The execution of Thomas Burdet has long been linked to that of George, duke of Clarence a few months later. But is it possible that their downfalls were not connected at all? Dr Simon Payling from our Commons 1461-1504 project evaluates the evidence…
The execution for treason of Thomas Burdet, head of one of the principal gentry families of Warwickshire, on 19 May 1477 has a place in the main narrative of English political history in that it was connected in some opaque way with the execution of Edward IV’s troublesome brother, George, duke of Clarence, some nine months later. It is an easy assumption that Burdet, a close associate of the duke, was attacked as a means of either undermining the duke himself or, more charitably, warning him that he too was suspected of treason; and that both men were the victims of some plot, more or less Machiavellian depending on the intent, by the King and his advisers. Yet the evidence to support such a view is not compelling, and there is the obvious alternative explanation that Burdet was proceeded against on his own account; that investigations into his supposed treason then revealed unlooked-for evidence implicating Clarence; or else Clarence implicated himself by his ill-judged reaction to his servant’s fall. Such a view depends on finding some reason for the allegations against Burdet that do not depend on his place in Clarence’s service.
In this regard, the legal process that ended in Burdet’s execution is unhelpful. To modern eyes the principal charge against him is vaguely absurd. According to an indictment laid before and accepted by three Middlesex juries on 17 May 1477, Burdet had, some 30 months before, persuaded two clerics, John Stacy and Thomas Blake, to calculate the nativities of the King and the prince of Wales and so discover the dates of their deaths. When after a few months, the clerics had the answer to this complicated conundrum, by, in the words of the indictment, ‘necromancy’, Burdet circulated the information that both the King and the prince of Wales would shortly die. His alleged aim was to deprive the King of ‘the cordial love of the people’ and to ensure that the prophecy would become self-fulfilling in that, when the King discovered the prophecy, his life would be shortened by sadness. One might imagine that there were many less passive and more effective ways of ending a King’s life. So seemingly insubstantial a case is consistent with fabrication, but, even if the government is the most likely candidate as its contriver, it is not the only candidate.
Burdet’s colourful life, with his troubled marital history, provides an alternative explanation for his fall. Some 40 years before his death he had made what appeared a good marriage to a local heiress, Agnes Waldieve. Sadly, however, the marriage was, to say the least of it, an unsatisfactory one. The couple were divorced in the consistory court of the bishopric of Worcester in June 1446, on the grounds of consanguinity. This justification was the legal cloak for a deep personal animosity, and Burdet determined to disinherit his son by Agnes. Later evidence implies that he resorted to some ruthless and unconventional means to bring this about.
In 1528, when called upon to give evidence in the long dispute to which this attempted disinheritance gave rise, an old man, the son of one who had served Burdet for over 30 years, recalled that he had often heard his father relate an extraordinary story. So desperate had Burdet been to secure a divorce from Agnes that he had caused a priest to lie in a bed with himself and her; he would then rise early and go hunting, intending to slander his wife and obtain a divorce; but she would ‘lyke a good woman’ also leave the bed to avoid lying alone with the priest. More plausibly and seriously, the witness claimed that his father later learned that Burdet intended to murder his eldest son, and responded by secretly at night taking the child to the abbey of Alcester (very near Arrow), entrusting him to the care of Abbot Richard Tutbury, the boy’s godfather. This testimony seems too improbable to be a complete invention, although its chronology is confused. The conspiracy to compromise Agnes must have taken place before the summer of 1446; and the plot to murder the heir to after 1454 when Tutbury became abbot.
Whatever reliance is to be placed on this narrative, there can be no doubt that Burdet was determined to disinherit, if not to murder, his eldest son, and there is some reason to think that this contributed to the disaster that overtook him in 1477. In the indictment that prompted his execution, his servant, Alexander Rushton, is the only one mentioned by name among those to whom he told of the supposedly impending death of the King. This raises the possibility that it was Rushton who betrayed him, either revealing a real conspiracy or concocting one, and his motive may have lain in disgust at the scheme of disinheritance. Very significantly in this regard, the legal instruments to bring about that disinheritance had been drawn up only a few months before Burdet’s fall. Further, a family tradition recorded by the antiquarian, John Stow (d.1605), drew a causal link between the deprivation of the heir and the execution of the father. According to Stow, as the unfortunate Burdet was being drawn from the Tower of London to Tyburn for his hanging and quartering, he saw his eldest son in West Cheap, begged his forgiveness and identified the wrong he had perpetrated against him as the cause of the divine vengeance he was about to suffer.
There is also another possible context for Burdet’s fate, entirely independent of his connexion with Clarence. According to the well-informed and contemporary Croyland chronicler, one of the many charges against Stacy (and, by implication, also Burdet), was that he had made lead figures to destroy the Warwickshire peer, Richard Beauchamp, Lord Beauchamp of Powick, ‘at the request of his adulterous wife’. This suggests that Burdet was on poor terms with Beauchamp, perhaps even having an affair with his wife. Beauchamp, to whom Edward IV was greatly beholden for his defence of Gloucester against Margaret of Anjou during the Tewkesbury campaign in 1471, was an influential man, and it is not beyond the realms of possibility he took a hand in Burdet’s destruction.
All this shows that Burdet had enemies, and, although it is an open question whether these enemies had influence enough to secure an indictment of high treason, it does at least raise the possibility that, in their origins, the proceedings against him were not prompted by a campaign to destroy or discredit Clarence. On this reading Clarence’s own fall was rather more accidental and contingent than is generally allowed. Had he kept his own counsel, he might well have surmounted the execution of one of his leading retainers. Instead, however, he took grave and public exception to the loss, forcefully declaring his servant’s innocence at a meeting of the royal council in the immediate aftermath of the execution and then employing his servants to make public declarations to the same effect. While this strongly implies that the duke viewed the attack on his servant as an attack upon himself, it does not itself show either that Burdet’s treason, if such it was, was part of a conspiracy against the King led by Clarence, or that the charges against Burdet were a fabrication aimed at harming the duke. In short, there is no convincing explanation for Burdet’s fall. This confusion is reflected in a curious family tradition, recorded by the Tudor chronicler Raphael Holinshed (d.c. 1582): his treason is said to have lain in the making of an ambiguous remark, which could be interpreted as wishing the King dead, after the King had killed his favourite white buck while hunting in his park at Arrow. Whatever, however, the reason for his indictment, the evidence does not support the idea that Burdet and hence his master Clarence were the victims of a plot by Edward IV.
S J P
M. Hicks, False, Fleeting, Perjur’d Clarence: George, duke of Clarence, 1449-78