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18 September 2014
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The History Detective: Story of George Burdett

By John Arnold
Completing the jigsaw

Image of Burdett's letter to Laud
Another of Burdett's letters to Laud, beginning 'If it may please yr Grace...' ©
We have built up a picture - starting from one small entry in the Yarmouth Assembly Book - that has taken us back nearly 400 years, has moved us between two continents, and has given us a quick glimpse of two major historical events - the colonisation of America, and the English Civil War.

We have now produced a 'history', certainly a history of George Burdett, but also a part of a larger history, of religious and political struggle, of migration, and of 17th-century life. What we have found here provides some interesting slants on those larger themes.

'... the jigsaws we make as historians are never really finished ...'

For example, Burdett's personal religious position (against Royal control of the Church) does not easily fit with the received picture of the religious and political tensions at the heart of the English Civil War. The example of Burdett reminds us that the causes of historical events are frequently not as tidy as historians would sometimes like them to be, and his story might therefore prompt further study of the extent to which religious divisions underlay the conflict between cavaliers and roundheads.

In a different fashion, the tensions between the New World colonies and England over government and law provide an intriguing insight into conflicts that pre-date the American War of Independence. Again, having followed Burdett, we find ourselves aware of a new possible avenue for historical exploration.

Is our jigsaw now complete? In this present context, it is pretty much done. But the jigsaws we make as historians are never really finished. We can always choose to explore a step further, search for another piece.

For example, we might continue looking for Burdett in documents relating to the Civil War, to try to discover why he ended up in prison. Or we could decide that Burdett's story will form one element in a larger exploration of East Anglian migration to the New World, in which case we would need to start looking in the Norfolk records for other people who made that journey. Or we might want to find out more about Mrs Burdett, abandoned with her children (something that I have tried to follow up, but thus far without success).

Published: 2005-01-28

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