Edmund Berry Godfrey
Sir Edmund Berry Godfrey (23 December 1621 – 12 October 1678) was an English magistrate whose mysterious death caused anti-Catholic uproar in England. Contemporary documents also spell the name Edmundbury Godfrey.
Edmund Berry Godfrey was born in Sellindge, Kent, between Hythe and Ashford, the eleventh son of eighteen children born to Thomas Godfrey (1586–1664), a member of an old Kentish family and his second wife Sarah née Isles. His father had been MP for New Romney in the Short Parliament and owned Hodiford Farm. He studied at Westminster School and at Christ Church, Oxford and after entering Gray's Inn became a prominent wood and coal merchant. He became justice of the peace for Westminster and received a knighthood in September 1666 for his services during the Great Plague of 1665 when he had stayed in his post regardless of the circumstances. In 1669 Godfrey was briefly imprisoned for a few days because he had the King's physician, Sir Alexander Fraizer, arrested for owing him money. Pepys Diary of 26 May 1669 mentions that he went on hunger strike, claiming that the Judges had found for him, but the King had overridden them. He was held at the Porter's Lodge of Whitehall Palace.
He was in business with his brother-in-law, James Harrison. Originally their premises was in Greene's Lane (beneath present-day Charing Cross Station) but moved in 1670 to Hartshorn Lane, having use of a wharf. This is now Northumberland Avenue. His grave in St Martin-in-the-Fields has since been concreted over. After his death his papers were retrieved from a trunk in a coffee house at Swan's Court, by Somerset House. He lived with a maid named Elzabeth Curtis and his secretary, Henry More and a housekeeper, who were questioned at his inquest. He was considered eccentric in choosing to socialise with members of the working class instead of persons of his own class. Recently correspondence has been retrieved from Ireland detailing his relations with a faith-healer Valentine Greatrakes - the "Irish stroker". Strictly Anglican in religion, Godfrey had a number of Catholic acquaintances, including Edward Colman, Catholic secretary of the Duke of York, the future James II.
In a letter to the Secretary of State, Sir Joseph Williamson, the Lieutenant of the Tower of London named Godfrey as a member of the so-called "Peyton Gang". Sir Robert Peyton was MP for Middlesex and a prominent member of the Green Ribbon Club. This had been founded by Anthony Ashley Cooper, 1st Earl of Shaftesbury after he had become aware of the Secret Treaty of Dover in which Charles II agreed to convert himself and England to Roman Catholicism in return for money paid by the French King Louis XIV. The Club, unable to confront the king directly, stirred up popular ill feeling against the Roman Catholic Church. Peyton hand-picked twelve men (including himself and Godfrey) who plotted to replace the King with a republic, nominally led by Richard Cromwell. The founding meeting of the Green Ribbon Club was in the Swan Tavern in King Street, Hammersmith. This was owned by Sir Edmund Godfrey, who left it in his will. It has been said that after Titus Oates had left his deposition with Godfrey that Godfrey warned one of the intended scapegoats, Edward Colman who was later hanged, drawn and quartered, and who was a personal friend.
In 1678 Godfrey became involved with the schemes of Titus Oates when Oates invented the Popish Plot and began an anti-Catholic campaign. Titus Oates and Israel Tonge appeared before Godfrey and asked him to take their oath that the papers they presented as evidence were based on truth. Godfrey demanded first to know the contents of the papers and when he had received a copy on 28 September, took their depositions. He might have warned Coleman of the content of the accusations.
When Oates's accusations became known, the public became concerned. Godfrey has been supposed to have been concerned that he might be one of the victims of the scare but made no extra security precautions. On 12 October 1678 he did not return home and was found dead in a ditch on Primrose Hill on 17 October. Godfrey was lying face down and had been impaled with his own sword.
Two committees unsuccessfully investigated the murder. They received conflicting statements about Godfrey's whereabouts before the murder. There was no evidence of struggle on the spot where the body had been found and Godfrey still had his money and rings. On the other hand, curious people had already trampled the ground when investigators arrived. The body was covered with bruises and a circular mark around Godfrey's neck revealed that he had been strangled and his neck broken. The sword wound had not bled, meaning that Godfrey was already dead when he was impaled, maybe for 4–5 days. Authorities announced a reward of £500 for information about the murderers.
Oates exploited the situation and encouraged the public perception that the murder was the work of Catholic plotters. There was a commemorative dagger and medal, sermons and pamphlets.
Later "Captain" William Bedloe, who claimed to be a "reformed" Catholic plotter, claimed that he had been taken to Somerset House on the night of 14 October to see the body of Godfrey (although on the previous day he had claimed just the opposite). He said he had seen two men, including Samuel Atkins, secretary to Samuel Pepys. Atkins was arrested but was able to prove that he had been on a yacht at Greenwich at that time. Bedloe claimed that Catholic plotters had killed Godfrey in order to steal his papers about the depositions (note that the witnesses whose words had been recorded were still alive). He changed his story several times afterwards but the House of Lords retained him as a witness.
On 21 December, Miles Prance, Catholic servant-in-ordinary to England's Catholic Queen consort, Catherine of Braganza, was arrested and taken to Newgate prison. His lodger (who was in debt to Prance), John Wren, testified that he had been away for the four nights before Godfrey's body was discovered. Bedloe claimed to recognize him.
On 23 – 24 December, Prance announced that he had had a part in the murder but that the main instigators were some Catholic priests. Three of the priests would have witnessed the murder in the courtyard of Somerset House where Godfrey had been lured. Godfrey would have been strangled and body taken to Hampstead. Prance named three men, Robert Green, Henry Berry and Lawrence Hill, who were arrested.
Prance later recanted his confession before the king and the council and was thrown back to prison: he was threatened with torture, and nearly froze to death. As a result he recanted his recantation and recanted two more times, ending up verifying his original story. At the trial he was a highly credible witness, although Hill's wife rightly prophesied "we shall see him recant after, when it is too late". The three men were sentenced to death 5 February 1679 and hanged at Primrose Hill. For a time this was known as "Greenberry Hill", because of the hangings of Green, Berry and Hill.
Prance's story was later discredited and he pleaded guilty to perjury. Because the three men were executed on false evidence, and historians accept their complete innocence, the murder remains officially unsolved.
There have been many theories of what really happened to Godfrey and who killed him. He might have been murdered either by Catholics, who could have been afraid that he knew some of their real secrets; supporters of Oates because of his contacts to Catholics or because he knew Oates was lying; or just by random hooligans. Some claim suicide, either because Godfrey was in a quandary between Catholics and Anglicans and, due to his contacts to Coleman, possibly under suspicion or just because of his melancholy nature. L'Estrange (1687) claimed that Godfrey had impaled himself and that there was considerable bleeding and that he had walked to the site himself. This implies some fortitude in that Godfey was wounded twice - the first having lodged on a rib and then been extracted. L'Estrange questions whether his neck was in fact broken. John Dickson Carr wrote that suicide by hanging was impossible as the marks on his neck showed that he had had his neck broken with his cravat, which was too short to effect a breakage by "drop". An investigation by pathologist Keith Simpson in the 1960s concluded that had the body been in suspension, the marks would have been higher up. The circumstances of his death were established and documented by two doctors, Zachariah Skillard and Cambridge for an inquest held at the White House tavern in Primrose Hill. It has also been surmised that the Whig leaders were responsible for killing Godfrey, partly because they understood how much he knew of the falsehood of the plot, and partly because his death could so easily and so usefully be blamed on the Catholics. J.P. Kenyon argues that neither Catholics nor Whigs had a sufficient motive. The Catholics were almost certain to be blamed for the murder, with calamitous consequences; while neither Shaftesbury nor his colleagues, whatever their faults, were capable of murdering an innocent man whom many of them knew and liked on the mere speculation that it would bring them some benefit. He discounts Oates' involvement on the ground that he was a physical coward; Bedloe's conduct suggests that he had heard something about the murder from his underworld connections but was not directly involved.
John Dickson Carr, in his book The Murder of Sir Edmund Godfrey (1936), analyzed all the above mentioned theories and exposes their weak points and contradictions. Then he scrutinizes the evidence, and concludes that Godfrey was murdered by Philip Herbert, 7th Earl of Pembroke who took his revenge for having been prosecuted for murder some time earlier by Godfrey. The earl had been found guilty but had escaped execution by means of a pardon from the House of Lords. This same theory was expounded by English historian Hugh Ross Williamson, in his Historical Whodunits (1955).The introduction to the 1999 film Magnolia contains a sequence based on the death of Godfrey.
Stephen Knight's book The Killing of Justice Godfrey, published 1984, also suggests Pembroke as the assassin upon the orders of the "Peyton Gang". J.P. Kenyon, while conceding that the Pembroke theory has some attractions, concludes that the mystery is now beyond solution.
Dr. Alan Marshall, in his more recent book "The Strange Death of Edmund Godfrey" is sceptical that a definite conclusion can be reached, but suggests that the most likely explanation of Godfrey's death was suicide by self-strangulation.
Godfrey was played by the actor David Bradley in the TV mini-series "Charles II;The Power and the Passion".
- Andrew Lang - The Mystery of Sir Edmund Berry Godfrey
- Encyclopædia Britannica 1911 about Godfrey
- Britannica Concise
- National Portrait Gallery
- Diary of Samuel Pepys, Wednesday 26 May 1669.
- The Killing of Justice Godfrey by Stephen Knight
- Kenyon J.P. The Popish Plot William Heinemann 1972
- The Popish Plot, above