All Things Warrington

The Bewsey Ballads

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The murder of Sir John Butler (Boteler) at Bewsey Old Hall in Warrington in 1463 has been captured in ballad form on at least three occasions:-

'Sir John Butler'

'The Ballad of Bewsey'

'Butler of Bewsey'

Warrington poet John Fitchett also told of the murder in 'Bewsey - A Poem', a mini-epic running at 32 pages long. Published in 1796, the poem is in the process of being transcribed

Ancient manuscripts held at the University of Oxford explain in detail the events and circumstances that inspired the ballads and poem. Although open to conjecture (William Beamont dissects the manuscripts in great detail in the second volume of his 'Annals of the Lords of Warrington' books), the manuscripts are the earliest known documents preserving the memory of the former Lord of the Manor's murder. The first account in the Oxford manuscripts reads:-

"Sir John Butler, knight, was slaine in his bedde by the procurement of the Lord Stanley, Sir Piers Legh and Mister William Savage joining with him in that action (corrupting his servants,) his porter setting a light in a window to give light upon the water that was about his house at Bewsey. They came over the moate in lether boats, and so to his chamber, where one of his servants, named Houlcrofte, was slaine, being his chamberlaine : the other basely betrayed his master ; they paid him a great reward, and so coming away with him, they hanged him at a tree in Bewsey Parke ; —long after this Sir John Butler's lady pursued those that slew her husband, and obtayned 20 men for that saute; buton being married to Lord Grey, he made her suites voyde, for which reason she parted from her husband, and came into Lancashire, saying, ' If my lord will not let me have my will of my husband's enemies, yet shall my body be buried by him ; ' and she caused a tomb of alabaster to be made, where she lyeth on the right hand of her husband Sir John Butler."

Another account in the same collection of manuscripts reads:-

"The occasion of the murder was this : —King Harry the Seventh being to come to Latham, the Earl [of Derby], his brother-in-law, sent unto him [Sir John Butler] a message to desire him to wear his cloth at that time ; but in his absence his lady scorned that her husband should wait on her brother, being as well able to entertain the king as he was. Which answer he [the Earl] took in great disdain, and prosecuted the said Sir John with all malice that could be. And amongst other things, the said Sir John had a ferry at Warrington, which was worth a hundred marks [£66, 13s. 4d.] by the year unto him ; there being no bridge. The Earl coming to go to London, the said Sir John would not suffer him to pass, but forced him about by Manchester. Where upon the Earl bought a piece of land of one Norris of Warrington, by which means he was privileged to pass on the other side ; and so builded a bridge at Warrington, on both sides, being his own land. And the said Sir John Butler, after the bridge was builded, did not withstanding exact and take toll and tax of all passengers as before ; whereon the Earl caused the king to make it free. On that and such like discontents, they [the Earl and Sir John] took arms against one another ; and Sir Piers Legh and William Savage that sided with the Earl made trenches upon Warrington Heath, which were to be seen not long since, before the inclosing of the said heath. So in the end, during the uproar, they corrupted his servants, and murdered him in his bed. His lady, at that instant being in London, did dream the same night that her husband was slain, and that Bewsey Hall did swim with blood ; whereupon she presently came homewards, and heard by the way the report of his death."

Given the period in which they were written, the manuscripts are a little hard to read but hopefully you get the gist. Sir Edward Baines summed the event up a little more succinctly in his "History, Directory and Gazetteer of the County Palastine of Lancaster of 1826:-

"The occasion of the murder was a request on the part of the Earl of Derby that Sir John should swell the number of the Earl's retinue (entourage) during the visit of Henry VII which his high-spirited lady thought an indignity, and hence a quarrel arose which terminated in blood."

Such are the inconsistencies in the various accounts of the murder, including the ballads, some historians have questioned whether a murder actually took place at all. However, the man who appears to have studied the event most, William Beamont, concluded:-

"The story although tragical does not seem to be wholly improbable, and though their are variations in the way in which it is told there may be a foundation for the story of some murder having been committed, although the time, the confederates and the circumstances may be all incorrectly given."
Bewsey Old Hall in 2014

Bewsey Old Hall in 2014, pictured a few months after it was converted into a modern apartment block. Given its history, would you sleep easy in its bedrooms?

Bewsey Old Hall 1794

Bewsey Old Hall, circa 1794, the 15th century home of Sir John Butler, lord of the manor of Warrington, and the scene of his terrible murder.

Bewsey Old Hall

Traces of Bewsey Old Hall's moat still remain. According to ancient manuscripts held at Oxford University, Sir John Butler's murderers "came over the moate in leather boats"

For more Warrington poetry visit the
poetry section of All Things Warrington.