Brentwood history: The sad tale of William Hunter

Brentwood actors re-enact the death of William Hunter

A re-enactment by Brentwood actors of the killing of William Hunter - Credit: Sylvia Kent

Along with hot cross buns, chocolate eggs and Easter bunnies, a more sombre piece of religious history is enacted when members of local churches carry the ceremonial wooden cross along Brentwood High Street.

But how many people know of the sad story of William Hunter, a name that is remembered in many local buildings, road signs and a stone monument in the town?

William was a 19-year-old silk weaver’s apprentice from Brentwood, living at the time of Mary Tudor’s reign. She was a staunch Roman Catholic and in that year of 1555, religious turmoil was at its height. 

Young William was a passionate Protestant and had already been dismissed by his London master because of his fervent religious beliefs.  After he was involved in a religious argument with the Vicar of South Weald and the local Brentwood justice, Sir Antony Browne, he was ordered to be returned to his home town.  

The lad was then taken to Edmund Bonner, the Bishop of London who tried to reason with him. But William would not recant and spent two days in the stocks, then imprisoned for nine months. 

His family and friends tried to change his mind and Bonner is reported to have said:  "If thou wilt yet recant, I will make thee a freeman in the city and give thee 40 pound in good money to set up thine occupation with all: or I will make thee steward of my house and set thee in office."

William was resolute and refused.  After spending a month in Newgate prison, he was returned to his family in Brentwood with an immediate death penalty pending. 

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But this could not be carried out as this period fell within Holy Week.  On the Saturday before the Easter services, the boy was taken, under guard, to the Swan Inn in Brentwood High Street and stayed two nights.  Whether it was at the site of the present Swan, the history books are not certain, but from there on Tuesday, March 26, William, accompanied by his family, was taken to the stake “where the (archery) butts stood” and was burnt.  

In later centuries, the area became today’s Ingrave Road and the Brentwood School now stands behind it. 

An elm tree grew on the spot where William was killed.  Its trunk grew to more than a metre in circumference until it died around eighty years ago. King George VI was on the throne when, in 1936, the remains of the ancient tree trunk had become an eyesore and it was removed.  An oak was planted nearby to mark the King’s accession. 

Sir Antony Browne founded Brentwood School, some believe as an act of repentance for the part he played in William Hunter’s death and a monument erected in 1861 stands near the junction of Shenfield Road and Ingrave Road (funded by public subscription). This reminds us of how even young people were  persecuted for their religion in days gone by. 

To discover more about Brentwood’s past, my latest book Brentwood In 50 Buildings, released by Amberley Publishing in Stroud is available from all good bookshops. ISBN 978-1-4456-9213-5 and Amazon. Signed copies can be obtained from Sylvia Kent via