Ludlow, Shropshire

John Bruen and St. Andrews Church, Tarvin,

St. Andrews church played a significant role in the life of Betty’s 9 times great grandfather, John Bruen, and his son (8 times great grandfather) Obadiah Bruen. John Bruen played a significant role in the life of his church, the parish, the city of Cheshire and the nation. Though a commoner and lay person John Bruen was often referred to as “Bishop Bruen.” The original St. Andrews church was built in the late 12th century and belonged to manoral lords, the bishops of Coventry and Lichfield. When the church was remodeled in the 14th century the parishioners added large, beautiful stain glass windows. The windows were so large and beautiful that folks would enter the church on a Sunday morning and say things like, “Wow! Those stain glass windows are so large and beutiful!”

When John Bruen (1560-1625) rose to power within the church in the 16th century he was boisterous in his objection to the glass. He proclaimed it to be an affront to God.  He was overheard at a dart tournament lamenting the fact that his church “doth have too much bling and glitter.” As a major benefactor of the church, he removed the stained glass. He preferred the simplicity of glass without the glitz. His God was a puritanical force, not given to pretentiousness or embellishment. Besides the stained glass kept out the natural light and bright dazzle of the morning sun.

On our 2016 Whittington tour of Shropshire we tried to visit the St. Andrews church but found, much to our chagrin, the doors locked, the parsonage empty and the phone answered by a robot.  In the weeks prior to going to England I tried to schedule a visit to the church but was rebuffed by another robot, an automatic email response system that informed us the parson was on vacation. The robot promised me that the parson would respond to our email when he returned from holiday. The robot then tossed our email into a spam folder, never to be read again.

There are a number of literary pieces that reference the life of John Bruen. Accounts of his conduct and convictions are numerous. His disdain for the stained glass was as much artistic as it was religious conviction. The stained glass darkened the once radiantly lit chapel which we never got to see. The darkness was not in keeping with the light shed by the glory of God’s presence. In the Notitia cestriensis, or Historical notices of the diocese of Chester, Francis Gastrell notes:

Mr. Bruen was a gentleman commoner of St. Alban’s Hall, Oxford, and a man of unaffected piety and extensive charity, whose private virtues alone have obtained for him a place in the annals of biography, and whose benevolence, integrity, and simplicity of character, all hallowed by religion, would have reflected honour on any rank, and adorned any creed. Although he was left charged with the portions of twelve brothers and sisters and had himself nineteen children, his hospitality and charity were unbounded. He had, however, one grievous, I had almost said unpardonable, failing – he had a horror of painted glass, and finding in the Church of Tarvin and in his own Chapel, “many superstitious images in the windows which, by their patined coats, darkened the light of the Church and obscured the brightness of the gospel, he caused all those painted puppets to be pulled down, and at his own cost, glazed the windows again.'”

–(Biograpic History of England, vol 1, p 251)

Historian Stephen Hindle [1], whose body of work focuses on early and medieval British culture, notes the importance of John Bruen’s efforts to bring a sense of dignity to worship on the Sabboth.  In 1595 the Church at Devon decried the demise of the church, as the parish resorted to festivities on the Sabboth to engage parishoners.  Sunday had become a day of community celebration dominated by the consumption of large quantities of ale, bear bating, games, dancing, sports and frivolity. Puritan forces viewed this as leading to sin and degradation. They talked and wrote of the ‘prophanasion of the Lorde’s Saboth’. Five hundred years later the sanctity of Sunday is still a subject of debate in some quarters of the American culture. American football has replaced the Church as the place to be on a Sunday.

Orders came forward from town councils and church governance seeking to put a stop to the party atmosphere that had become part and parcel of Sunday and any holy day in Britain. The King, with the encouragement of his unpopular wife, had been forcing the party atmosphere on his nation, believing that there was no harm in engaging in sport, hunting, drinking large quantities of ale and relaxing on a holy day. It was a direction that William Pyrnne protested, and it cost him his ears and freedom. It was a direction that infuriated  Jenny Geddes in Edinburgh, Scotland and led to open rebellion in the Cathedral of St. Gilles.

The orders that were issued, Hindle notes, were only paper documents and needed to be enforced if any good was to come of the effort; assuming that it was good to take the ale away from the parishioner. The documents and efforts to suppress the party atmosphere put the church at odds with the King.  John Bruen stepped forward with a plan that won the favor of many a magistrate, vicar and Puritan devotee. To obstruct St. Andrews Day celebrations, Bruen invited

‘two or three of the best affected preachers in the diocese that spent most of three days preaching and praying in the church so as the pipers and fiddlers and bearwards and players and gamesters had no time left for their vanities, but went away with great fretting.’

The Bruen chapel, south of the chancel in St. Andrews retains 14th century windows but the windows in the south aisle were modified in the 18th century. The roof of the south aisle dates from 1380 but was covered with plaster for a time.The hammer beam nave ceiling dates from 1650 and carries the names of “Raphe Wright, John Bruen, Churchwardens, Charls Boouth and Will Venables, Carpintrs” This roof was covered by lath and plaster in the 18th century but rediscovered during restoration in 1891. This John Bruen (1585-1647) responsible for said ceiling was one of many sons of our John Bruen (1560-1625). John Bruen (b.1585) is a great uncle and brother of our Obadiah Bruen, who was already well established in New England when his brother installed the roof beams.

9x Great Grandfather John (b. 1560) had three wives during his lifetime. The first two, Elizabeth Hardware and Anne Foxe, each died young and in childbirth. The third wife, Margaret Allen, was the daughter of a Cheshire draper (investor). All in all, John Bruen fathered 19 children, a few died at birth or shortly thereafter. A few more died in their youth. Roughly half made it to adulthood.

John (b. 1560) was the son of a John Bruen (1509-1586) and Dorothy Holford (1537-1587) daughter of Thomas Holford and Jane Booth. That would make them 10x Great Grand Parents to Betty. The Holford line and Booth line each lead back to British royalty. Note that ‘Charls Booth’ (see above) was one of those responsible for the roof beams. William Venables (also mentioned above as a signature in the ceiling) is a member of the Venables family prominent in the family tree in the 12th and 13th century (great grandparents many, many times!).

The Bruen chapel has a 14th century screen and some interesting wooden memorials to John Bruen, 1605; Mary Tilston of Huxley, 1651; Mrs Jane Done, 1722. The Done family also spelled Donne included the poet John Donne and were relations to John Bruen by way of marriage (in laws).

The several generations of the family tree that precede John Bruen (b. 1509) include many famous names in British history, all of them members of the nobility, all of them knights and dames, Sirs and Ladies, to be sure. They tended toward protestantism with the growth of the reformation and increasingly puritanical as the decades passed. Their titles of nobility conflicted with their protestant convictions and they found themselves at odds with the King as the English Civil War loomed on the horizon in the 1630s. Some would remain loyal and royal, others would side with Cromwell and Parliament. Some were royal nobility and members of parliament, and tip toed on a fine line with their very life as conflicts led toward revolt. Our Obadiah Bruen packed his belongings and joined several Welsh investors on a journey into the new world.  If he thought he could escape the religious strife, he was wrong. The strife would follow him to New England. Boston was already shredded by conflicts within the church, when Obadiah arrived. It was a conflict ignited by our great grandparents who refused to give quarter on their religious principles. Conflicts within the Protestant Reformation created havoc among Christians who spoke of peace and love of Christ. The madness reached an extreme example of hypocrisy when they began sending Quaker women to the gallows to die.

The Death Certificate for John Bruen (1560-1625) is one of the most elaborate and complete family documents that I have found in my years of research.  It is found in the online records of Counties Cheshire and Lancashire and viewed here in its original form:

Funeral Certificate for John Bruen

Cheshire and Lancashire funeral certificates, A.D. 1600 to 1678 (Google eBook), College of Arms (Great Britain). Printed for the Record Society, 1882.

JOHN BRUEN of Bruen Stableford, in the County of Chester, Esquier, departed this mortall life the 18 January, 1625 [-6], at his hall of Bruen Stableford, and was buried in Taruin Church, in the County aforsayd.

He married 3 wives: the first was Elizabeth, da. to Henry Hardware of Chester, Alderman and Justice of the Peace, after of Peele, co. Cest,1 the relict of Jo. Couper of Chester, Alderman, and by her had yssue Gilbert, whch dyed yonge; John, second sonne and heyre, of the age of 42 yeares or there about at tyme of his fathers death; he married Judeth, daughter to John Amyas of Stotisdon, in the County of Salop, Esqr, and by her hath yssue Jonathan Bruen, of the age of 15 at his grandfathers decease, Sarah, and Mary.

Henry, 2 sonne to the defunct, dyed yonge.

Calven Bruen of Chester, 3 sonne to the defunct, married Elizabeth, daughter to Rafe Litler of Walescot, in the county of Chester, gent., and hath Issue John and Samuell Bruen.

Anne, eldest daughter to the defunct by the first wife, married Edward Puliston of Alington, in the County of Denbigh, Esq., and hath noe yssue; 2ly, she married Robt. Santhy of Burton, and had Samuell, fohn, Nathaniell, and Margret.

Elizabeth, 2 daughter to the defunct, married George Mainwaring of Calueley, in the County of Chester, gentleman.

The sayd defunct married to his 2 wife, Anne, daughter to Willm Fox of Rodes, in the County of Lancaster, and hath yssue Samuell, Obadiah, and Kathrine Bruen, all unmarried.

The sayd defunct married to his 3 wife Margret, daughter to John Allen of Chester, draper, somtyme Sheriff of Chester, and widow of John Rutter of Nantwich, gent., by whom he had Joseph Bruen, now living, and 10 yeare old at his fathers death, and others dyed yonge.

This certificate was taken at Bruen Stableford aforesayd by Randle Holme of the Citty of Chester, Alderman and Deputy to the Office of Armes, upon the 20th day of November, 1637, and testified under the hand of John Bruen of Bruen Stableford, Esq., sonne and heire to y1 defunct, being 12 yeares and more after the death of the sayd John Bruen.”

The 8 times great uncle Calven Bruen, mentioned above survived childhood and grew his father’s fortune. Calven was an ironmonger during the boom of the Industrial Revolution in the Midlands of 17th Century England. Calven’s propensities were an extension of his father’s own character. In Flintshire and the Puritan Movement, Dr. Thomas Richards notes that Calven

“got himself in serious trouble  when he gave hospitality to William Prynne, shorn of his ears by the Star Chamber, and proceeding in 1637 to safe prisonment in Caernarvon Castle.”

Now I do not know what ‘safe prisonment’ could possibly be. It seems a bit of a compressed conflict in terms. Prynne appears elsewhere in my efforts to capture the mood in Edinburgh city in 1638. Prynne had offended the king by publishing insults directed at the Queen, admonishing her for engaging in plays and dancing on Sundays. Calven Bruen reached out in support of Prynne, and in doing so risked his own well being. His sympathy for the Roundheads was clear as the Civil War unfolded. What is not clear is the consequence Calven paid for his support of Prynne.

Wrexham, a city nearby in Wales, was a hotbed of Puritan Revolt and a source of strength for Oliver Cromwell. The Welsh and Scotch were always looking for the first opportunity to rebel against English rule. And the English were more than willing to turn one clan against another. It was not surprising to find the Crown seeking to quell the uprisings in Wrexham with a band of 200 Irish mercenaries. The King’s efforts were squelched by our William Brereton found in the Brereton branch of the Bruen tree.

In his youth John Bruen was quite another person altogether, hardly known for piety, Bruen was what we might term a very spoiled son of a very wealthy man, living the good life on daddy’s expense account. His father (John) had married three times also and his first wife was none other than Katherine Donne, the sister of the famous poet John Donne.  Young Bruen was sent off to live for three years with his Uncle Dutton where he was tutored by James Roe. The Duttons were chartered by the King to be responsible for and in control of all minstrel activity within the county. Basically, the Duttons were the theatrical agents for singers, dancers, jugglers, comics and thespians.  And so it was that our John Bruen was introduced to revelry and high times.  He once wrote of himself,

“At that time the holy Sabbaths of the Lord were wholly spent, in all places about us, in May-games and May-poles, pipings and dancings, for it was a rare thing to hear of a preacher, or to have one sermon in a year.”

In other words Sundays were spent in a party atmosphere, removed from the church, and he seldom heard the word of God.

At the age of 17 he and his brother Thomas were sent off to study at Oxford University. At the end of two years, in 1579, he returned home to Tarvin and married Elizabeth Hardware. He continued living the life of a country gentleman, enjoying his father’s wealth and properties.  John owned 28 hunting hounds and took delight in rising each day and heading into the forest with his cousin, Ralph Donne. His father, John, passed away in 1587 and his death took a toll on our young John. Whether it was grief or the startling realization that he was responsible for the upbringing of his siblings and care of his father’s estate, John sold his dogs, eliminated all wildlife from his forest and gave up hunting. He adopted a severe lifestyle and developed some eccentric behaviors according to the biographer William Hinde who published his reflection on the life of John Bruen in 1641. Hinde, a brother in law to John, spent years in the company of the subject of his biography.

Hinde reported that Bruen was up every day at 3 or 4 a.m. engaged in prayer and Bible study. Bruen prayed and read the Bible seven times each day. He destroyed his backgammon table by pitching it forcefully into the fireplace. He marred his deck of cards and proclaimed games to be the work of the devil and an idle mind.  He made it a point to walk the one mile to church each Sunday, gathering the tenants of his properties and arriving in a large cluster for service. John Bruen managed to maintain his support for the crown (King James) even as his relatives and friends took up the sword of rebellion and eventually joined Oliver Cromwell in waging Civil War against the son of James, King Charles I.

The legacy of John Bruen is found in his work as a philanthropist, serving the destitute people of Cheshire. Nicholas Assheton, in a work contrasting two men of the 16th Century (Nicholas Assheton and John Bruen) elaborates on the life of John Bruen. At the time of his second wife’s death (Anne Fox) Bruen’s house was a home to 21 people outside of his own family of 13 members. He offered the homeless a place to sleep within his own home but with his wife’s death found it necessary to cut expenses. The boarders were asked to find somewhere else to live. He himself moved in 1617 to Chester where he started anew and lived for five years. Assheton notes that even in these difficult times Bruen continued to work to alleviate the stress in the lives of the poor and afflicted. He was generous with donations to those efforts to feed and cloth the destitute and deranged.

He married his third wife Margaret Allen in Chester and returned to Stapleford Hall near Tarvin. Assheton notes that Bruen continued to feed and house the destitute until his death. The wool of his sheep provided clothing for the poor, the mutton their food. Corn from his fields fed those who came to his door for comfort. When I read the various accounts of his life I felt as though I had discovered the Mother Theresa of England, 1600 a.d.  Assheton’s account can be found at this link: Assheton. While Bruen is discussed throughout the text, a thumbnail sketch begins within the introduction on Roman Numeral page XV.

But shortly after thinking I had found a Saint, I discovered the flaw, the “unpardonable failing” that Francis Gastrell noted in his discussion of Bruen.  The stain glass affair but was one of several incidents in which Bruen imposed his will on the populace.  In the winter of 1613, the disciples of John Bruen impose their will on the greater population of Cheshire. Picture this scene happening today in America and tell me Fox News wouldn’t be blaming this on Hillary Clinton. Seventeen of John Bruen’s followers, including his servants and students, were busted for destroying 7 crosses positioned in front of churches and along the highways of Chester. These were larger than life crosses, works of art, put in place by devotees of Jesus to signify their love of Christ and belief in Salvation. Bruen, himself a professed believer, saw the works as nothing more than pagan idols and they were removed. It reminds me of the Taliban’s efforts to remove ancient buildings and artifacts. Bruen was an iconoclast, known to some as a fanatic. Seven of the vandals appeared before the Star Chamber in London. The outcome of the trial resulted in a 500 pound fine, an expense that Bruen covered for his followers. While those charged with the crime denied Bruen’s involvement, it was clear to all that the event was planned at one of his conventicles at Stapleford Hall.

Such was the life of John Bruen, father of Obadiah Bruen our immigrant ancestor and one of several connections to royalty in our family tree. John Bruen died in 1625. Obadiah came to New England somewhere around 1640, fifteen years after his father’s passing.


[1] In his collection, The State and Social Change in Early Modern England, 1550–1640, Hindle notes the efforts of Bruen and others.