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Col. Elizeus Burges (died 1736)
Born: circa 1670
Governor of New England
English Resident at Venice
Died: 14th November 1736 at Venice, Italy

Elizeus (sometimes incorrectly called 'Ellis') was a member of an old Berkshire family residing in Reading, Burghfield and Grazeley, who were kin to the founder of St. John's College, Oxford. The unusual name ‘Elizeus’ was an old family one used by his ancestors as early as the 1530s. Although Elizeus’ exact parentage is unknown, his probable great uncle, Lieut.-Col. Roger Burges, had been Deputy Governor of Faringdon during the time of the famous Civil War siege, so it is not surprising that Elizeus decided upon a life in the army. By March 1693, he had been commissioned as a brigadier and eldest lieutenant of the second troop of horse-guards under the Earl of Ormond, although he left the regiment within the year.

Despite being respected in military circles, Elizeus gained an unsavoury reputation amongst the general populous as a drunk and a womaniser. He certainly enjoyed the coarse and vio­lent companionship of his army comrades and became embroiled in a number of duels. On Sunday 12th April 1696 at Leicester Fields (now Leicester Square) in Westminster, he fought with Henry Fane Junior, Standard Bearer of the King’s Bodyguard and son of Sir Henry Fane of Basildon. Burges wounded the young man in the chest and he died soon afterwards. Then, on Tuesday 19th May following, along with several other persons of distinction, he became involved in a frivolous, rash and accidental quarrel at the bar of the Rose Tavern, a notorious haunt of gamblers and ruffians in Russell Street, Covent Garden. He ended up killing a well-known comic actor, named Hildebrand Horden, from the Playhouse. With his companions, he was arrested for manslaughter and committed to the Gatehouse Gaol in Westminster. A week later, there was an organised gaol-break and Burges escaped. By the end of November 1697, he had obtained the King’s pardon. His accomplices stood trial at the Old Bailey but were acquitted.

In 1705, Burges was made adjutant-general – the chief administrative officer – to Charles Mordaunt, the Earl of Peterborough (and maternal grandson of Thomas Carey of Sunninghill Park). During this period, Peterborough commanded the English and Dutch troops in Spain taking part in the War of the Spanish Succession, and Burges was presumably with him at the Siege of Barcelona. Six years later, he obtained a commission as Lieutenant-Colonel to Lord Tunbridge's Regiment of Dragoon which had been in Spain for three years. While there, he also served under General Stanhope and distinguished himself in a number of engagements. Stanhope became second Secretary of State in late 1714 and, soon afterward, offered Burges the Governorship of Massachusetts Bay. He was appointed in January 1715 and his commission approved the following month. However, although Burges had had a successful career in the army, extending over nearly a quarter of a century, this was not an altogether popular move. That same month, Countess Cowper wrote, “I told [Baron Bernsdorff, the King’s German minister] that my Lord had ordered me to speak to him to hinder Mr. Burges from going Governor to New England. He is the most immoral man in the World; was tried for the murders of two men, and was so common a swearer that the people, who are rigid Puritans, and left the Kingdom before the Civil Wars, to enjoy their own way of worship, would look at his being sent over as a judgment upon them.”

Chief amongst his opponents was Jeremiah Dummer, the agent for Massachusetts in London. He favoured the reappointment of Joseph Dudley as Governor. In correspondence dated 15th February 1715, Dummer wrote, “I am taking all the pains I can to prevent the new Governor’s voyage, and continue the old one in his post”, but the commission was finalized on 17th March. In a letter to Secretary Addington, in the April, he further complained, “I could by no means think [Capt. Burges] a suitable person to be the Governor of New England …I did …all I could in a proper way to prevent the sealing his com­mission. In which I was very much encouraged by some of the greatest men in the Government, though I was indeed upbraided by others as having too high an opinion of my own country, and was asked, whether I would have a man made on purpose to govern it.” Not unnaturally, Governor Burges held equal animosity towards Dummer. He dismissed him from office and made his staff afraid to be seen conversing with him. He also attempted to blacken Dummer’s name by spreading rumours that he would “go to him in disguise by night [and] receive[d] a great deal of money from him, and was an instrument of his rogueries”. The news of Burges' appointment reached Boston in the April and the Governor promised the Massachusetts Council he would leave London at the end of June and be with them before the end of September: “I will do all I can for your service; and when I have the honour to see you at Boston, I will give you all the assurances you yourselves can desire, that I have nothing so much at heart, as the good of the people, and the glory of God.” The voyage was put off until July, then August and then to some unspecified time after the Winter. The Governor’s deputy continued to run Massachusetts in his place as plans to sail for America were further postponed until May 1716. However, Burges never did cross the Atlantic. He resigned his American commission in the April, apparently because Dummer had managed to raise £1,000 to pay him off; and Dummer never did revealed the full extent of what he knew of Burges’ more shameful activities. For, despite feeling he had fought New England’s corner in London at some personal expense, yet been victimized by the colony’s agent, Burges was still confident enough to threaten to cut Dummer’s throat if he did not remain silent on the matter. Burges had already secured himself an alternative post as Lieutenant-Colonel of Dragoons in Ireland.

Three years later, in May 1719, Burges was appointed English ‘Resident’ in the Republic of Venice, a post similar to an ambassador, but with less prestige. This was the start of a period of decline for the Republic after the Turkish-Venetian War. Burges stayed there for two-and-a-half years before being recalled to England by Lard Carteret around September 1721. He was granted a pension of £300 a year the following July. Burges must have found the money useful during a quiet period where no record of his activities seems to have survived. However, five years later, in October 1727, he was again appointed English Resident in Venice, leaving England in the following March. Venetian life seems to have suited Burges, who, despite the more unpleasant aspects of his character, was a lover of the arts, especially the theatre. He is recorded as having played host to the composer, George Frederick Handel, when he was recruiting singers for the Royal Acadamy of Music in London, and the financier and economist, John Law, who won a considerable amount of money whilst gambling in Venice, a pastime which Burges, no doubt, also enjoyed. It was Burges who warned Law not to take up residence in Rome for fear that people would read this as confirmation of his support for the Jacobite ‘Old Pretender’ to the English Throne, who was also resident there. Burges also entertained many English gentlemen, such as Edward Walpole, passing through Venice on their Europe tours. In 1733, he wrote “Italy swamps of late with English gentlemen and ladies”; but it was not all parties. His service largely consisted of more mundane duties, such as negotiating the removal of duties on British fish imports. He served his country in Italy for eight more years, before his death in Venice on 14th November 1736.

Many thanks to the Colonial Society of Massachusetts for sending me a copy of Albert Matthews' paper on 'Elizeus Burges' from their Transactions (1913). This has formed the basis of much of the information given above.


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