was a nuisance to Cromwell’s local agent, Bishop Rowland Lee, and promised to be an obstacle to plans in their infancy to settle the Welsh border. However, what really marked Brereton was a notorious judicial murder. His victim was a Flintshire gentleman, a John ap Griffith Eyton, whom he blamed for the death of a Brereton retainer. In 1534, William exploited his local muscle to arrest Eyton and send him under armed guard to London. Although Eyton was acquitted, Brereton had him re-arrested, possibly with Anne Boleyn’s help, returned him to Wales and, after a rigged trial, saw him hanged — and all this in defiance of Cromwell’s efforts to save him.” Not for nothing did George Cavendish summarize Brereton thirty years later with the lines: “Although in office I thought myself strong / Yet here is mine end for ministering wrong.”
Brereton’s fictional career has been less full of incident, and it has never once, that I’ve found, included any judicial murders carried out “possibly with Anne Boleyn’s help.” A lot of this is due to timing — Ives’s first study on Brereton wasn’t published until 1974, and the few books which give Brereton any individual attention were mostly published before then. Usually he’s depicted as a young man, part of Anne’s inner circle, essentially a second Francis Weston. Once, in Evelyn Anthony’s Anne Boleyn (1957) we get to see what he’s thinking. Here, he’s depicted as being the jouster who unseated Henry VIII to such disastrous effect on that eventful morning in January 1536:
He sensed the hostility as he waited, watching the huge armored figure holding the heavy lance as lightly as if it were matchwood, and he tensed, sighting his opponent through the slits in his visor. They wanted him to fall, not just because it was politic for the King to win, but because they felt it would be an ill omen for the Queen they hated. “Damn them,” Brereton said under his breath, not knowing why he resented her unpopularity so much, except that all his life he had sided with the loser. He liked her better now in her adversity than he had ever done in the high summer of her beauty and her favor with the King. She represented the Protestant faith he believed in, the faith which had begun to flourish quietly under her protection.
In The Concubine (1963) Brereton is an equal member of a group comprised of both Boleyns, Smeaton, Weston, and Norris, which Anne describes as “the wittiest men in the wittiest court in Europe.” Their big set piece comes when they’re trying to devise a masque to entertain the King, but even then Brereton only gets a snarky line about how Leda and the Swan might appeal to more senses than the purely visual. In Brief Gaudy Hour (1949) a younger Brereton carries messages to Anne and tells Meg Wyatt that people are gossiping about how Mark Smeaton is managing to live above his means. By the time of The Lady In The Tower (1986), Brereton is still lumped in with the other five as “one of the wits of the court,” but he barely gets to speak. He’s remained that way ever since (even in Wolf Hall, 2009, he’s still mostly tagging along with the other four) with the brief and inglorious exception of At The Mercy Of The Queen (2012), wherein “Sir Brereton” is the Pandarus of the affair between Madge Shelton and King Henry; he’s the one who picks up Madge and sneaks her off via barge to whatever secure location Henry happens to be in that evening.
None of these portrayals are accurate, but you can see the novelist’s problem: Brereton indubitably was arrested and executed on extremely dubious grounds, however unsavoury a character he may have been previously. To have him virtually appear out of nowhere to be victimized at the end of the book is extremely poor plotting, yet in real life it’s close to what happened, at least from Anne’s perspective. The obvious solution is to weave him into the story’s background at some point so that the reader will know that he exists before he’s killed. Since until recently so little information was available, the easiest method became to simply lump him in with the other victims and make them all part of the same little club. Problem solved! But there’s another potential solution as well, since the publication of Ives’s material. Keep Brereton in the background, as he was, but give him that scene where he solicits Anne’s help in getting Eyton arrested. This scene would both establish Brereton as a separate individual from the other four, and show Anne doing what a queen did best; using her pull to assist people, for good or ill. While it’s not absolutely certain that Anne helped him in this instance, it’s at least highly plausible — which is more than you can say for George Boleyn raping Mark Smeaton.