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18 September 2014
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The History Detective: Story of George Burdett

By John Arnold
Philanderer, spy or swindler?

Image of George Burdett's signature
Sample of George Burdett's signature ©
Looking further once again prompts new questions. We do not know if Burdett swindled Ann Godfrey out of her money or not (though further investigation might tell us).

Neither do we know the exact nature of their relationship. It would be quite unusual for a housekeeper to lend her employer such a sum of money, and given that local opinions of Burdett's sexual conduct were not high, we might surmise that there was more between them. At any rate, we can perhaps now decide that we have reached a sort of ending to our story.

'... the answers that every historian produces are affected by the choices that they made...'

In any case, in tracing events around Burdett, we have explored a piece of history. It might, in itself, seem quite a small piece but the techniques we have used here are the basis of all historical work.

Every historian searches for evidence, asks questions about it, tries to cross-reference it to other material, finds and pursues new leads. At the same time, the answers that every historian produces are affected by the choices that they made along the way - the kind of evidence they search for, the types of questions they ask it, the interpretations they decide to make. And a degree of guess-work also inevitably comes into play, when trying to fill in some of the blank spaces left to us from the past.

A different historian might have come up with a very different interpretation of Burdett and the contexts he inhabited. But by being aware of each choice made, and having avoided the temptation to make unfounded assumptions, it is at least possible to give the story a reasonable amount of historical credibility.

About the author

Dr John H. Arnold iteaches medieval history at Birkbeck College. He is author of History: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford University Press, 2000) and Belief and Unbelief in Medieval Europe (Hodder Arnold, 2005).


Published: 2005-01-28

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