Blessed John Bretton & Frances,his wife

Blessed John Bretton & Frances,his wife

Published by :- Stanley and Christine Bretton of Flockton Green, West Yorkshire, England

December 1987


This biography of Blessed John Bretton and of Frances, his wife, is taken virtually entirely from the research of Dom Hugh Bowler OSB. Much of it was published by the Catholic Records Society in “Exchequer Dossiers 2 : The recusancy of Venerable John Bretton, Gentleman, and of Frances his Wife” in Biographical Studies (now Recusant History) – Volume II and in an appendix to that article.

Our correspondence with Hugh Bowler started about a year after we had seriously started to research the life of John Bretton and a short while after we had realised the enormity of the task we had set ourselves. He sent us a copy of     his original article on John Bretton and later a draft and some notes on the follow up which was published after his death. One look at his bibliography showed us that we would never, on our own, have discovered a fraction of this information ourselves, and our admiration for his work increases every time we re-read his research.

When the Catholic Record Society published the Appendix referred to above, they said about Dom Hugh “ By years of dedicated study, with almost no outside help, he arrived at an un-paralleled knowledge of the Penal Legislation which successive English Governments had enacted on their Catholic fellow citizens, and of the complicated network of legal and fiscal procedures which the implementation of those laws required. His hundred page preface to volume 57 of the Catholic Record Society’s publications – Recusant Roll no 2 – combines such technical mastery of the whole subject matter with such precision of statement and clarity of presentation that it has become universally recognised as the definitive treatment of its subject. Without Dom Hugh’s guidance through the labyrinth, no historian would be in a position to properly understand the stages by which those who wielded political power in England laboured to eliminate any Catholic opposition which might threaten their newly established religious settlement. His work of historical enlightenment speaks for itself and will retain its major importance”.

We commenced this work with some trepidation in the hope that the articles from which it was mainly taken would become available to a wider and different audience. Whilst we are sure that none of them would have sought it, we feel that both the lives of John and Frances Bretton, and the work of Dom Hugh Bowler deserve recognition in an even wider field than they have so far enjoyed.

John and Frances lived their lives in the village of Bretton in the West Riding of Yorkshire, about two miles from where we now live. Still known locally as “Bretton” it is officially signposted as West Bretton. Some few hundred years ago there were two hamlets, Bretton and West Bretton and when they amalgamated they took the name of the larger of the two hamlets, West Bretton. Today it has a population of about 350 and lies in the centre of a triangle made up of Barnsley, Wakefield and Huddersfield. For many years part of it was in the Parish of St. Teresa’s, Darton, although Diocesan boundary changes have now put it into the Parish of SS Peter & Paul at Sandal, Wakefield. Father Kelly at St. Teresa’s, Darton, has always taken a great interest in the life of John Bretton and has, in a rather unique way, a reference to him in the church at Darton. He has pictorially listed the villages in the Parish on the pedestal of the statue of Our Lady, and for the village of Bretton has shown the gallows to refer to the martyrdom of John Bretton.       (1997 there is also now a triptych in his honour in Sts     Peter and Paul church at Sandal, a new church but in the same parish as he would have worshipped, as well as a Shrine in the Leeds Catholic cathedral dedicated to the Yorkshire Martyrs amongst the     40 English Martyrs who were beatified in Rome by the Pope in 1987, amongst whom John Bretton was one) Certainly he is not forgotten in this area.

Finally we would like to express our gratitude to the Catholic Record Society who gladly gave us permission to use Dom Hugh’s articles, and to Monsignor George Bradley, the Leeds Diocesan Archivist, who has been a source of both information and encouragement and who kindly agreed to check our final draft and helped to turn it into what is, we hope, a readable and enlightening glimpse into our Catholic history.

Stanley Bretton : Christine Bretton Flockton Green, West Yorkshire   1987

There does not appear to have been any detailed research carried out on John Bretton’s ancestors but, after a brief mention of the village in the Domesday Book, various documents are mentioned in the chartulary of the Abbey of Byland in the 12th century:-

“Lands at Bretton (West Bretton) with pasture for 200 sheep were given to them by Peter, son of Orm and William his son, Swein, son of Ulkile de Bretton, Henry de Bretton, brother of Swein, Hugh, son of Swein and Alan de Criggleston”. The deed was witnessed, amongst others by Sir William de Bretton.

“Robert, son of Swein de Bretton grants to Agnes, daughter of Sir Thomas Fitz-William the land and tenement which he has in Bretton, rendering annually to the light of St. Mary, in the church of Sandal, one penny, ad Pascham floridam, for all the services, suit of court etc. saving the service to the chief lord of the fee, with warranty against all men, as well Jews as Christians.”

“Convention between Ralph de Horburi and Hugh, son of Swein de Bretton.Hugh demises   to Ralph his meadow on the north side of the mill of the said Hugh for twenty years for a certain sum of money given in magna necessitudine sua; the first crop to be taken in 1251 and the last in 1271, Ralph to have sufficient hedge-wood from the wood of the said Hugh to inclose the meadow, or to ditch it, whichever shall be thought the most expedient. Hugh engages that Ralph shall have a suitable road for leading his hay.”

There are several other references to ‘de Bretton’ including some connections with the Dronsfield family in the 14th century and in some instances the word ‘West’ is brought into the name.

“4 Edw.II (1311) Robert, son of John de West Bretton.”

“14 Edw.II (1321) Robert, son of John, son of Swein de West Bretton.”

However the earliest direct link with John Bretton from the research carried out by Dom Hugh Bowler was his great grandfather (John Bretton again) about whom nothing is known save that his will was dated 1508. The only other thing of note about his known ancestors concerns his grandfather, yet another John Bretton, who was appointed Deputy Secretary of the Council in the North in 1528.

The King’s Council in the North was basically a Law Court which was very powerful politically. It consisted of the Lord President of the Council, the Councillors themselves, and a Secretary who was also titled and styled the “Keeper of the Signet” It would seem therefore that anyone holding a position on this Council was a man of some influence and national importance, being directly answerable to the Monarch in terms of law and order for a large part of the North of England. The standard reference on the subject “The King’s Council in the North” by Rachel R. Reid, contains the following note on page 254 “In     1528 Richmond’s Council       appointed John Bretton deputy to Uvedale” ref. L&P iv. no 4042…)

What this particular John Bretton had done to merit the recognition of this appointment is not known, but clearly either he or his family was, at that time, of some importance and must have had friends in some of the highest families in the country. At that time the King’s Council in the North met quite often at Sandal Castle and this probably had some connection with his appointment. Unfortunately he did not live very long after his appointment, his will being proved on 22nd October 1531. Unfortunately for his grandson, “our” John Bretton, it would seem, sadly, that any influence the family might once have had was now lost.

John Bretton

John Bretton was executed at York on 1st April 1598 because of his faith, the culmination of many, many years of courage and steadfastness in the face of persecution, by both John Bretton and Frances, his wife.

The first recorded mention of either John or Frances was in a marriage agreement dated 26th June, 1543, between Richard Bretton of West Bretton and Richard Wentworth of Crofton by which the former undertook to make over all his freehold estate in West Bretton, Dewsbury and “elsewhere in Yorkshire” jointly to John Bretton, his son and heir (the future martyr), and to Frances, daughter of the said Richard Wentworth and “the heirs of their two bodies, lawfully begotten” assigning to them, however, the immediate use of only a part of the property and reserving unto his own use the residue until his death, when it was to pass with the rest to John and Frances and their heirs forever.

The next document was a deed of grant by which Richard Bretton formally settled the estate on “John Bretton and Frances Wentworth” in accordance with the terms of the first agreement. It was dated one week after the first document, ie., 2nd July, 1543. This was a Monday, the Feast of Our Lady’s Visitation and if, as it seems likely, it marks the date of John’s marriage it proves he was put to death after fifty four years of married life and enables us ( presuming a child marriage at fourteen years in this case) to fix     the date of his birth at approximately 1529 and his age at death as seventy. There would appear, indeed, to be little doubt that he was a personal link with pre-reformation England and old enough to have memories of the Pilgrimage of Grace.

The earliest reference to the Recusancy of John and Frances Bretton occurs in Archbishop Sandys’ List of Yorkshire Recusants returned to the Privy Council in 1577, wherein they are stated to have “no Habilities (Wealth)” “and yet are the most obstinate and perverse”. This list was sent five years after the Earl of Huntingdon had begun his intense investigation and persecution of Catholics in Yorkshire, four years before the passing of the Act 23 Eliz. c1 which made “reconciliation” to the Catholic Church a capital crime. For many years, because of the persecution he was suffering through his Recusancy, John Bretton was forced to flee and hide. Altogether he seems to have been a fugitive from 1577 to 1593, when the Act 35 Eliz. c2 forced all recusants to return home and stay within five miles thereof on pain of the loss of all property.

That the reason for his early decision to leave West Bretton was solely related to religious persecution is clearly inferable from the date of Archbishop Sandys’ first menacing report and from references in the records of the York Court of High Commission. His earliest contact with the emissaries of the Archbishop c 1576 and the reputation of Huntingdon’s ruthless methods with “ contumacious” recusants must have persuaded John that a confrontation with the latter could result only in a long term of imprisonment in York Castle or the Hull Block-houses – to evade which he would have to disappear for a while from the scene. Robert Bretton, the martyr’s half-brother and Steward of the estate, had been approached by the High Commisioners as early as 15th April, 1578. The reasons for this are not stated, but the fact surely indicates the absence of John, the legal owner. Not until 1580, however, do we find definite evidence that Huntingdon was on his track and that the search had begun.

The story emerges from an amazing series of entries in the Act Book (1580-85) of the High Commission Court. Under the date 15th August 1580 at a sessions held at Wakefield before Sandys, Huntingdon and other commissioners, Matthew Wentworth esq., of Bretton Hall appears and is put under bond to go to church, receive the sacrament, apprehend Romish priests, bring his wife before the commissioners at York and “to apprehend John Bretton if at any time he meet with him hereafter and to bring him to York”. On the same day Robert Bretton also appears, alleges his conformity and is told to bring to York (his mother?) Agnes Bretton on 17th January next, to answer for her recusancy. A note adds that he failed to do this and so forfeited his bond.

Eighteen months later (August 1582) Robert, now in charge of the Bretton property in John’s absence, was summoned to York, and, on being escorted to Bishopthorpe, the episcopal residence, was bound over “to bring John Bretton, his brother, the first day after Michaelmas next, or else yield himself personally in the Castle”. On the appointed day , 10th October, Robert appeared before the Archbishop and the other commissioners, but without his brother, and was committed immediately to prison in York Castle. Three days later he was brought before the Dean and other ecclesiastical officers in the Cathedral vestry and again placed on bond “ to bring in John Bretton Esq., on Monday before Martinmas next following or else that day to yield himself personally in the Castle and remain there according to the order taken in that behalf, and a warrant was sent to the gaoler for his delivery forth of the prison for this”.

The above proceedings were repeated on 29th October, 1582, 14th January, 1583, 17th February, 1583, the 4th Monday of Lent, and 6th April, Robert appearing on each occasion, but still without his brother. The case was then adjourned for five months until 28th September when all witnesses were summoned and gave evidence (unfortunately not recorded). On 4th November, 1583 Robert was again summoned, this time to hear the court’s decree – to the effect that “the said Bretton shall have warrant to apprehend John Bretton, his brother and condemned him (Robert) in charges of this suit, and set a fine of £20 on his head for the contempt by him committed. He is commanded to pay the expenses ante recessum”.

He was summoned again on 20th January, 1584, but failed to appear. An attachment order was therefore issued for him to be produced on Monday     9th March, 1584. This proved to be his final appearance before the Commissioners and the occasion was marked by a surprising leniency on their part. The record states “that the said (Robert) Bretton is commanded to pay 40 shillings (£2) of his £20 and remitted the rest, and so dismissed him with the cancelling of such bonds as he was bound in. Which sum of 40 shillings be paid accordingly to Anthony Darrell pursuivant”.

Evidently the York High Commissioners now had the information for which they had so long been searching and from their changed attitude to Robert it seems probable that he had at last told them of John’s whereabouts (there can be little doubt that from the beginning he had been privy to John’s movements). The records are silent as to what was revealed, but we fortunately learn the truth by means of an extant letter dated York, 21 October, 1585, from the Sheriff of that County, Sir John Hotham, to Walsingham wherein he states that “John Britton is supposed to be in gaole in Manchester” This was in answer to an order from the Privy Council requiring Hotham to interview notable Yorkshire recusants about their supplying “ a light horse, a man and furniture” (or £25 in cash) for the Earl of Leicester’s ill -fated enterprise against the Duke of Alva in the Netherlands. Consequently on 10th November, Thomas Preston, Sheriff of Lancashire, received a hasty letter from Walsingham telling him to request from his prisoner, John Britton, the sum of £25 for the above purpose, and ten days later Preston wrote back to say that he had already done so and that a schedule containing John Britton’s reply (with those of other Lancashire recusants) had been sent to the Privy Council – adding that “John Britton still remains in Manchester gaol”. This schedule still survives and it is to us a valuable document, since it contains the martyr’s dictated words and the only example of his personal signature. It runs as follows :-

“John Britton doith answer that he is a poor mean (minor) gentelman but of iii li landes, not able to fynde nether horse, money or furnyture, but one that lives of the charitye & relife of others.       John Bretton”

He was not to remain long in gaol. The Pipe Roll of the Exchequer, in which it was the custom to register the debts of prisoners incurred for not going to church during their incarceration, shows the span of recusancy (and therefore imprisonment) in the case of “John Brettaine of Salford (gaol) in the parish of Manchester” to have been four lunar months, viz. from 3rd September, 26 Eliz. (1584) to the following 27th December. When, in the previous March, the Yorkshire authorities first learnt of his whereabouts, he was, therefore, still at large. Did Hotham of Yorkshire then warn his colleague in Lancashire of the presence of this much-wanted Yorkshireman in their midst and urge his speedy arrest ? It seems certain that the two Sheriffs had some communication with each other on this case.

The tracing of an historical person whose aim was self-concealment naturally presents many difficulties and it is not surprising that there is no record of where John Bretton was hiding in Lancashire. There is, however, a possibility that after his release he hid at Samlesbury, near Preston, the home of Sir John Southworth, a recusant who had been a fellow prisoner with him in Salford. Samlesbury, at this time, seems to have been an open house for such refugees. In a statement made by John Wright, a servant in charge of the house during Sir John’s imprisonment entitled “Names of the persons dwelling in Sir John Southworthe his house at Samlesburie” and dated 21st November, 1592 occur “Richard Bretton, senior, labourer : Richard Bretton, Junior, Labourer”. Could “Richard Bretton, Senior” in reality be John Bretton posing as one of the staff ? Is “Richard Bretton, Junior” to be identified with the martyr’s oldest son who never appears with the rest of the family at West Bretton except in the Archbishop’s list of Yorkshire recusants in 1595,     the year of Sir John Southworth’s death ?     Did the martyr go originally to Samlesbury to join his son ? These are questions to which answers are still being sought.

In 1594, however, the family, John and Frances, Luke, Mark and Dorothy, were back once more in their home and certified by the churchwardens as “obstinate recusants” : again in 1595 with Richard; again in 1596. Finally a copy of a list of presentments in 1597 (the last year of John’s life) gives the same names with the exception of Mark and states “Dorothy is 20 years owld. All recusants”. During all his life of “exile” John Bretton must have been in close touch with his family and have returned home on many occasions for short visits. All the evidence shows, however, that it would have been unsafe to have made his visits too public.

That the Brettons were regarded as amongst the more notorious recusants is shown by the fact that on 12th February, 1589, within a year of their first conviction, the Exchequer issued a Commission for the assessment and seizure to the use of the Queen of two thirds of their lands and all their goods and chattels in accordance with the Statute of 1586. The Memoranda Roll recording this Commission and the subsequent enquiries gives the text of the patent, signed for the Queen by Burghley, and the names of the Yorkshire Gentry thereby empowered. They included “John, Lord Darcye: Sir Thomas Fairfax: Sir Richard Malliverer: Sir George Savell, and eleven others” In fact only six people, Richard Wortley, William Wentworth, Thomas Wentworth, Robert Bradford, Henry Farrer and Michael Kaie did the work and had produced before them on 8th April 1589, not only details of John Bretton’s property, but also that of forty five other recusants whose names were included in the schedule, including Maud (Matilda) Wentworth, widow, who was Frances’ aunt by marriage and lived over the way at Bretton Hall, and Dorothy Wentworth, the wife of Maud’s son, Matthew, also living there. The verdict concerning John Bretton runs as follows :-

“and we present finde that John Bretton and Frauncis, his wife, are seised or that John Bretton is seised, of certain landes in Bretton of the yearlie rent of £4 and of certaine landes in Deusburie, of the yearlie rent of £3-6-8: and that they are possessed” (in goods and chattels) “of four oxen, price £8: two stutts (sic), price £3, four kyne, price £5: sixe younge beastes, price £4; twelve acres of oakes, price £6 (total for goods and chattels – £30).

The above description of his lands is very vague and in fact was too vague to warrant their lawful seizure. A fuller idea of the property entailed (it seems to have remained unaltered) is obtained from a Chancery Inquisition at the time of the death of his son, Luke, in 1637. According to this it comprised:-

  1. a) one messuage, with appurtenances, in Dewsbury with 16 acres of arable, meadow and pasture land pertaining.
  2. b) one capital messuage, with appurtenances, in West Bretton, with 50 acres of arable, 40 acres of meadow, 60 acres of pasture and 4 acres of woodland there pertaining.
  3. c) two other messuages in West Bretton with 4 acres of arable and 6 acres of meadow and pasture there pertaining.

John Bretton may therefore be described as a gentleman-farmer of moderate means.

But vague though it was the information about the Bretton possessions was returned to the Exchequer and the Barons decided that a yearly rent of £4-17-9d was due to the Queen as from 8th April 1589, for “two-thirds of certain lands in Bretton and Dewsbury”. It apparently did not concern John Bretton whether or not the seizure was lawful. He ignored the whole proceedings but his failure to pay his first year’s rent did not pass unnoticed. He was immediately subjected to a treatment which had frequently spelled disaster for many recusant families. On Ladyday of the following year (1590) a grant of the seized portions of his land was made out by the Lord Treasurer to one Cuthbert Stillingfleet, to farm for the Crown for so long a period as the property remained in the Queen’s hands. Stillingfleet was now legally the Crown debtor, replacing John, and the prospects of regular payments to the Treasury were now, in theory, brighter.

A Yorkshire-man himself and probably a member of a family settled near Selby, Cuthbert is described as “an usher of the Chamber Royal” and is an example of how the Queen used the prevailing system to ensure the loyalty of her personal entourage. Fourteen other of her servants were similarly favoured with leases of recusant properties in 1590; by 1594 the number had increased to twenty eight – the properties lying in seventeen counties. The benefactors were usually neighbours of their respective recusant victims. Among them we find her “gentlemen of the Chapel”, medical attendants, waiters, cooks and Yeomen of the Guard. Ann Twist, her laundress, was a notable beneficiary. Responsible only for the payment of the rent due from the recusant, these speculators were legally entitled to make what they could out of the lands for themselves.

Whether Cuthbert Stillingfleet personally applied for this particular “plum” is not known, nor is there any record of what he made out of the land, how he treated the Brettons or what obstruction he may have met locally. He proved, however, a very negligent representative of the Crown. Out of all the years he held the land he only paid four years of rent to the Treasury, a total of £14-13-5 3/4. He was not responsible for the £30 due from John’s goods and chattels. This was the latter’s personal debt and he never paid it. Long after his execution, in 1611 in fact, it was finally transferred to the Exannual Roll of Recusants as a “desperate” debt and forgotten. It was not surprising that this excessive show of passive resistance stung the Barons to action. They sent out a commission on 15th July 1594 and levied a further £6. It was never paid.The Barons again returned to the attack and on the last day of June 1596 ordered another enquiry and, in addition to the annual rent John was supposed to be paying to the Crown, charged him with another £10-13-4 which again was ignored.This was to be the last year of John’s life – was it this series of events which sparked off his arrest and subsequent execution?

There is no hint that his original offence had ever been more serious than an outspoken obstinacy in matters of religion, but now, virtually under house arrest, he was carefully watched, and then destroyed.

The formal charge on which he was executed was given in the official “Register of the Assizes”, brief notes of which are included in the Paris Catalogue of the Martyrs of England. The translation of the article regarding John Bretton is set out as follows:-

“AD 1598 – John Bretton – layman – York – 1st April.

The reason for death:-   “For words spoken out of Catholic Zeal.”   “because he was reconciled to the Roman Catholic Church.”   “urged others to embrace the same religion.” and   “denied the spiritual primacy of the Queen.”

Others reported that he said “he hoped to see the crown on the head of a Catholic” (monarch), and that “he hoped he would see the death of the Queen.”

The quotation that “he hoped to see the crown on the head of a Catholic Monarch” refers to the investigation carried out by the agents of Bishop Smith and gives the actual words spoken by the martyr as vouched for by “personal knowledge” by the persons they interrogated. The statement “He hoped he would see the death of the Queen” was taken from the Register of the Assizes, being an official record and providing conclusive evidence of the charges upon which he was tried and condemned, and indicates how the martyr’s words were twisted to form an indictable offence.

It appears from the documents available that John Bretton was “Attainted” (sentenced to death) for felony on the last day of March and was executed the following day, 1st April, 1598. It is significant from this document that John Bretton was executed the day after being sentenced. Equally significant is the comment that his crime was a “felony” and not “High Treason”. We are also able to identify the Act of Parliament under which he suffered as being that of 23 Eliz. Cap.2 (1581) entitled “An Act against Seditious Words and Rumours uttered against the Queen’s Most Excellent Majesty”. John Bretton appears to have been the only martyr who suffered under this particular Act and his conviction as a “felon” meant that the penalty was death by hanging only, without the “drawing and quartering” used in cases of High Treason. No further details of his trial are available but bearing in mind his past history it is highly improbable that he pleaded guilty or that he “stood mute” (refusing to plead), the penalty for which was then a barbarous form of execution (Death by Pressing) which would certainly have been recorded. However , unaided by Counsel, surrounded by skilful lawyers and at     his advanced age he must have found any adequate defence against the official interpretation of his words a difficult task. We know for certain that he remained firm to the end and refused to save his life by renouncing his Faith. Challoner’s brief notice reads :-

“This year (1598) John Britton, Gentleman, was executed at York as in cases of High Treason. He was born at Britton in the West Riding of Yorkshire, and being of old a zealous Catholic was, for a great part of his life exposed to persecutions on account of his Conscience and generally     obliged to be absent from his wife and family to keep himself from further danger. At length, being now in advanced years, he was falsely accused by a malicious fellow of having uttered some treasonable words against the Queen for which he was condemned to die. He refused to save his life by renouncing his Faith and therefore was put to death”

Both he and his wife, Frances, having suffered persecution for so many years must surely have known that something of this sort was bound to occur. It is a tribute to his courage and Faith that even at the last minute he refused to adjure the Roman Catholic Faith, knowing full well that the impatience of his persecutors was such that his life was now to be forfeit. At this particular time John and Frances were not the only members of the family to suffer. Their son Luke had proceedings taken against him by the Archbishop’s Court of Audience. Luke is stated to have appeared on 28th September, 1597, before the Venerable Master John Benet, Doctor of Laws, (a Prebendary of York ?) and having presumably made his submission, was absolved by him from ex-communication and enjoined “from hensefurth to duetyfully to repayrs to the Churche and receive the Holly Communyon before or at Xremas next” and to certify the same after Hilary following (ie 20th January 1598). A further note states that on the appointed day (two months before his father’s martyrdom) Luke produced the required certificate to the effect that he had attended church and communicated on Tuesday 18th October previously. It is not known what made Luke Apostatise but in any event he seems to have repented later for in 1630, risking the penalties involved, he sent his son, Francis, to Douai to be educated. Records show that Francis was alive at Douai in 1635, alias Francis Burdet, and nothing further is known about him. There is, however, a piece of information contained in the chapter on West Bretton in Hunter’s Deanery of Doncaster, volume II, Yorkshire (1831).

The final section on West Bretton deals with the death of Sir Thomas Wentworth in 1675. It states, amongst other things, that Sir Thomas left his wife the sum of £4,000 “due to him from Sir Francis Burdet” This MAY be Francis Bretton but equally likely is the possiblity that Francis knew Francis Burdet and merely used his name at Douai.

One might be forgiven for hoping that, having had so much suffering in her life, culminating in her husband’s execution Frances Bretton would now be left in peace – but this was not to be. Within a month the Escheator was on her track. His very presence was proof that the family fortunes were in great jeopardy. In the midst of her grief, therefore she had to remind herself that it now devolved on her alone, as legal owner, to safeguard the livelihood of her children. To whom could she turn for advice ?

Her own kinsfolk, the Wentworths, one of the most powerful families in Yorkshire, doubtless watched events with interest, if not with sympathy. But, with one exception, (Michael of Woolley), all her male relatives appear to have been, at best, “Church Papists”. One or two were strong and active supporters of the new religion. Tenacious of this world’s goods they must, as a whole, have been highly impatient with her rigid adherence to Catholic principle. Even her aunt, Maud Wentworth of Bretton Hall, after maintaining her recusancy for many years had, in her old age, publically conformed three years previously and thus preserved her property intact for her son, Matthew.

It was this same Matthew who, with another influential person, Sir George Savile of Lupset, actively befriended her at this time. Together they must have discussed the position with her very fully. Her predicament was indeed grave. The widow of a convicted felon, she was, moreover, already enrolled at the Exchequer as a persistant recusant: and the Exchequer had a way of dealing ruthlessly with obstinate recusant widows. Not only would the property seized under John’s name remain in the Queen’s hands until the enormous accumulation of debts had been paid off (and the notoriety of his death threatened now a much more intensive action for the recovery of them) but her own past convictions merited a further division of the remaining third of the family lands. If the Bretton inheritance was to be saved for her son, Luke, it seemed imperative that she should follow the example of her aunt. In any case there was one course of action, involving no question of conscience, which she ought to take without delay. The Attorney General was prepared, so it seemed, to counsel the discharging of any recusant, providing the original verdict could be shown to be inadequate. The Bretton verdicts could certainly be so described and she was urged to initiate proceedings along these lines.

Fearing, perhaps, that such action would only make the Barons more alive to her own delinquencies, she postponed her decision for nearly a year. Finally, however, she consented that a Richard Reynell should be briefed as her attorney and plead her cause in the Revenue Court at Westminster. He did so on 12th February, 1599 and was successful in obtaining for Frances, on these grounds, a cancellation of all debts arising from the recusancy of her late husband, and a restoration of the property.

Nevertheless, as she must have foreseen, this was only a preliminary step in the matter of ensuring the inheritance: nor was it likely to achieve any permanent result. All the Exchequer had to do now was to issue another commission to recover the Crown’s control of the property by reason of her own recusancy. Meanwhile, she could not, as an undischarged recusant-convict, legally convey the estate to her son. Clearly the only way out of this impasse was through her own acquittance. But acquittance was not to be obtained merely by attending the Anglican services: the law required nothing less than a formal and public submission, certified by the local Ordinary. Such was the dilemma which forced her in 1599 to begin to put in an appearance at the parish church of Sandal Magna. At least the authorities should not be given cause, in the present circumstances, to indict her anew. With her husband’s example before her, however, a public submission was out of the question.

For the next two years she held firmly to this position. Then in the summer of 1601 her resistance suddenly collapsed. No plain indication of the cause is revealed, but there were many signs that danger was imminent. Had her advisors received information that in the present Trinity term the Exchequer intended to issue a commission for a new seizure of her lands and possessions ? A week of Trinity term had already elapsed and if the above surmise be correct (subsequent events support it), immediate action was necessary. On Monday 15th June 1601, therefore, this pitifully harassed woman was finally brought to her knees, presented herself before the Archbishop of York, made her submission, and received his certificate.

Things now moved with astonishing speed. Only nine days later Richard Reynell, her attorney, with that certificate, was standing before the Exchequer Barons, pleading her discharge. The timing of this episode is most interesting. Clearly no arrangements could have been made by Reynell for the hearing of the petition until the courier had delivered the certificate to Westminster, nor is it likely that the latter could have begun his 200 miles     jjourney from Yorkshire before Tuesday 16th June. Short of anticipating the phenomenal ride of Dick Turpin or Sir Robert Carey, he would, using the normal post horse system of the day, have reached his destination not earlier than Thursday 18th June. In the next five working days, therefore, Reynell managed, in addition to preparing his case, not only to fix a date for the hearing, but also to request (and obtain) out of Pipe Office, a constat of all the recusancy convictions against Frances contained in the Exchequer Rolls from 1581 onwards, for recital in court. This was quick work indeed and strongly suggests some immediate threat which Frances’ procrastination had rendered it almost too late to avert. The very assignment of the feast of St. John the Baptist for the hearing (it was normally a “dies non”) not only indicates that here was a concession on the part of the Barons to a late-comer in the midst of a busy term, but also enables us to measure the value set upon the hearing by those who had to pay the heavy fees for it.

On Wednesday, 24th June, 1601, proceedings began with Reynell’s request for a reading of the existing convictions against Frances Bretton. The Pipe Office clerks having found seven (in each of which her name was coupled with that of her husband), these were now recited in court. They may be tabulated briefly thus :-

Recusancy Period (before conviction) Conviction date No submission (after conviction) Fine
1) 6 months from 3 July 1587 18 March 1588 to 15th April (1 month) £140
2) 6 months from 20 Sept. 1590 26 July 1591 to 20 September (2 months) £160
3) 1 month from 20 Feb 1593 6 March 1593 to 23 April (1 month) £40
4) 4 months from 7 April 1593 30 July 1593 to 24 September (2 months) £120
5) 1 month from 1 Jan 1594 11 March 1594 to 9 April (1 month) £40
6) 4 months from 8 March 1594 15 July 1594 to 7 October (3 months) £140
7) 5 months from 1 August 1594 11 March 1595 to 28 April (1 month) £120

Note       There was a certain amount of freedom in the way in which a ‘month’ was calculated, a feature common in these estreats. There was also some overlapping and the courts were careless about such errors, even though recusants’ debts were thereby increased. Any grievance had to be carried to the Court of the Exchequer by the recusant himself – a by no means inexpensive method of redress.

The enormous amount of these fines must be put into perspective. When, in 1589, two thirds of John and Frances Bretton’s lands were seized by the Crown, (approximately 120 acres), the tenancy was granted to one Cuthbert Stillingfleet “to farm for the Crown for so long a period as the property remained in the Queen’s hands”. For this privilege the Exchequer calculated that they required a yearly rent of £4.17.9d. With this as a yardstick, one can therefore see what fines totalling £760 would have been to Frances Bretton.

The next step was for Reynell to make his formal complaint. It was to the effect that Frances was unjustly charged and threatened in her property by these debts, which, he maintained, were now legally invalid. To substantiate this claim he produced the certificate of her submission to “the Queen’s Most Protestant Majesty” signed by Matthew Hutton, Archbishop of York. This was read to the court. The roll gives a transcript of it, which runs as follows (the punctuation is Hugh Bowler’s) :

“Matthew, by the providence of God Archbishope of Yorke, Primate of England and Metropolitane, to all Christian people to whome these presentes shall come, sendeth greting in our lord god ever lastinge. Knowe yee that Frauncis Bretton, of the parishe of greate Sandall in the dioces of Yorke, widdowe, hath bene personally before me the daye of the date hereof,and, haveinge heretofore bene indicted and convicted as a Recusant for not repayringe to churche to heare devine service accordinge to the lawes inthat case provided, she hath now this present daye willingly submitted herselfe in her due obedience to the Queen’s most excellent Majestie and hath reverentlye and devoutlye hearde devine service in my presence in my chappell here at Bishopthorpe, and hath willingly refused her former obstinacye and conformed herselfe in causes of religion and doctrine, faithefullye promisinge before me accordinge to the lawes and Statutes of this Realme to continewe conformable in Religion to her highnes, her heires and successors, as by the lawes and Statutes she ought to doe and – as I am certified by the Right Worshipfull my verye lovinge frinde Sir George Savile, Knight, Mathew Wentworth esquier, and Mr. Phillipe Leighe, vicar, and the Churche Wardens of Sandall aforesaide – that she hath bene by the tyme and spac of twoe yeares last past; and that she is still verye aged and troabled with much infirmitie and weakness. In witnes whereof, I, the saide Archbishoppe, having hereunto put my hand and Arch ieppiscopall Seale, the 15th daye of June, Anno Domini 1601 and in the XL111 yeare of the raigne of our soveraigne lady Elizabeth, by the grace of god Queene of England, Fraunce and Irlande, defender of the fayth, etc”.

In conclusion Reynell pleaded that Frances, by reason of her submission, was rightfully included in the Queen’s General pardon promulgated by an Act of Parliament of 24 Oct., 39 Eliz. (1597). He therefore begged, in her name, that all her former debts be cancelled. Attorney General Coke, having examined the documents of the case, approved the plea as legally well founded, whereupon the Barons gave judgement that the petitioner be totally discharged.

This is not the end of the story. The inheritance was saved for Luke, upon whom she doubtless lost no time in settling the whole estate. Now, free at last of these affairs, she returned in the remaining years of her life to the loyalties of the past. Her actions could not now bring disaster to others.

Having followed her unsuccessful struggle for religious integrity amidst sorrows which few women in any age have had to endure, it is with a sense of satisfaction that we find her name “Frances Bretton of Bretton in the parish of Sandal, Widow” (coupled with that of her daughter Dorothy), once more where it truly belongs – among a host of recusants convicted on 11 March, 1604/5 and again (this time alone) on 7th July, 1607. The last glimpse we have of her is in the diocesan visitation book of 1615 where she is still recorded as a recusant living in the parish of Sandal. Could there be stronger proof that her former abjuration had been wrung from her ?

Finally we note from Anstruther that two of John and Frances’ sons Richard and Matthew, became Catholic priests. The extracts from Anstruther are given below. It was found, however, that the “Richard Francis Britton OSF (Gillow)” was an alias and had no connection with the Bretton family.


BRITTON Matthew                                         Anstruther I 53

He was of Yorks. and the brother of Richard Britton who was ordained in 1610 (DD, 7). He was born in sep 1564. He arrived at Rheims 15 Aug 84 and was sent to Rome 22 feb 86. He entered the Hospice 2 apr 86 (F.559) and was ordained in the Lateran 15 apr 90 (Vic.) He left Rome 22 apr 92, reaching Rheims 2 jul 92. He proceeded to Douai 20 feb 93, where he matriculated and took his STD (D.33). When the college moved back to Douai from Rheims in aug 93 he was appointed to the teaching staff and there remained till he was sent to England 29 may 1604. He used the alias of Rawson (WCA, VIII, no.12.,p.39). His apostolate was in Lancs., where he is mentioned in 1610 (OB, I, 26) and c.1625 (CRS, I, 115) in which year he was elected to the Chapter (OB, Chapter Roll). On I jun 1625 he was appointed archdeacon of Westmorland and Cumberland, and died some time before 1643 (Pope’s Brief, 1643, p.15, 23: WCA XLX, 58)

cf.D.201,209,246,249,280:     DD,7,57; R.58


BRITTON Richard                                           Anstruther II, 36

He was the brother of Matthew B. (Vol.1) so of Yorks. He was educated at St. Omers and entered Douai 21 jun 1599. He was sent to Seville where he signed a deed 28 may 1608 and received viaticum in apr 1610.  He reached Douai on his way to England 20 jun 1610. He left for England 3 jul 1612 but returned 4 aug 1613. He may be identical with Richard Francis Britton, OSF (Gillow). John Britton, who was martyred at York, 1 apr 1598, had sons named Luke and Mark (CRS, 53, 17). It is therefore likely that Matthew and Richard are also his sons. John’s wife was Frances and they lived at West Bretton, Sandal Magna Yorks. (ib.)

  1. DD,7,102,115,123; Henson.