BRETT, Sir Robert (c.1566-1620), of Charing Cross, Westminster and Dover Castle, Kent; formerly of West Molesey, Surr.
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Family and Education
b. c.1566, 4th s. of John Brett (d.1589) of Whitestaunton, Som. and Margaret, da. and coh. of Hugh Ratcliff of Stepney, Mdx., wid. of John Acland of Akeland Barton, Devon; half-bro. of Sir John Acland*. educ. Hart Hall, Oxf. 1586, aged 20. m. (1) 14 Dec. 1590, Alice (bur. 19 June 1602), da. of James Huishe, Grocer, of St. Pancras, London, s.p.; (2) 13 July 1603 (with £1,000), Frances (d. 28 Aug. 1617), da. of (Sir) Thomas Fane of Badsell, Tudeley, Kent, 1s. d.v.p.; (3) Anne (d. 22 Feb. 1634), da. of Sir William Meredith, paymaster of the army, of Leeds Castle, Kent, s.p.1 kntd. 22 Apr. 1603.2 d. 1 Sept. 1620.
J.p. Mdx. 1597-d.,7 Kent 1610-d.8; commr. oyer and terminer, the Verge 1606-at least 1612, Sandwich, Kent 1614, to indict Owen the traitor, Kent 1615, annoyances, Surr. 1611, Mdx. 1613, inquiry into lands of Skevington in Kent 1613;9 lt. Dover Castle 1613-15;10 freeman, Dover 1614;11 commr. sewers, Wittersham level, Kent and Rother valley 1614-at least 1618, Essex 1617.12
Brett’s ancestors were holding the Somerset manor of Whitestaunton by 1433 and two members of the family represented the county in the 1337 Parliament.13 As a younger son Brett himself inherited only some inconsiderable parcels of pasture, together with a gelding and an annuity of £20.14 On leaving Oxford, Brett entered the service of the 2nd earl of Essex, who, in his capacity as master of the queen’s horse, appointed him a surveyor of the races at Tutbury, Staffordshire, in September 1598. Earlier that same year he was granted lands in Derbyshire by the queen, and around the same time he paid £300 for the reversion to the prebend of Sutton in Buckinghamshire.15 He declined an invitation from his patron to accompany him to Ireland in 1599, pleading physical disability.16 (Sir) Walter Ralegh†, who married Elizabeth Throckmorton, the cousin by marriage of Brett’s older brother Sir Alexander, considered him ‘a very honest gentleman’, and in 1601 passed on to his ally Lord Cobham (Henry Brooke†) an account ‘of the abuses offered to your lordship about your wood sales’.17
That same year he paid £100 to Thomas Symcock, a member of the queen’s guard, to appoint him deputy keeper of Agardsley Park in Needwood Forest, Staffordshire, which formed part of the duchy of Lancaster. He thereupon displaced the former deputy keeper, Edward Harcourt, and installed in his stead his own kinsman by marriage, William Agard. An angry Harcourt appealed to the queen, who, furious that Harcourt, ‘a poor gentleman that had done her service’, had been so unceremoniously removed and that Brett, ‘being her servant’, had acted in such an underhand manner, instructed her vice chamberlain, Sir John Stanhope*, to ensure that Harcourt’s interests were safeguarded. Brett was subsequently forced to promise that he would not relinquish control of the park to Agard without Harcourt’s consent, but after Harcourt refused to give his permission he installed his kinsman anyway. Soon afterwards, Brett, taking a liking to the park and realizing that the keepership might provide him with an opportunity to establish himself in Staffordshire society, demanded that Agard turn control of the property over to him. When Agard refused to do so Brett, in 1603, initiated legal proceedings which remained unresolved as late as October 1604.18
Brett was knighted early in the new reign, and a few months later achieved a fortunate second marriage with the sister of Cobham’s follower, Sir Francis Fane*. In March 1604 he contemplated becoming steward of the household to his mother-in-law, Lady Mary Fane, who shortly thereafter became Baroness Le Despenser, but she decided to move in with him and his wife instead, ‘and so that opportunity was lost’.19 It may have been under her influence that in 1607 he bought the manor of West Malling for £6,000.20 Situated in north Kent, West Malling lay close to Mereworth Castle, the seat of Brett’s brother-in-law. In June 1607 a longstanding lawsuit with Robert Johnson* over ownership of Sutton prebend prompted Johnson to claim parliamentary privilege.21 Three months later Brett, by now gentleman usher of the privy chamber, was granted an annuity of £200 from the forfeited estate of the Gunpowder plotter, Francis Tresham.22
A staunch Calvinist, who considered himself a member of the elect, Brett won the favour of the young Prince Henry who, in December 1607, stood as godfather to his short-lived son, Henry.23 However, his sister-in-law, Lady Anne Brett, was a recusant,24 and Brett himself, despite his solid Protestant credentials, entered the circle of his Charing Cross neighbour, the crypto-Catholic Henry Howard, earl of Northampton, whom he accompanied to Windsor in 1605 for the latter’s investiture as a knight of the Bath.25
By July 1610 Brett had become a member of the Kent county bench. This suggests that he was now spending more time at West Malling than at Westminster, and not surprisingly, therefore, he proved willing to sell to Northampton much of his Westminster property. That month he sold the earl a private chapel in Charing Cross, which lay near the gardens of Northampton House.26 Three years later Brett parted with his house at Charing Cross (which he proceeded to lease back) and most of his other Westminster houses for £2,240.27 Northampton, the lord warden of the Cinque Ports, was evidently most grateful, and in September 1613, following the death of Sir Thomas Waller*, he appointed Brett lieutenant of Dover Castle. The next year Northampton also recommended Brett to the Dover corporation for election to the Addled Parliament, on which occasion Brett was returned, along with his brother-in-law, Sir George Fane*. Brett did not take out his freedom until a fortnight after the election, when the customary fee of £5 was returned to him, ‘in respect of the service which he intends at the next Parliament for the service of this town’.28 He played little part in the activities of the Commons, making no recorded speeches and being named to just five committees. These included the committee for privileges (8 Apr.) and committees to consider bills for the naturalization of the daughters of Sir Horace Vere (17 May) and to restrict new building in and around London and Westminster (1 June).29 However, he seems to have found no opportunity to serve his constituents over the Dover Harbour Act. A witness of Northampton’s will, Brett was subsequently involved in litigation over it with one of the executors, William Byng*.30 Following the death of his patron, Brett was retained as lieutenant of Dover Castle in accordance with Northampton’s wishes, and subsequently oversaw a programme of repairs. However, in the spring of 1615 he sold his office to Sir John Brooke*.31
Brett drew up his will ‘after a long sickness’ on 23 Aug. 1620. He provided for the maintenance of ‘the now used lecture’ at West Malling, with 10s. a week to be paid to the preacher, and left an annuity for 20 poor of the parish of West Malling. In a codicil dated 24 Aug. he further devoted £10 p.a. to augment the living of East Malling. Sir Humphrey Lynde*, the husband of one of his nieces, was one of his executors. The overseers were ‘his worthy and loving friends’ Sir John Vaughan*, Sir Thomas Denton*, and William Noye*.32 One week later, ‘desirous to take the air, [he] sunk down and died as he was entering his coach, leaving a young and rich widow’, who later married another of his crypto-Catholic friends, Sir Francis Cottington*. Brett was buried with his second wife and only son in West Malling church under an inscription praising their ‘religious and charitable dispositions’.33
Ref Volumes: 1604-1629
Authors: Peter Lefevre / Andrew Thrush
- 1. F. Brown, ‘Brett Fam.’, Som. Arch. and Nat. Hist. Soc. Procs. xxviii. 82; Vivian, Vis. Devon, 3; PROB 11/73, f. 320; 11/76, f. 182v; 11/77, f. 73; Al. Ox.; St. Pancras, Soper Lane (Harl. Soc. Reg. xlv), 444; J.V.W. Lloyd, Powys Fadog, iii. 82; VCH Northants.: Genealogical Vol. 96.
- 2. Shaw, Knights of Eng. ii. 102. A Robert Brett of Devon is also said to have been knighted on 18 Apr. 1604, but this second Sir Robert Brett, if he existed, has proved elusive: Shaw, 131.
- 3. Expedition to Spain and Portugal 1589 ed. R.B. Wernham (Navy Rec. Soc. cxxv), 205.
- 4. HMC Hatfield, viii. 366; LC2/4/4, f. 57a; E179/45/37; 179/70/122, 123a; DL4/46/33, interrogatories, no. 10.
- 5. LC2/4/5, p. 56.
- 6. CSP Dom. 1603-10, p. 370; Cent. Bucks. Stud. B/Buc/8/5/3.
- 7. C66/1468, m. 25d.
- 8. Cal. of Assize Recs., Kent Indictments, Jas. I ed. J.S. Cockburn, 86, 134.
- 9. C181/2, ff. 13v, 142, 180, 198v-200, 228.
- 10. Chamberlain Letters, i. 476; CSP Dom. 1611-18, p. 200; Carew Letters ed. J. Maclean (Cam. Soc. lxxvi), 12.
- 11. Add. 29623, f. 28.
- 12. C181/2, ff. 219v, 247v, 265, 295, 328v.
- 13. VCH Som. iv. 233; OR.
- 14. PROB 11/73, ff. 320-1.
- 15. C2/Jas.I/B4/2; CSP Dom. 1547-80, p. 491; 1598-1601, p. 520.
- 16. HMC Hatfield, ix. 126.
- 17. CSP Dom. 1601-3, p. 27.
- 18. DL4/48/67; 4/46/33.
- 19. Trevelyan Pprs. III ed. W.C. and C.E. Trevelyan (Cam. Soc. cv), 62; CP sub Abergavenny and Despenser.
- 20. C2/Jas.I/B13/61.
- 21. Lansd. 486, f. 124; Bowyer Diary, 327.
- 22. CSP Dom. 1603-10, p. 370; C66/1744.
- 23. E351/543, m. 190; LCC Survey of London, xviii. 4-5.
- 24. Add. 34765, f. 33v; Brown, 83.
- 25. Add. 34218, f. 87.
- 26. C54/2044.
- 27. C54/2162/13; L.L. Peck, Northampton, 67; LCC Survey of London, xviii. 4.
- 28. Add. 28036, f. 115v; Add. 29623, f. 28.
- 29. Procs. 1614 (Commons), 34, 228, 268, 294, 402.
- 30. Archaeologia, xlii. 378; C78/325/16.
- 31. Chamberlain Letters ed. N.E. McClure, i. 542; E351/3590; NLW, Carreglwyd mss I/690.
- 32. PROB 11/136, f. 170.
- 33. Chamberlain Letters, ii. 316; M.J. Havran, Caroline Courtier, 69; Thorpe, Registrum Roffense, 840.