Dangerous Liaisons in 15th Century England: Sir John Butler

In June 1477 one parliamentarian who had successfully avoided the dangers of the Wars of the Roses met a violent end thanks to more domestic troubles. Dr Charles Moreton, senior research fellow of the Commons 1422-1504 project tells us more…

Notwithstanding the turbulence of their times, many 15th-century knights successfully avoided factionalism and civil war. For every William Cotton (a Lancastrian household servant felled at the first battle of St. Albans in 1455) or Sir Thomas Tuddenham (executed in 1462 for plotting against Edward IV) there was a Sir John Butler of Badminton, Gloucestershire, who represented that county in two Parliaments and Buckinghamshire in a third. The greatest controversy of his unremarkable career was a dispute over lands near Badminton, which in due course he was obliged to relinquish to the powerful Talbot family. Yet researching him turned out to be far less dull than expected, not for what he did during his lifetime but for how he died, since he met a very grisly end.

Butler was killed in London on 15 June 1477, the victim of a street assault. Later on the same day, a coroner’s inquest named Richard Blewet, ‘gentleman’, and John Hawkys, ‘yeoman’, both from London, as the assailants. Blewet was found to have stabbed Sir John in the front of the head with a ‘wodeknyffe’ and Hawkys to have run him through the heart with a sword. Yet there was more to this affair. Within months of the killing, the unfortunate Sir John’s grandson and heir, another John Butler, brought an appeal for murder in the court of King’s bench against the victim’s widow, Elizabeth, assisted by three of the knight’s own servants. According to the appeal, they had procured Blewet and Hawkys to commit the crime and afterwards provided them with shelter.

In due course, the younger Butler reached an out of court settlement with Elizabeth and her co-accessories, all of whom afterwards received letters of pardon from the King, but in what circumstances is not known. Neither of the two principals, Blewet and Hawkys, who had also been separately indicted for murder, answered the younger John Butler’s appeal and both were outlawed. Yet Blewet, at least, escaped any serious consequences. In the spring of 1480, he likewise secured a royal pardon, and he later succeeded in having the case against him overturned on a legal technicality.

Having eschewed the dangers of civil war, it is ironic that Sir John Butler should meet such a horrible end, and through a marriage that should have brought him so much given Elizabeth’s considerable landed interests. The second marriage for both parties, it lasted merely a matter of months. Elizabeth was the widow of John Barantyn (who had sat for Oxfordshire in the Parliament of 1467) and a daughter and coheir of Sir Stephen Popham, a substantial landowner in Hampshire and Wiltshire. It may well be that her powerful connections forced the younger John to come to terms with her out of court.

Even if Sir John and Elizabeth had not been a happy couple, it is unlikely that he had suspected he was in danger, for he had not made a will when he died. It is impossible to discern Elizabeth’s motives for bringing her husband down although there is some evidence to suggest that she may have resented his treatment of her children by John Barantyn. Whatever the case, all was certainly not well between her and her own stepchildren, Butler’s offspring by his previous marriage. After Sir John’s death, she quarrelled with one of them, Thomas Butler. Thomas, who had entered the Church, complained that she and two accomplices had ‘subtly laboured’ to have him indicted of felony at the sessions of the peace in Middlesex. More generally, he alleged that Elizabeth, ‘by hir straunge and ffroward disposicion contrary to lawe of kynd’, intended the ‘utter destruction’ of her stepchildren. Perhaps tellingly, he named the accomplices as Ralph Blewet – presumably a relative of Richard – and William Stedeman, one of the servants named as an accessory in the younger John Butler’s appeal.

CM

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