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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.

Early life

Edmund Berry Godfrey was born in Sellindge,[1] 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. Samuel 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.[2] 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 Elizabeth 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.

Peyton Gang

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".[3] 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.


A print depicting the murder of Godfrey

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.[4]:70

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.[4]:88

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. The authorities announced a reward of £500 for information about the murderers.

Godfrey coat of arms

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. Perhaps in response to prompting he named John Belasyse, 1st Baron Belasyse, as the mastermind behind the murder. The King, who was increasingly sceptical about the reality of the Plot, burst out laughing at the notion, pointing out that Belasyse was so afflicted with gout that he could hardly stand up.[4]:304

Miles Prance

Contemporary newspaper with the headline "Sir Edmund Berry Godfrey's Murder Made Visible".

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. Both statements are now thought to be lies, but this did not help Prance.[4]:150

On 23 – 24 December, Prance announced that he had had a part in the murder but that the main instigators were three Catholic priests: Thomas Godden, head of the secular English clergy, and two Irish priests, Kelly and Fitzgerald. These priests witnessed the murder in the courtyard of Somerset House where Godfrey had been lured. Godfrey had been strangled and his body taken to Hampstead. Prance named as the actual killers three working men, Robert Green, Henry Berry and Lawrence Hill, who were arrested. Godden fled the country, while the two Irish priests simply vanished from sight. As with most solutions to the murder, the main weakness was the absence of a plausible motive. Prance could only say, vaguely, that Godfrey had been harassing the priests in some way, which seems unlikely as he was noted for tolerance in religious matters.[4]:304

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.[4]:153 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".[4]:166 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. "To the minds of Kennet, Oldmixon, and Christie the Catholics were responsible. North declared that he was murdered by the patrons of Oates, to give currency to the belief in the Plot. Sir James Fitzjames Stephen hazards that Oates himself was the murderer, and is supported by Mr. Traill and Mr. Lee. L'Estrange was positive that he committed suicide. Lingard and Sir George Sitwell have given the same verdict. Ralph, Hallam, Macaulay, Ranke, and Klopp pronounce the problem unsolved. Hume has pronounced it insoluble."[5]

Mystery writer 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 (appendix in John Dickson Carr's Death of Edmund Godfrey) 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. Historian 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 likely to murder an innocent man of their own social class 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.[4]:306

Modern analysis

American mystery writer John Dickson Carr analyzed all of these theories in The Murder of Sir Edmund Godfrey (1936), exposing their weak points and contradictions. He concluded that Philip Herbert, 7th Earl of Pembroke had taken revenge on Godfrey, who had prosecuted him that April for the murder of Nathaniel Cony. Herbert was convicted of manslaughter and exercised his privilege of peerage to escape punishment, leaving him without the use of that Get Out of Jail Free card which he sorely needed after nearly killing a peer in a dispute shortly after his conviction.

British popular historian Hugh Ross Williamson reached the same conclusion in Historical Whodunits (1955). American professional historian J. P. Kenyon concurred (1974), but allowed that the matter could not now be settled with certainty.[4]:89 The author Stephen Knight suggested in The Killing of Justice Godfrey (1984) that Herbert murdered Godfrey on the orders of the "Peyton Gang".

Popular culture

Godfrey was played by the actor David Bradley in the TV mini-series Charles II: The Power and the Passion.

The murder of Godfrey is featured as an opening narration in the Paul Thomas Anderson film Magnolia.[6]

British author Mark Francis has published a series of novels concerning fictional accounts of Godfrey's earlier life. The first four books are entitled Edmund Godfrey & The Fanatiques' Creed, The Terror of Terrors, The Monkey Duchess and The Devil's Trumpet.[7]

External links


  1. ^
  2. ^ Wikisource-logo.svg Diary of Samuel Pepys, Wednesday 26 May 1669.
  3. ^ The Killing of Justice Godfrey by Stephen Knight
  4. ^ a b c d e f g h i Kenyon, J.P. (2000). The Popish Plot. Phoenix Press reissue. 
  5. ^ Pollock, John (1903). The Popish Plot: A Study in the History of the Reign of Charles II. London: Duckworth and Co. p. 83. 
  6. ^ ""Magnolia", shooting draft, by Paul Thomas Anderson". The Daily Script. Retrieved 1 January 2015. 
  7. ^ "Isle of Wight author writes about the mean streets of the 1600s". On the Wight, 18 September 2015 By Sally Perry

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Chart showing the number of references in each month of the diary’s entries.