Published on April 8th, 2021 | by All Things Warrington


‘The Bewsey Ballads: The murder of Sir John Butler’

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. In ‘Sir John Butler’, ‘The Ballad of Bewsey’ and ‘Butler of Bewsey’. All are reproduced later on this page.

Warrington poet John Fitchett also told of the murder in his mini-epic ‘Bewsey – A Poem’. Published in 1796, John’s poem is in the process of being transcribed here.

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.” 

And so to the poems/ballads…

Sir John Butler

‘Sir John Butler’ first appeared in an 1868 book entitled ‘Bishop Percy’s Folio Manuscripts – Ballads & Romances, Vol. 3’. Due to the language used, it is believed this is the earliest Bewsey Ballad. Bishop Percy (1729-1811) was the Bishop of Dromore in County Down, Ireland, and is famous for publishing Britain’s “first great” ballad collection, ‘The Reliques of Ancient English Poetry’ in 1765. Some of the ballads in Percy’s collection were taken from an old manuscript collection that he rescued “from the hands of a housemaid who was about to light the fire with it”. Although it is not known if ‘Sir John Butler’ was among the poems Percy saved (it wasn’t included in his 1765 book but then again many others in the ‘two inch thick’ manuscripts were also omitted), its style suggests it could have been.

But word is come to Warrington,
& Busye hall is laid about
Sir John Butler and his merry men
stand in ffull great doubt. 

when they came to Busye hall
itt was the merke midnight, 
and all the bridges were vp drawen,
and neuer a candle Light.

there they made them one good boate, 
all of one good Bull skinn;
William Sauage was one of the first
that euer came itt within.

hee sayled ore his merrymen
by 2 and 2 together,
& said itt was as good a bote
as ere was made of leather.

 “waken you, waken you, deare father 
god waken you within!
for here is your uncle standlye
come your hall within”

“if that be true, Ellen Butler,
these tydings you tell mer,
A 100 in good redd gold
this night will not borrow mee.” 

& then came downe Ellen Butler,
& into her fathers hall
& then came downe Ellen Butler,
& shee was laced in pall.

“where is ffather, Ellen Butler
haue done, and tell itt mee.”
“my ffather is now to London ridden, 
as Christ shall haue part of mee.”

“Now nay, Now nay, Ellen Butler,
ffor soe itt must not bee
ffor ere I goe fforth of this hall,
jour ffather I must see.”

the sought that hall then vp and downe 
theras John Butler Lay;
the sought that hall then vp and downe 
theras lohn Butler Lay;

ffaire him ffall, litle Holcrofft!
soe Merrilye he kept the dore,
till that his head ffrom his shoulders
came tumbling downe the floor.

“yeelde thee, yeild thee, John Butler!!
yeelde thee now to mee “!
“I will yeelde me to my vnckle Stanlye, 
& neere to ffalse Peeter Lee.”

“a preist, a preist,” saies Ellen Butler,
“to house and to shrine!
a preist, a presit, sais Ellen Butler
“While that my father is a man aliue!”

then bespake him willwira Sauage,
a shames death may hee dye !
sayes, “he shall haue no other priest
but my bright sword and mee”

the Ladye Butler is to London rydden, 
shee had better haue beene att home,
shee might haue beggd her owne marryed Lord 
att her good Brother John.

& as shee lay in leeue London,
& as shee lay in her bedd,
shee dreamed her owne marryed Lord 
was swiminnge in blood soe red.

shee called vp her merry men all 
long ere itt was day,
saies “wee must ryde to Busye hall
with all speed that wee may,”

shee mett with 3 Kendall men
were ryding by the way”
tydings, tydings, Kendall men,
I pray you tell itt mee”

“beauy tydings, deare Madam!
from you wee will not you Leane
the worthyest Knight in merry England,
John Butler, Lord ! hee is slaine!

“ffarewell, ffarwell, lohn Butler!
ffor thee I must never see
ffarewell, ffarwell, Busiye hall!
for thee I will neuer come nye.”

Now Ladye Butler is to London againe,
in all the speed might bee;
& when shee came before her prince,
shee kneeled low downe on her knee:

“a boone, a boone, my Leege!
shee sayes, ” ffor gods loue grant itt mee”
“what is thy boone, Lady Butler 
or what wold thou haue of mee 2?”

“what is thy boone, Lady Butler? 
or what wold thou haue of mee?
” that ffalse Peeres of Lee, & my brother Stanley,
& william Sauage, and all, may dye.”

“come you hither, Lady Butler, 
come you ower this stone;
wold you haue 3 men ffor to dye,
all ffor the losse off one?

“come you hither, Lady Butler, 
with all the speed you may;
if thou wilt come to London, 
thou shalt goe home Lady Gray.”

The Ballad of Bewsey

‘The Ballad of Bewsey’ first appeared in an 1872 book by John Roby entitled ‘Traditions of Lancashire).

Oh listen to my roundelay,
Oh listen a while to me,
And I’ll tell ye of a deadly feud
That fell out in the north countrie.

The summer leaves were fresh and green
When Earl Derby forth would ride;
For King Henry and his company
To Lathom briskly hied.

A bridge he had builded fair and strong,
With wondrous cost and pain,
O’er Mersey’s stream, by Warrington,
For to meet that royal train.

And lord, and knight, and baron bold,
That dwelt in this fair countrie,
With the Derby train a-riding were,
Save Sir John of proud Bewsey.

“Now foul befa’ that scornfu’ knight,”
Cried Stanley in his pride;
“For he hath my just and honest suit
Discourteously denied:

“Such hatred of our high estate,
This traitor sore shall rue;
I’ll be avenged, or this good sword
Shall rot the scabbard through!”

He swore a furious oath, I trow,
And clenched his iron hand,
As he rode forth to meet his son,
The monarch of merry England.

The summer leaves were over and gone,
But the ivy and yew were green,
When to Bewsey hall came a jovial crew
On the merry Christmas e’en.

It was mirth and feasting in hall and bower
On that blessed and holy tide,
But ere the morning light arose,
There was darkness on all their pride!

Dark wonne the night, and the revellers gay
From the laughing halls are gone;
The clock from the turret, old and grey,
With solemn tongue tolled one.

The blast was moaning down the glen,
Through the pitch-like gloom it came,
Like a spirit borne upon demon wings
To the pit of gnawing flame!

But Sir John was at rest, with his lady love,
In a pleasant sleep they lay;
Nor felt the sooning, shuddering wind
Round the grim, wide welkin play.

Their little babe, unconscious now,
Lay slumbering hard by;
And he smiled as the loud, loud tempest rocked
His cradle wondrously.

There comes a gleam on the billowy moat
Like a death-light on its wave,
It streams from the ivied lattice, where
Sits a grim false-hearted knave.

He saw it on the soft white snow,
And across the moat it passed:
“‘Tis well,” said that false and grim porter,
And a fearsome look he cast.

A look he cast so wild and grim,
And he uttered a deadly vow;
“For thy dool and thy doom this light shall be,
Thy foes are hastening now!

“Sleep on, sleep on, thou art weary, Sir John;
Thy last sleep shall it be:
Sleep on, sleep on, with thy next good sleep
Thou shalt rest eternally!”

The traitor watched the waters dance,
In the taper’s treacherous gleam;
And they hissed, and they rose, by the tempest tossed
Through that pale and lonely beam.

What hideous thing comes swift and dark
Athwart that flickering wave?
A spectre boat there seems to glide,
With many an uplift glaive.

The bolts are unslid by that grim porter,
And a gladsome man was he,
When three foemen fierce strode up the stair,
All trim and cautiously.

“Now who be ye,” cried the chamberlain,
“That come with stealth and staur?”
“We come to bid thy lord good den,
So open to us the door.”

“Ere I will open to thieves like ye,
My limbs ye shall hew and hack.
Awake, Sir John! awake and flee;
These blood-hounds are on thy track!”

“We’ll stop thy crowing, pretty bird!
Now flutter thy wings again:”
With that they laid him a ghastly corpse,
And the red blood ran amain.

“Oh help!” the lady shrieked aloud;
“Arise, Sir John, and flee;
Oh heard you not yon cry of pain
Like some mortal agony?”

“I hear it not,” Sir John replied,
For his sleep was wondrous strong;
“But see yon flashing weapons, sure
To foemen they belong!”

The knight from his bed leaped forth to flee,
But they’ve pierced his body through;
And with wicked hands, and weapons keen,
Him piteously they slew!

But that porter grim, strict watch he kept,
Beside the stair sate he;
When lo! comes tripping down a page,
With a basket defterly.

“Now whither away, thou little page,
Now whither away so fast?”
“They have slain Sir John,” said the little page,
“And his head in this wicker cast.”

“And whither goest thou with that grisly head?”
Cried the grim porter again,
“To Warrington Bridge they bade me run,
And set it up amain.”

“There may it hang,” cried that loathly knave,
“And grin till its teeth be dry;
While every day with jeer and taunt
Will I mock it till I die!”

The porter opened the wicket straight,
And the messenger went his way,
For he little guessed of the head that now
In that basket of wicker lay.

“We’ve killed the bird, but where’s the egg?”
Then cried those ruffians three.
“Where is thy child?” The lady moaned,
But never a word spake she.

But, swift as an arrow, to his bed
The lady in terror sprung;
When, oh! a sorrowful dame was she,
And her hands she madly wrung.

“The babe is gone! Oh, spare my child,
And strike my heart in twain!”
To those ruthless men the lady knelt,
But her piteous suit was vain.

“Traitor!” they cried to that grim porter,
“Whom hast thou suffered forth?
If thou to us art false, good lack,
Thy life is little worth!”

“There’s nought gone forth from this wicket yet,”
Said that grim and grisly knave,
“But a little foot-page, with his master’s head,
That ye to his charges gave.”

“Thou liest, thou grim and fause traitor!”
Cried out those murderers three;
“The head is on his carcase yet,
As thou mayest plainly see!”

When the lady heard this angry speech,
Her heart waxed wondrous fain;
For she knew the page was a trusty child,
And her babe in his arms had lain.

“Where is the gowd?” said that grim porter,
“The gowd ye sware unto me?”
“We’ll give thee all thine hire,” said they;
“We play not false like thee!”

They counted down the red, red gold,
And the porter laughed outright:
“Now we have paid thy service well,
For thy master’s blood this night;

“For thy master’s blood thou hast betrayed,
We’ve paid thee thy desire;
But for thy treachery unto us,
Thou hast not had thine hire.”

They’ve ta’en a cord, both stiff and strong,
And they sought a goodly tree;
And from its boughs the traitor swung;–
So hang all knaves like he!

But the lady found her pretty babe;–
Ere the morning light was nigh,
To the hermit’s cell that little page
Had borne him craftily.

And the mass was said, and the requiem sung,
And the priests, with book and stole,
The body bore to its cold still bed,
“Gramercy on his soul!”

Butler of Bewsey

‘Butler of Bewsey’ is effectively a reworked and edited version of the ‘The Ballad of Bewsey’ above. It first appeared in John Harland’s book ‘Ballads and Songs of Lancashire, ancient and modern’ in 1875.

Listen, lord and ladies fair,
And gentles, do my roundelay;
List, youths and maidens debonnaire, 
To this most doleful tragedy.

Of Pincerna, that noble race,
That Botiller was yclept, I say;
And Bewsey Hall, that goodly place, 
Where traitors did the Butler slay.

Fatal the feud ‘tween him and one
Whose sister was his wedded wife;
The proud Earl Derby, whose false son 
Did plot to take the Butler’s life.

Savage by name and nature too,
Piers Legh, that pierced all too free, 
Join’d with Lord Stanley and his crew,
And bought the warder’s treacherie.

A light shone from the warder’s tow’r, 
When all the house lay sunk in sleep,
To guide those murd’rers, fell and stour, 
Across the moat, dark, wide, and’deep.

In leathern boats they cross’d, and then 
The warder softly oped the gate:
Bold ‘fronted them the chamberlain;
Holcrofte his master warn’d—too late.

Him they slew first, and then the knight, 
While sleeping, ‘neath their daggers bled;
A faithful negro, black as night, 
Snatcht up the infant heir and fled.

That felon porter craved reward
For treach’rous guiding in the dark:
They paid him ; then for his false guard 
They hung him on a tree in the park.

In vain they sought—the child was saved; 
But gallant Butler was no more:
That night his wife in London dreamt 
That Bewsey Hall did swim with gore.

When that she learn’d the foul deed done,
She pray’d they might have felons’ doom;
But might ‘gainst right the struggle won;
Then sigh’d she forth in bitter gloom:

” If by my lord’s fell foes and mine
My will in life is thus denied 
And I must live, bereaved, to pine,
Death nor the grave shall us divide.” 

An alabaster tomb she made,
To her lov’d husband’s mem’ry true;
And on her death her corpse was laid 
Close by his side, ‘neath aged yew.

Mourn for the brave, the fair and true,
Sleeping in love, and hope, and faith;
May ruthless ruffians ever rue
Their murder foul, brave Butler’s death!

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