The History Detective: Story of George Burdett

By John Arnold
Why did George Burdett leave his family for a new life in 17th-century America? Was he a priest swimming against the religious tide or a philanderer escaping retribution? Follow his trail to find out his story.
Yarmouth Assembly Book 

The historian's choice

Every history - every picture of the past - involves a degree of choice on the part of the historian. But if we are aware that a choice is being made, albeit an informed one, between various unprovable possible scenarios, we tend to create a more historically credible tale.

We cannot force historical evidence to say things that suit a story we have already half decided upon. Nor can we wilfully ignore evidence that doesn't fit our picture. But there are nevertheless many different ways of building up a picture of a past event, and filling in the blanks - so there is an element of uncertainty about most historical research. This is one of the reasons why history is so exciting.

Follow the story of George Burdett, who seems to have abandoned his family for a life abroad, to see how historians build up a picture of the past, and to understand how important it is not to make assumptions about what might have taken place.

A family abandoned

Our starting point is an entry in the Yarmouth Assembly Book from 1625 to 1642, which can be found in the Norfolk Record Office in Norwich. The entry was made in 1635, and it reads:

At the Assembly Mrs Burdett in regard of hir husbands absense from hir, being gone for New England, whereby she is much destitute of means for the maintenance of hir and hir children, petitioned the house for some relief to be afforded hir in supply thereof: which being taken into consideration it is agreed that she shall have 20 marks per annum to be paid quarterlie by the Chamberlines. The first payment to begin at St Michael next: and soe to continue during the good likeing and pleasure of the house.

We also find the following note in the margin:

'Annuity of 20 marks per annum granted to Mrs Burdett'.

'These books did not have lists of contents or indices ...'

Great Yarmouth is a coastal town in Norfolk, and in the 17th century it was governed by a council or 'Assembly' of freemen. The Assembly books record the freemen's deliberations, and date back to the mid-16th century.

These books did not have lists of contents or indices, but the scribes did write brief descriptions of the different records in the margins of each folio. This shows us that the Assembly Book was made to be used and referred to by the town at any time, and was not simply something that they filled in and stored away to be instantly forgotten.

Detail from the Yarmouth Assembly Book, 1635
Detail from the Yarmouth Assembly Book, 1635

Choosing our trail

Image of entry about Mrs Burdett
Yarmouth Assembly Book, 1635. The entry on Mrs Burdett's annuity is top, right.
Before we do anything with this starting point, we need to be sure we understand it properly. The source itself is hand-written, in a style rather different from our own.

Some of the long, looping letters are familiar, but an 's' often looks more like an 'f', and an 'r' like a 'w'. There are also several abbreviations, where the scribe has not written out the entire word but contracted it.

For example, 'which' is written as 'wch', and 'Chamlines' (with a line above it) stands in for 'Chamberlines' - or, as we would spell it, 'chamberlains'. Other oddities in spelling are fairly easy to decipher - 'hir' for 'her', 'soe' for 'so', 'quarterlie' for 'quarterly'.

'... why did he go to America, leaving his wife and children?'

Having deciphered what the source says, are we clear about what it means? 'New England' then, as now, indicates the east coast of America, which was being colonised at the time. 'Marks' were an archaic form of English currency, and 20 marks was a reasonably large amount. 'St Michael next' means 'the next feast of St Michael', or Michaelmas (29 September).

So the overall meaning should be clear - the Yarmouth Assembly agrees to give Mrs Burdett 20 marks each year, as her husband has left her and gone to America.

So having considered our first piece in the jigsaw, where shall we look now? Immediately we have to make some choices. We could decide to explore charity in Yarmouth, and therefore we might want to look for other occasions on which the Assembly gave annuities.

We might be interested in the civic government of the town, and thus read the rest of the Assembly books to see what other kinds of things they discussed and decided. We perhaps want to know what happened to Mrs Burdett, and so would need to search for her name in other Yarmouth records.

Or we might decide to try to find out what happened to Mr Burdett. Why did he go to America, leaving his wife and children? What happened to him when he got there? This is the trail that we're going to follow ...

Image of the Yarmouth Assembly Book showing the entry about Mrs Burdett
Yarmouth Assembly Book, 1635, showing the entry recording Mrs Burdett's annuity

Burdett in Yarmouth

Image of Ranters
A congregation of Ranters - a radical 17th-century Protestant sect
The most sensible place to start looking for more information on Mr Burdett in Yarmouth is the rest of the Assembly Book itself. Searching it via the scribes' comments in the margins, we find five other mentions of him. Each of these can form another piece in our jigsaw.

The first time he is mentioned appears three years before the grant to Mrs Burdett, in 1633. It is a note that a 'Mr George Burdett', preacher, was reported to the assembly by one Matthew Brooks, 'for not bowing at the name of Jesus'.

To understand what this means, we need some further context. Existing histories of 17th-century England will tell us that this was a period of religious tension over the nature and governance of the Church. Brooks appears to have believed in a brand of moderate Protestantism, that supported religious ceremony while being opposed to royal control of the Church.

'Burdett ... preached sermons that appeared to be religiously and politically antagonistic ...'

Burdett, in contrast, was more radical against ceremony, and hence refusing to make the ritual obsequience to the crucifix ('bowing at the name of Jesus') when in church. Following Brooks's complaint, Burdett was suspended from his position of preacher, but then reinstated.

However, a later passage in the Assembly Book shows Burdett suspended once again in 1635, for having preached sermons that appeared to be religiously and politically antagonistic.

Two further references tell us that Matthew Brooks made a bid to take over the house where Burdett had lived, but that it was later leased to a Mr Crane for £12 per annum. The last reference to the Burdetts in the book is the one to Mrs Burdett's annuity.

A picture is now starting to form for us. George Burdett, something of a firebrand preacher, caught up in the religious and political struggles of his time, then leaving for the New World. The evidence in the Assembly Book is, however, fragmentary, and we are already having to interpret what it says.

For example, we have surmised that Burdett was religiously radical, and therefore probably against royal control of the Church. But we have had to base this only on one brief phrase, that he did not 'bow at the name of Jesus'. It is a fair interpretation - but we have to bear in mind that it currently stands on fairly slender foundations. We also have further questions to ask, such as why exactly did Burdett leave Yarmouth? And why did he go to America?

Burdett in America

Image of settlers arriving in New England
Settlers arriving to start a new life in New England in the 17th century
New England in the 17th century was thankfully not as heavily populated as it is today. It was still large, however, and to find what we're looking for we'll need a bit of cunning and a bit of luck. The cunning comes from knowing what kinds of sources are likely to be relevant and easy to consult.

A good place to start is with sources that have been published and indexed by other historians - since they have done a lot of the hard work for us already. There is a published list of 'persons of quality' who sailed to New England in the 1630s (created by the English monarch, who wanted to know who was leaving the country).Unfortunately, Burdett's name does not appear. This is not, however, that unusual. Every piece of evidence has its gaps, and failing to find something does not mean it wasn't there, only that it wasn't recorded.

'Every piece of evidence has its gaps ...'

If we can't see Burdett leaving England, perhaps we can find him on the other side. And, indeed, consulting a 1635 list of 'freemen' in Salem, New England (published by the New England Genealogical Society), we find mention of 'Mr George Byrditt'. Now, we cannot assume absolutely that this is the same man - but, in an age where spelling was rarely consistent, 'Byrditt' and 'Burdett' are sufficiently similar for us to think this could be the man we are looking for.

Spies, rebels and treason

Image of a map of New England
A map of 17th-century New England
So we think that Burdett made it to America. But simply finding his name in a list does not add much to our picture. Let us turn, therefore, to another source - the journal of John Winthrop, governor of Massachusetts in the 1630s and 1640s, who kept a record of the colony he controlled. As luck would have it, Burdett pops up there several times.

In November, 1638, Winthrop (who refers to himself as 'the governour' throughout his journal) notes a letter that he wrote:

November 1638. By order of the last general court, the governour wrote a letter to Mr Burdet, Mr Wiggin, and others of the plantation of Pascataquack, to this effect: That, wheras there had been good correspondancy between us formerly, we could not but be sensible of their entertaining and countenancing, etc., some that we had cast out, etc., and that our purpose was to survey our utmost limits, and make use of them. Mr Burdet returned a scornful answer, and would not give the governour his title, etc. [The governor goes on to write a letter to a Mr Hilton, complaining about Burdett and Wiggin].

A month later, there is further mention of this second letter to Hilton:

December 1638. The governour's letter to Mr Hilton, about Mr Burdet and Capt. Underhill, was by them intercepted and opened; and thereupon they wrote presently into England against us, discovering what they knew of our combination to resist any authority, that should come out of England against us, etc.; for they were extremely moved at the governour's letter, but could take no advantage by it, for he made account, when he wrote it, that Mr Hilton would show it them.

Relations between Winthrop and the settlement at Pascataquack were evidently getting worse. In the following spring, a third letter is sent:

March 1639. The general court, in the 7th mo. last [1 September 1638] gave orders to the governour to write to them of Pascataquack, to signify to them, that we looked at it as an unneighborly part, that they should encourage and advance such as we had cast out from us for their offenses, before they had inquired of us the cause, etc. (The occasions of this letter was, that they had aided Mr Wheelwright to begin a plantation there, and intended to make Capt. Underhill their governour in the room of Mr Burdett, who had thrust out Capt. Wiggin, set in there by the lords, etc.)

Another entry suggests that Winthrop had a spy in the Pascataquack camp:

May 1639. One of Pascataquack, having opportunity to go into Mr Burdett his study, and finding there the copy of his letter to the archbishops, sent it to the governour, which was to this effect: That he did delay to go into England, because he would fully inform himself of the state of the people here in regard of allegiance, and that it was not discipline that was now so much aimed at, as sovereignty; and that it was accounted perjury and treason in our general courts to speak of appeals to the king.

Burdett in prison

Image of roundheads and cavaliers with dogs
A contemporary cartoon depicting the two sides in the civil war
The final appearance of Burdett in Winthrop's Journal begins with the arrival of a new party on the scene, a lawyer called Thomas Gorge:

Summer 1640. This summer there arrived on Mr Thomas Gorge, a young gentleman of the inns of court, a kinsman of Sir Ferdinand Gorge, and sent by him with commission for the government of his province of Somersetshire. He was sober and well-disposed; he staid a few days at Boston, and was very careful to take advice of our magistrates how to manage his affiars, etc.
When he came to Acomenticus, he found all out of order, for Mr Burdett ruled all, and had let loose the reigns of liberty to his lusts, that he grew very notorious for his pride and adultery; and the neighbours now finding Mr Gorge well inclined to reform things, they complained of him, and produced such foul matters against him, as he was laid hold on, and bound to appear at their court at Sacoe: but he dealt so with some other of the commissioners that, when the court came, Mr Vines and two more stood for him, but Mr Gorge having the greater part on his side, and the jury finding him guilty of adultery and other crimes, with much labor and difficulty he was fined (under £30).
He appealed unto England, but Mr Gorge would not admit his appeal, but seized some of his cattle, etc. Upon this Mr Burdett went into England, but when he came there he found the state so changed, as his hopes were frustrated, and he, after taking part with the cavaliers, was committed to prison.

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.

Burdett leaves England

Image of letter
Burdett's letter to Archbishop Laud, 1635
Although we now have a more detailed picture of Burdett, we still do not know exactly why he left England. However, Winthrop has given us a new trail. Burdett was writing letters back to England. Do these survive?

In the Calendar of State Papers, Colonial Series, we find descriptions of two letters, both from George Burdett to William Laud, Archbishop of Canterbury. One would appear to be the letter Winthrop refers to as having been uncovered by his spy. It is dated 29 November 1638, and it talks about the political struggles in Massachusetts, suggesting certain ways in which royal authority might be strengthened in the colonies.

'My voluntarie exile is exposed to censure ...'

The other letter is much earlier, and it still exists in the National Archives. It seems to tell us why Burdett originally left Yarmouth.

My Lord, Actions ambiguous capable of crosse limitations, doe rarely meet with inclina[ti]on to the milder part. My voluntarie exile is exposed to censure; levitie, or dissimulacon, or w[hi]ch is worse - is charg'd upon mee: but the trueth is: my practize was regular, and herein obedience eccli[esiastic]all very reall: if some transient defects; Impeccabilitie is not expected; man is vertibly and voca[ci]ons of amulous adversaries herein culpable.
My judg[e]m[en]t in the five Articles was moderate, declara[ci]ons correspondent, the knot of the controversies declined w[ha]t ever malice did ever informe, or perjurie confirme to the contrarie: herein I appeale to him th[a]t judgeth justly: this I thought to impart, to rectifie yor Graces judgement of mee and my wayes (if possibly) and stoppe the mouth of Calumnie for my secession, the ground was, Impetuous and malicious prosecution, importable expense; the end, tranquilitie in distance: w[hi]ch I could yet injoy in my native countrie, it would exceedingly rejoyce mee: not th[a]t any pr[e]sent incompentencie urgeth; for all the topickes of motive Arguments lend theire ayde to p[er]saude content in temporality: but some morall heterodoxies andc.
I humbly pray read and accept these lines from him who much desired a favourable line from your Grace; and still remaines Yr Graces in all humble Observance Geo[rge] Burdett, Sale[m] in New England, December 1635

Politics of religion

Image of the beheading of Archbishop Laud
The execution of Archbishop Laud, 1645
This is not at all a clear source. Burdett seems to have been writing in a rather convoluted way, possibly - as with the letter Winthrop wrote - in order to try to keep his meaning hidden from anyone who might intercept the letter.

Nonetheless, we can pull out the basic sense. At the beginning, he talks about 'censure' against his 'voluntary exile' (ie, his trip to New England), and protests that his 'practize' was 'regular'. This probably means that in carrying out his ecclesiastical duties in Yarmouth, contrary to what some had said about him, he had obeyed orthodox religious doctrine.

'... Burdett left Yarmouth and travelled to New England because he was being prosecuted.'

He then says that the grounds of his 'secession' - that is, the reason why he left - was 'impetuous and malicious prosecution, importable expense'. This would seem to indicate legal proceedings and their attendant costs - also that he left Yarmouth because of court cases against him. Finally, he indicates that he is keen to return to England when he can, and that he wishes to remain in Archbishop Laud's favour.

It would appear that we now have an answer to our original question. George Burdett left Yarmouth and travelled to New England because he was being prosecuted. And we can check on this. Consulting another finding aid, the Calendar of State Papers, Domestic, we find a case against 'George Burdett of Yarmouth' brought to the court of High Commission in February 1635, by Matthew Brooks and others, concerning the religious content of Burdett's preaching.

It seems he was found guilty, removed from his office, ordered to be further examined on his religious orthodoxy, and to pay the legal costs of the case. Burdett left Yarmouth to escape these costs (later references show that they remained unpaid) and obviously had lost any position of power he held there.

Having arrived in New England and become enmeshed once again in political and religious struggle, he seems to have taken the opportunity to ingratiate himself once more with the English Church hierarchy, writing to the archbishop as an informer on the colonies.

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).

Finishing the story

Image of a man and woman embracing
Adultery and fornication as portrayed in a pamphlet of 1650
We need to remember that in building our picture, we made choices and interpretations along the way, and some of these may have led us to draw the wrong conclusions. Also that another reason why the pictures created by historians are never really finished is that interpretations can change.

As I reviewed the story we have created, the element with which I was personally least satisfied was Burdett's motive for leaving his family. Is prosecution enough to abandon a family? What of Winthrop's charges of adultery and fornication? So I went in search of a final jigsaw piece, using a different kind of resource - the New England Historical and Genealogical Register. This is a collection of notes and articles by American local historians, which is available on CD-ROM and can be searched extensively by word.

'Burdett promises to pay Ann £112 ... '

Here we find a reference to a deposition given in a 1682 court case by one Edward Johnson, of York, New England. In it he said that:

About 42 or 43 years agone (ie 1639-40] hee remembereth that at that time Mrs Ann Messant, alias Godrey, lived with Mr Geo[rge] Burdett then Minister of Agamenticus [now called York] In the Province of Mayne and at that tyme keept s[aid] Burdett's house. [Burdett then] ... had occasion to borrow of s[ai]d Ann Godrey a certen p[ar]cell of Money amounting to the valew of seaven scoore pounds or y[ere]abouts, which money remained in the sayd Burdetts hands for some years before the s[ai]d Burdett left ye Countrey'.
... the s[ai]d Ann Godfrey began to Consider how shee should have her money w[here]upon shee desired some Assurance for security y[ere]of upon which hee gave Ann Messant alisas Godrey afterwards a writeing pretending to be a deed for his farme'.

This 'writing pretending to be a deed' is recorded in the York County Deeds, and says that Burdett promises to pay Ann £112 at the end of March 1641. The problem with the 'deed' is that it was neither dated nor signed, thus making it legally unenforceable.

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.

Published on BBC History: 2005-01-28
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