Summary – William Bretton


Several months of concentrated, intensive searching has not produced any conclusive proof about William Bretton.  We cannot pretend however that the search has covered all (or maybe even most) of the documents that are available throughout the country which might have thrown some light on his life prior to arriving in Maryland. All we are left with is supposition but there are strong clues (indications might be a better word) that William Bretton of Maryland was part of the family descended from the original Brettons of West Bretton and that we could place him and his wife’s family within this locality. To sum up these “clues” :-

Little Bretton

The original area settled by the English on the east coast of the United States is full of English place names, given to the new settlements by people who, though anxious to leave England to start a new life, still had sufficient affection (or home sickness) for their former towns or villages to name their new towns or villages after them. The fact that William Bretton of Maryland named his new estate “Little Bretton”, and that there was a place called “Little Bretton” here in this immediate area, mentioned in the 1400’s, when the Bretton family bought land there, and again in the 1600’s, would appear to us to be highly significant. It must be a further coincidence that the only person we are certain lived there was a Lawyer who was involved in the sale of the Bretton estate some 20/30 years afterwards.

William Bretton of Hoylandswaine

Parish records, incomplete as they are, show that there was a “William Bretton” baptising a daughter “Ann” in 1630/31 in Silkstone parish church. Clearly therefore he and his wife were at child bearing ages. The historians, Johnston and Professor Hunter place Little Bretton as being in or near High Hoyland. With the very high incidence of childhood deaths, the then disappearance of Ann Bretton (we have no trace of her at all on our family records) is not exceptional. Whether the William Bretton of Maryland would have conformed by attending services of the “new” religion is debatable.

Knabbs or Nabbs

Like “Bretton” , “Knabbs or Nabbs” is an un-common name, and finding places named “Nabbs” and  “Knabbes Hall” within three or four miles of High Hoyland and two miles from Hoylandswaine is remarkable.

George Bretton.

We have a solitary reference to a George Bretton on our family tree where we had no further reference to any marriage, children or death. If this is the George Bretton who went to Maryland in 1657 he would have probably been in his late 40’s at that time. The fact that there is no record of any marriage or children attributed to him in Maryland could bear out that he was not in his youth.

How could “our” William Bretton have known the Calverts.

Blessed John Bretton was Beatified as one of the 40 English Martyrs and was referred to by the authorities in the late 1500’s as being “notorious” (amongst other things). Whilst, as we said earlier the Brettons were moving, socially and economically, in opposite directions to the Beaumonts and Crosslands, they were, at this time, still relatively of the same social standing and by all accounts the martydom of Blessed John was well known throughout the area and especially within the very widespread recusant Catholic population. The Crosslands lived within maybe 6 or seven miles of West Bretton and the Beaumonts within about five miles. The Brettons and the Beaumonts were branches of the same Bretton ancestors in the distant past and the Beaumonts and the Crosslands inter-married. They were all three, Brettons, Beaumonts and Crosslands shown on recusant rolls in the area for a long time, and the mother of the 1st Lord Baltimore was one of the Crossland family from this area.

If the Calvert sons were in fact educated at Douai in France, as we are told,  then there were two of Blessed John Bretton’s sons, a nephew and a grandson, also there training for the priesthood and spanning more 30 years – more than covering the possible period of the Calverts education. The relationships between the families, the fact that Blessed John would be well known to the Calverts now they had turned Catholics, and their common links with this locality, would surely have meant there was some lengthy contact between them. This contact could well have led to knowledge of, or contact with William Bretton.

We have discussed all the above with a number of Archivists we know, particularly in relationship to the two different types of proof required by criminal law and civil law, so far as we know in both Britain and the United States. Criminal law requires evidence “beyond reasonable doubt” whilst civil law has a lesser requirement of “on the balance of probabilities”. Genealogy has, by necessity, been founded “on the balance of probabilities” and on these grounds we are prepared to accept that William Bretton of Maryland was most likely a member of the Bretton family originating from West Bretton whose history is set out in full on our website  – and our hard copy. The Archivists mentioned above have concurred with this assumption.

We have no axe to grind at all in this search. We started out to try to find, if we could, where William Bretton from Maryland originated and searched nationwide within the limits of available information. He is not a direct ancestor of ours and his placement on our family records does not add anything to our direct line which already goes back well before William’s time. Having lived and worked in the States, having a great affection for the country and it’s people, having pride in our existing, and proven, family in the States, it  would be nice to “claim” William, if for nothing else but his part in the early establishment of the USA that exists today, but that, in itself would not even begin to tempt us to change our guiding principles of the last 40+ years, and make our wishes the father to our claims.

If any reader wants further evidence of this I would refer to  some comprehensive notes in our published history relating to a Richard Bretton who was imprisoned for his Catholic faith and soon afterwards died, probably because of his privations. He was included on the basis of a statement by Anstruther, a famous Catholic historian who referred to him as “probably an uncle or close relative of John Bretton the martyr”. In researching William Bretton I had discussions with  Caroline Dalton, the Archivist of New College, Oxford University. She was extremely helpful, and, in those discussions  she found that this Richard Bretton was on their records for the early 1500’s but coming from London. As we had no known relatives in the London area at that time we now  putting an appropriate note in the family history “dis-claiming” him – if that is the correct word  :)

About William Bretton of Maryland you must make up your own mind

Hunters “South Yorkshire” (under High Hoyland)

“Little Bretton is described by Johnston as consisting but of two houses in his time. It seems to be the place called North Bretton in early deeds.

Of the Wests, a visitation family, who resided here, an account has already been given.”

This description is particularly important in the context of William Bretton of Maryland who named his new estate there as “Little Bretton”. The “Wests” included Lewis West who was a lawyer and handled the sale of the Bretton Estate in the mid 1600’s. Could possibly the Brettons have lived there at the same time. Certainly a Bretton was involved in a deed of trust or “use” there from the Wentworths in the late 1400’s and it is highly possible that they still retained some connection with it in the 1600’s. William Bretton went out to Maryland as Clerk to the two most important Assemblies in early Maryland history and was later described as lawyer, judge and coroner.

We still continue to search and found the following entry in the Silkstone Parish Records.

1670 April 7th Francis Nabbs baptised

Silkstone is, of course, the parish containing Nabbs Hall and is the parish church of Hoylandswain where we think “our” William Bretton lived. So we did have “Nabbs” still living here some years after William Bretton and the Nabbs family arrived in Maryland.

We also found references of the closeness of the 1st Lord Calvert and the powerful Wentworth family, into a branch of which John Bretton had married, in the following two books :-

“The Yorkshire Gentry – from the Reformation to the Civil War” by J. T. Cliffe

Page 236.

“….. From a collection of documents which has survived amongst the State Papers for the year 1623. In a letter to Sir Edward Conway, his fellow Secretary of State written on 4th July 1623 Sir George Calvert expressed the hope that his cousin Sir Thomas Wentworth of Wentworth Woodhouse would not be forgotten when the deputy lieutenants of Yorkshire were chosen.”

Page 237

“Wentworth’s choice of Deputies (Deputy Lieutenants – when Wentworth was Lord Lieutenant of Yorkshire) is interesting in that the majority (22 out of 31) were relatives or close friends of his. They included his nephew Sir William Savile of Thornhill…….”

The name Savile keeps cropping up regularly throughout the Bretton history. The Brettons and Saviles (or Savilles) were related by marriage, held adjoining lands and apparently were great friends. The Saviles were of tremendous help to Frances Bretton after John Bretton’s martyrdom and the above relationship between Savile/Wentworth and Wentworth/Calvert (see below) appears to confirm even more our theory that William Bretton’s appointment to the Clerkships in Maryland sprang from his probable descent from the Bretton family in West Bretton, the marriage of John Bretton to Frances Wentworth, and to all the complicated friendships where favours were freely given as a result of the martydom of Blessed John Bretton.

“Stafford 1593 – 1641” by C. V. Wedgewood

Pages 34/35/36 discuss Sir Thomas Wentworth again in 1617 and talks about Sir John Saville, a true friend of Blessed John Bretton, and another friend of the Bretton family, Sir Gervase Clifton. This section talks about the real Sir Thomas Wentworth as seen by the people who were his close friends and able to penetrate his armour of pride and reserve. It lists amongst those people “Sir George Calvert, one of the Secretaries of State, an active, practical man, busied with colonial schemes and teased with religious doubts” He gave to these men, as Calvert said “ a friendship beyond the fashion of courts”, to them alone he was unaffected and unreserved, frank almost to indescretion.

So time and time again we come across references which add to, and confirm, the original thoughts we had that there could well have been a knowledge and sympathy for the relatives of Blessed John Bretton and his family who suffered so grieviously at the hands of the authorities but who, by his marriage into the Wentworth family could still attract sympathy, and possibly even active (but low key) help from the powerful Wentworth family. With the religious conversion of the Calverts, and the possibility of helping a “Bretton” and, at the same time, of providing a sympathetic Clerk of their Courts etc in Maryland………………….

Maryland Archives
Will dated July 27 1658

“To Thomas Eare (Eyre ?), Captain John Price and Robert Jeans Wife Margaret execx and residuary legatee of estate. Real and personal In the event of death of Margaret, intestate, all afsd. Estate to Philip Calvert and Thomas Eare in trust for the English College and Secular priests at Doway, Flanders except a gift of personalty to sister-in-law Margery Molins Test. George Briton, Will Harper, William Bretton (Liber S., folio 219,MD Historical Society, Baltimore, Md)” This again is continuing some fascinating coincidences. Three Brettons studied and taught at Douai in France (quoted above as Doway in Flanders) one before and two after the martyrdom of Blessed John Bretton. All the Calvert boys (later to include the Lords Baltimore) are reputed to have studied there about possibly the same time as the Brettons were teaching there, and now here is a will leaving an estate in Maryland to Douai, via Philip Calvert, and witnessed by two Brettons who appear to be related, in spite of continuing mis-spellings of the name. We now feel, increasingly, that William Bretton was a family member of the Brettons of West Bretton. (lived at Little Bretton ? – if only we could find that final piece of conclusive evidence !!).

Society of Jesus

In our continuing search for information on William Bretton of Maryland I contacted the Maryland Province of the Society of Jesus, who bought the land at Newtown Neck which belonged to William Bretton. I hoped that maybe there was some information in their archives which might shed a little more light on William’s life in Maryland and, who knows, about his antecedents. Their Archivist, Rev. John LaMartina S.J replied immediately with a most helpful letter and some excellent additional details that add to our knowledge of this long sought after man.

To me the most exciting information was contained in an extract that Rev. LaMartina sent me on pages 76/77/78 of Woodstock Letters Vol 13 which I set out below in order.

“…..Only four years after the Dove and Ark had entered the Potomac, that is to say in 1637, William Bretton, his wife and child arrived in St. Mary’s County Md. Bretton was one of those old Catholic gentlemen of England who preferred freedom and exile in the wilds of the New World to persecution and bondage in their native land. “Mr Bretton” says The Day Star of American Freedom “soon afterwards held a large tract upon Bretton’s Bay ; and many years lived in Newtown Hundred ; was a soldier in St Inigoe’s Fort, at a very critical period, in the Administration of Governor Calvert ; and the Registrar of the Provincial Court under Governor Green, with the power, during the lieutenant general’s absence, to sign writs under the Governor’s name ; kept some of the most important records of the province, till the arrival of Mr. Hatton in 1649 ; and was clerk in the Protestant Assembly in 1650. In the legislature of 1648 he held four voices ; three of them certainly from Newtown ; probably the fourth also. And, from his familiarity with the records, as well as his general knowledge of business, we cannot but presume that he was one of the most influential members of the Roman Catholic Assembly in 1649. He is also worthy of remembrance in consideration of the fact that he founded one of the first Roman Catholic chapels of the province – a chapel which was erected and sustained by the pious members of his own church in Newtown and in St. Clement’s hundred ; which also bore the name of the patron saint of Maryland”…………

The Day-Star continues:-

“A mystery clouds the latter part of Bretton’s life. About 1651 he married Mrs Temperance Jay. Misfortune seems soon after to have attended him ; and his “son” (my bold) and “daughter” received ‘alms’ at a moment of deep distress. Nor can any will be found ; or his posterity traced but there was no doubt whatever that he was one of the Roman Catholic Assemblymen of 1649. He held a tract bounded by St. William’s Creek ; the most striking part of his cattle mark (a fluer-de-lis) was a favourite device with the members of his church at that period ; his name is not amongst the signers of the Protestant Declaration ; and the very phraseology, in his gift of the church lot has the unmistakable marks of his sympathy with the faith of the Roman church and (independently of other evidence) is sufficient to satisfy a reasonable mind”

This mention of “a son” opens questions which we thought, from records available (or lack of records), were concluded. That is to say – we gathered that William Bretton junior had died at an early age. Not apparently so. When the Brettons arrived in Maryland in January 1637 William was said to be four years old. Now, we learn, William was still alive in the 1650’s. The record says that misfortune struck William Bretton senior (after his marriage to Temperance Jay “about 1651” – but it does not say how soon after 1651 so we are left to guess – with nothing so far to help us. What was the disaster? Is it likely that he would have entered into a new marriage with a threat hanging over him ? Or did he enter into a new marriage because of a looming threat ?

However we do know that William Jnr was alive after 1651, at which time he would have been 18 years old. If the disaster happened later then he would have been older still. That is of potential child bearing age and I have never felt that lack of records is proof that someone didn’t exist, or didn’t grow up. In a country still largely unexplored and expanding rapidly there is no earthly reason why William Jnr should not have upped sticks and moved elsewhere. If that did happen, and children were born to him elsewhere, the only way to trace those children would be through DNA – and that would depend on someone tracing their American ancestry back to the mid 1600’s, without any further ancestry links. I can see no way at all apart from DNA to trace any possible descendents from William Bretton jnr so, as I say, it would mean some American Brettons (Brittons etc ?) managing to trace their ancestry back to around the mid/late 1600’s – and then a DNA test. Even that might link a family to my “Bretton’s” without being able to conclusively prove they were also decended from William Bretton Snr.

Yet another thread left dangling at the moment.

Whatever, William Bretton’s fortunes took at least a temporary upturn when on 2 December, 1668 he sold his Newtown Estate, via Henry Warren SJ, to the Society of Jesus, who own it to this day. The sale was for, according to the records, 40,000 pounds of tobacco. At the then recorded price of tobacco, $44 per thousand lbs, it realised a total of around $1760. (I have no records giving present day prices for the value of the dollar so far back, but if this transaction has been in £ sterling, £1760 in 1668 would presently be worth around £ 207,000. An ample sum to keep him and his wife in luxury). The burning question is why he didn’t sell at least some of this land when misfortune struck sometime in the 1650’s but instead allowed his son and daughter to receive alms.

This did not necessarily include all his land either. He is given as the heir to his father in law – Thomas Nabbs – who had his own land grants when he transported himself and his wife to Maryland in 1637 Additionally, and this information was new to us and included in the fascinating correspondence from Rev. John LaMartina S.J., apparently William Bretton Snr also transported a “servant mayd” called Mary Feild, out to Maryland in 1647 and for so doing was awarded a further 100 acres. According to the records this grant “is on Brettons Bay and is called Bretton’s Outlett”

Whether or not William Bretton retained these two further plots of land is currently unknown. But Mary Feild opens up another avenue – or it did until a few minutes thought made it virtually useless. Could we trace a Mary Feild a common spelling in these parts. The answer is that I wouldn’t put any money on it.

(i) Records in the early 1600’s, certainly in the area where we think William Bretton originated, are either non existant, or where they do exist, are unreadable.
(ii) Having found some records of a Mary Feild (which we have) how do we decide which might be the correct Mary Feild ? How old would she have likely been ? Girls certainly went into service at a very early age – probably before the age of ten. Would someone so young have been transported to Maryland – or might she have been much older ? If so how old ? 15, 20, 25 ?
(iii) And how do we ascertain her age. It was only baptisms that were recorded, and not births, and they bear , potentially, no relationship to the date of birth. We have even found records during the last 46 years of searching where 13 children of one family were baptised on the same day – the oldest being 21 !!!

So how would we pick one Mary Feild out of even two ? And how would we prove it ? We can’t, and further investigation is not worth while. I have asked Susan Doris, an American Bretton, to see if she could find the passenger list for Mary Feild to see if she went out there on her own and if there is a record of her age. It is unlikely that any of her family went with her otherwise William Bretton would probably have had to transport them as well – and he certainly made no recorded claim for anyone