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“Rich in unspoiled treasures of the past, its long street, which leaves the Windrush rippling among the willows and mounts the steep hill, has something rare to show us at every step.”
That quote, featured in the section on Burford in Arthur Mee’s 1931 book The King’s England, goes a long way to explain why the town has become such an attractive place for tourists and second-home owners alike. Burford is indeed really rather lovely, but there’s even more to the town that just pretty old buildings. Your mind may turn to the Levellers and the annual event marking their leaders’ execution in the churchyard, but that’s only the tip of the iceberg – Burford’s past is crammed with murders most foul, battles most bloody, and behaviour most immoral. Fancy learning more?
BURFORD IS FULL OF… MURDER AND VICE
Arthur Mills was right when he said that Burford has something rare to show us at every step – the town has hosted a variety of murders, involving a fascinating array of characters. One of the most intriguing stories involved a body being discovered in the grounds of the Priory, the huge house in the centre of the town now owned by Mrs Elisabeth Murdoch.
The house used to be the family home for the influential Lenthall family. William Lenthall (born 1659) was a rather unlucky individual, especially in matters of love – his wife was famously promiscuous, and their relationship was a deeply unhappy one. When William died he left his estate in the care of two trustees, Sir Edmund Fettiplace and John Pryor, to be held for his eldest son John. In the meantime, his wife married again, to another man of note, James Hamilton, 5th Earl of Abercorn. The new couple wanted to get their hands on the estate before young John Lenthall could take control of it, and it would seem that John Pryor did his best to stop them, as on the 3rd of April 1697 he was found murdered in the Priory grounds.
The Earl was tried for murder in Oxford, but he was soon acquitted. One outraged observer of the trial wrote that:
“The murder was clear. Yet, the jury being bribed, he was brought in not guilty. They were also drunk.”
You can still visit the grave of poor John Pryor – he’s under a big slab in Burford church.
This isn’t the only example of Burford playing host to villainy. The town also experienced the scourge of highwayman, who would lurk the roads nearby looking for carriages to rob. In 1780 a coach, containing three gentlemen – James Hunt, a Captain Thomas and one unknown gentleman – was stopped by a dark-haired man on horseback, disguised with a black cloth over his face. Reportedly the occupants were ordered to hand over their valuables, but after doing so Captain Thomas chose to brandish his pistol and fire at the robber. In shock he immediately turned and rode away, and an attempt by James Hunt to unharness one of the coach horses and chase him down came to nothing.
There’s a chance that the highwayman was a member of the infamous Burford highway trio, the three brothers who were amazingly actually named Tom, Dick and Harry Dunsdon. They had lairs all over the area, and it was said that they shooed their horses back-to-front to confuse anyone trying to chase them. After a period of ever-increasing success in their criminal ways they met real trouble when one night they tried to enter Tangley Hall, two miles north of the town. The law had been tipped off and was waiting for them, so when Dick put his hand through the shutter of the door to unlock the bolt, his arm was immediately grabbed. Dick shouted “Cut! Cut!” and one of his brothers promptly severed his arm at the elbow, before dragging their bleeding sibling onto a horse to escape. They found their way to the Merrymouth Inn, and when the landlord refused to offer help, they shot him on the spot.
Dick was never heard of again, but Tom and Harry carried on their exploits. Their end came in 1784, when they were attending the annual Burford Whitsuntide Festival. Tom managed to provoke a fight with a man, William Harding, in a pub. In the resulting brawl both Harding and the pub’s landlord were shot – the landlord lived thanks to a coin in his chest pocket, but Harding eventually died of his wound. The law soon took hold of Tom and Harry, and they were tried for murder in Gloucester. They were sent to be hung from a tree near the town, where the parishes Shipton, Widford and Fulbrook then met. They proved something of a tourist attraction and for months people came to see how their decomposing bodies were progressing.
BURFORD IS FULL OF… THE RICH AND FAMOUS
It isn’t just the modern-day elite who enjoy traipsing from London to Burford on the weekends. Over the centuries the town has been visited by a huge number of reigning monarchs, some for extended periods of time. Elizabeth I visited briefly, William of Orange did so in 1695, Charles I travelled through the town to escape two Parliamentarian armies, King George VI visited a soldiers canteen here in 1940, whilst King John and Edward IV both hunted regularly in the nearby Wychwood Forest.
Charles II though, was an especially big fan of the town. He would often escape to Burford with one of his favourite mistresses, the famously witty and charming Nell Gwyn. She bore him an illegitimate child, and Charles II eventually titled him the Earl of Burford. Nell also named her apartments in Windsor castle Burford House, so it’s clear that they both rather enjoyed their time in the town.
As well as occasionally hosting royalty, there have been some especially interesting local faces. Revd Alexander Dallas, when he became the new church’s new curate in 1826, made a real impression on the town soon after his arrival. He set up a Sunday school, reformed the local workhouse and provisions for the poor, and convinced 63 shopkeepers to start closing on Sunday (the Lord’s day). He seemed to have been a habitual man of action – he fought in the British Army all the way through the Napoleonic Wars, and served on Wellington’s personal staff at the Battle of Waterloo.
The Grandfather of the unfortunate Burford aristocrat William Lenthall, also called William, played a central role in one of the main events of the English Civil War. In the run-up to the conflict, Charles I burst into the House of Commons to arrest five supposedly traitorous MPs. William Lenthall was the Speaker of the House at the time and politely defied his King, upholding the rights of Parliament in opposition to the monarch. When asked for information on the five escaped MPs he said:
“May it please your majesty, I have neither eyes to see nor tongue to speak in this place, [except] but as this house is pleased to direct me, whose servant I am here; and humbly beg your majesty’s pardon that I cannot give any other answer than this is to what your majesty is pleased to demand of me.”
Translated: “Parliament is my boss, not you – piss off.”
BURFORD IS FULL OF… WAR AND CONFLICT
The Cotswolds now feels rather removed from the concepts of war and bloodletting, but that wasn’t always the case. It’s likely that Burford was the site of a battle between the two Anglo-Saxon English kingdoms of Wessex and Mercia in 752CE. The Anglo Saxon Chronicle records that: “A.D 752. This year Cuthred, king of the West Saxons, in the 12th year of his reign, fought at Burford, against Æthelbald king of the Mercians, and put him to flight.”
That wasn’t the end of Burford’s participation in medieval power struggles. During the Wars of the Roses the Earl of Warwick earned the title of ‘Kingmaker’ whilst in Burford, when he proclaimed his support for the young Duke of York to become King Edward IV.
During the Civil War, in 1642, Royalist soldiers under Sir John Byron fought a skirmish with some Parliamentarian Dragoons in the town, down Witney Street. Although Byron had his face cut, the furious exchange forced the Dragoons to take flight, and they escaped out the back of the White Hart pub, where the Royal Oak is now. They were chased into the darkness for six miles, but escaped. The more famous Civil War moment in Burford’s history is obviously linked to Oliver Cromwell’s attack on the soldiers who were mutinying due to their support of the Levellers. Cromwell attacked in the night, killing a man who tried to resist in the process – the next night he shot three of the leaders in the churchyard, ending the Levellers’ influence within the army.
The Great War hit Burford’s male population much in the same way as the rest of the country, as shown by thirty-six names on the town’s war memorial. When Burford was given a captured German gun after the war as a trophy, some of the town’s veterans weren’t impressed. They threw it in the river.
The Second World War had an even greater influence on the area. Great barriers consisting of timber supported on wheels were prepared to block the road in case of German invasion, and concrete bunkers were constructed to aid the defence of the town. Evacuees were sent to the town, in addition to soldiers serving in nearby airfields. A battalion of the US 6th Division, Third Army was billeted in the town in the run-up to D-Day, as well as British Paratroopers preparing for the botched Operation Market Garden in 1944.
It was during the American’s stay that a famous local incident occurred. A Sherman Tank was driving over the bridge when it lost a track and plopped in the river below, taking an entire day to recover.
Burford is full of… misbehaviour
If you happened to be in Burford on October 10th 1861, you’d probably have witnessed a feud between two local women, Jane Tuckwell and Mary Marshall. There’s very little detail as to what exactly happened, but an issue of the Oxford Journal reports that both women violently assaulted each other on the same day, and the Magistrates were so confused by events that they fined them both.
That’s not the only example of Burford residents ending up in the papers for all the wrong reasons – the same issue of the Oxford Journal reports that, for reasons beyond our research, a Susan Puffott assaulted a Mr William Pool and went to prison for seven days. Some offences are a bit easier to unpick – the landlord of the Swan in 1872, Frederick Drinkwater, was repeatedly in trouble for serving drinks beyond licensed hours. After one particularly good evening seven people were arrested leaving his house for being “drunk and riotous”, but that didn’t stop him from getting caught doing the same thing a few weeks later. He was truly a man before his time; the poor bloke was 131 years early for 24 Hour drinking licenses. Oh well.
Much of Burford’s rowdiness would stem from annual festivals. It was a well-entrenched tradition that residents of Burford were allowed one day of free hunting in Wychwood Forest a year, but in 1593 this privilege was exchanged for an annual gift of venison for the whole town. The whole community would attend the feast, from the local gentry to agricultural labourers, and unsurprisingly it was always accompanied by a great deal of ‘gambling, drinking and quarrelling’.
When Charles II was in town, he stabled his royal horses locally, and Burford soon found itself as a centre for horse racing. This remained the case for a long time, and for many decades the town regularly attracted aristocrats, companies of comedians and eager gamblers from across the country.
Charles’ time in Oxfordshire also left another, far more unpleasant legacy for the town. Between the parishes of Swinbrook, Shilton, Brize Norton, Asthall and Burford there was a tiny bit of land free from the jurisdiction of any authority, which eventually came to be known (amongst other names) as Forsworn Lains. Despite being a den for vagrants and lawbreakers, women from Charles’ court bearing illegitimate pregnancies would apparently come to a house here to give birth, something which desperate local women continued to do for centuries until it was absorbed into Asthall parish in 1841. There’s not much funny to say about it – there are many stories of babies being born, murdered and buried here without ceremony, and it’s hard to imagine how much suffering was felt in this house, within earshot of all manner of criminals. Local History might be Awesome, but sometimes it’s just horrible.
The next time somebody turns to you and says, “Oh Burford, it’s so quaint!” you’ll know better than to agree. Burford might look pretty, but as you now know, its history can be as murderous and unpleasant as anywhere else.
Will Hazell is a freelance copywriter who works primarily in the heritage and conservation sectors, though he enjoys dipping into other fields from time to time. If you’d like to hire his writing talents you can find him at Will Finds the Words.
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