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The History Detective: Story of George Burdett

By John Arnold
Burdett in trouble?

The extracts from Winthrop's journal are reasonably clear. Burdett obviously became embroiled in the political struggles of New England, and particularly in the attempts that the colony was making at greater self-government.

Whereas Winthrop and others were attempting to keep control of justice and government confined to their locality, others wanted the right to 'appeal to the King' - that is, to have English law and courts appointed as the final arbiter in disputes. Burdett, it would appear, was writing to the authorities in England to inform them of what was going on in the colonies.

'Sexual scandal, then as now, could be wielded as a weapon against political opponents.'

Indeed, if we read Winthrop's journal closely, we become aware of some of the dangers of evidence. Note the letter Winthrop reports that he sent to Mr Hilton. He seems to indicate that he wrote it in such a way that, although it communicated his meaning to Hilton, it could not be used against him. That is, its real meaning was hidden in some way. Were this letter to have survived, the historian would have to interpret it carefully.

Similarly, note what Winthrop tells us about Burdett's life after he left the colony. He writes that having returned to England and found everything 'changed', Burdett - most surprisingly for a radical protestant preacher - took part with the cavaliers (ie, supported the king in the English civil war), and ended up in prison.

However, fighting between the king and Parliament did not break out until 1642. How, in an entry dated 1640 did Winthrop know this detail? The answer must be that his journal was composed or added to at a later date. Always, with each piece of our jigsaw, we must be wary.

Published: 2005-01-28



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