BRETT, Henry (1675-1724), of Cowley and Sandywell Park, nr. Dowdeswell, Glos.
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Family and Education
b. 5 Dec. 1675, 1st s. of Henry Brett† of Down Hatherley, Glos. by Hester, da. of Richard Eynes of Enstone, Oxon. educ. Balliol, Oxf. 1693; M. Temple 1695. m. c.1701, Anne, da. of Sir Richard Mason† of Bishop’s Castle, Salop and Sutton, Surr., div. w. of Charles Gerard*, Visct. Brandon, 2nd Earl of Macclesfield, 1da.1
Lt.-col. of ft. Sir Charles Hotham’s* regt. 1705–6.
Country squire and man about town, Brett was a witty and charming companion, welcomed by the theatrical and literary celebrities whose society he sought. Colley Cibber, an intimate friend for many years, gives the following account of his early life. Brett’s father, a Royalist during the Civil War,
coming early to his estate of about two thousand a year, by the usual negligences of young heirs had, before this his eldest son came of age, sunk it to about half that value, and that not wholly free from encumbrances. Mr Brett . . . had his education, and I might say ended it, at the University of Oxford; for though he was settled some time after at the Temple, he so little followed the law there that his neglect of it made the law (like some of his fair and frail admirers) follow him. As he had an uncommon share of social wit, and a handsome person, with a sanguine bloom in his complexion, no wonder they persuaded him that he might have a better chance of fortune by throwing such accomplishments into the gayer world than by shutting them up in a study.
After living the life of a rake for many years, Brett finally took the advice of his friends and married an heiress, albeit a somewhat tarnished prize. Encouraged to set his sights on the divorced Lady Macclesfield, as a woman with ‘enough in her power to disencumber him of the world and make him every way easy for life’, he hurriedly wooed and wed her. His wife (who it is said first set eyes on him when he was fighting off some bailiffs in the street) brought him a fortune of between £12,000 and £25,000, which restored the family finances and enabled him to build a new house at Sandywell Park.2
Lady Macclesfield also possessed, by inheritance from her father, an interest at Bishop’s Castle, which she had deployed in a previous election in favour of her brother-in-law Sir William Brownlow, 4th Bt.*, a Whig, against other Whig candidates supported by her ex-husband. After Lord Macclesfield’s death in November 1701 Brett joined forces with one of the late Earl’s followers, Charles Mason*, who was Lady Macclesfield’s cousin, and both men were returned following a contest with a local Tory. Brett’s election was put down by Lord Spencer (Charles*) as a gain for the Whigs, but he voted on 26 Feb. 1702 for the resolution vindicating the Commons’ proceedings in the impeachment of the Junto ministers. He and Mason were returned without opposition at the next general election. In addition to managing a private bill through the Commons in December 1702, he was a teller on the Tory side on 23 Dec. 1702 against a proposal to resume all crown grants made in the reign of James II, but on the other hand told for the Whigs on 19 Jan. 1703, in favour of Lord James Russell* in a disputed election for Tavistock. His three tellerships during the 1703–4 session were all on the Whig side: on 9 Dec. to adjourn all committees; on 20 Jan. against an amendment to the West Riding land registry bill; and on 2 Mar. against bringing up a petition relating to the Irish forfeitures bill. Forecast as a probable opponent of the Tack, he voted against it or was absent on 28 Nov. 1704 and in the next month again acted as a teller with the Whigs, against a motion that the committee on the bill for recruiting be empowered to receive a clause concerning the qualification of magistrates. In November Henry St. John II* had recommended Brett to the Duke of Marlborough (John Churchill†) for an officer’s commission and in March 1705 he was made lieutenant-colonel in a newly raised regiment commanded by Sir Charles Hotham, 4th Bt.*, being listed later that year as a placeman.3
In 1705 Brett and Charles Mason again stood successfully at Bishop’s Castle in the Whig interest. Though classed as a ‘High Church courtier’ in a list of the new Parliament, Brett voted for the Court candidate for Speaker on 25 Oct. 1705, and on 24 Nov. 1705 was a teller on the Whig side in an election case for St. Albans. He supported the Court over the regency bill on 18 Feb. 1706. Not long afterwards, when his regiment was ordered to Portugal, he obtained leave to resign his commission and was succeeded in his company by a younger brother. Cibber explained his resignation by saying that ‘his ambition extended not beyond the bounds of a park wall, and a pleasant retreat in the corner of it, which with too much expense he had just finished’, while Godolphin had written on 13 June 1706 that Brett ‘is very desirous to sell. I don’t know whether the Queen will allow of it, but I think a man who goes so unwillingly is not like to do much service.’ In 1707 Brett purchased from a friend, Sir Thomas Skipwith, 2nd Bt.*, a half-share in the patent for the Drury Lane theatre, and for a brief time involved himself in the politics of the theatrical world, exploiting his position as a patentee and his personal influence with the vice-chamberlain to bring to fruition a pet scheme of Colley Cibber for the union of the Drury Lane company with Cibber’s company at the Haymarket. But Brett was making no profit from his share in the patent, and soon became weary of the vexation which it brought him. When Skipwith began a legal action in January 1708 for the recovery of his share, Brett lost no time in making it over to Cibber and some associates. Surprisingly, Brett was classed as a Tory in two parliamentary lists of 1708.4
Brett did not stand again, his interest at Bishop’s Castle having apparently ‘fallen’, but he was a member of the coterie of Whig wits, gathered around Joseph Addison*, who met regularly at Will’s, and later at Button’s, coffee-house. In about 1712 he sold Sandywell Park to Lord Conway (Francis Seymour Conway*). His will was dated 14 Sept. 1724 and was proved two days later.5
Ref Volumes: 1690-1715
Author: D. W. Hayton
- 1. Trans. Salop Arch. Soc. ser. 2, x. 55; Vis. Glos. ed. Fenwick and Metcalfe, 25; Bristol and Glos. Arch. Soc. Trans. xxviii. 218; Misc. Gen. et Her. (ser. 4), v. 143.
- 2. Atkyns, Glos. 211; Apology for Life of Cibber (1740), pp. 212–18; Spence, Anecdotes ed. Singer (1964), p. 205.
- 3. Add. 61131, f. 120.
- 4. Apology for Life of Cibber, 218–19, 227–9; Marlborough–Godolphin Corresp. 584; F. D. Senior, Life and Times of Cibber, 49, 55.
- 5. HMC Portland, iv. 455; Spence, 128; Addison Letters, 282; Buildings of Eng. ed. Pevsner, Glos. i. 218.