Historical Notes: An unsolved crime three centuries old

"SIR EDMUND Berry Godfrey is dead and the papists have murdered him" was the cry in the mouth of every good Protestant Londoner in the winter of 1678.

Edmund Godfrey had been a melancholy 56-year-old bachelor magistrate who, superficially at least, had been a stout upholder of the law and had led an irreproachable private life. Illness had driven him from his youthful plan to be a lawyer and had directed him to a career as a businessman in Westminster. He was also prominent as a Justice of the Peace in London and after the Great Fire, a grateful Charles II had knighted him. It was this paragon of virtue amongst London magistrates who had left his home early on the morning of 12 October 1678 having recently become embroiled in that series of lies and exaggerations concocted by the notorious informer Titus Oates and his confederates and known to contemporaries as the Popish Plot.

He disappeared at some point before 3 o'clock that day, and was found dead five days later in a ditch with his own sword run through him and "strangulation" marks upon his neck. Although Londoners were inclined to believe that there was something in Oates' revelations of a plot to overthrow the Protestant nation through the assassination of King Charles II, it was Godfrey's death that finally seemed to confirm it; for here was actual evidence that the Roman Catholics were capable of the most monstrous of crimes.

Today, however, the death of Edmund Godfrey leaves historians with a mystery. If we concur with the philosopher David Hume that the Catholics had no reason to kill Godfrey at the height of an anti-Catholic agitation, and that it was too clumsy and absurd a crime to lay at the door of the Whig opposition, then we are left with a fascinating puzzle: who did kill the magistrate in 1678 and why?

Previous explorers of the strange death of Edmund Godfrey tended to concentrate upon a solution to the mystery by putting forward various candidates as perpetrators of this death. To contemporaries the affair was in fact relatively quickly settled, in that three innocent Catholics stood trial and were subsequently executed. Thereafter, those who wrote of the affair tended to come up with one of three solutions. Either Godfrey really had died at the hands of a group of rogue Catholics fearful of further plot revelations, or the Whigs and their associates, had murdered him in order to provide evidence that the plot really did exist. A third solution was that he killed himself and that his body was manipulated in such a way as to implicate the Catholics in murder.

In the 1980s, an era of conspiracy theories in both the historical and political world, there were those who argued, somewhat improbably, that the solution to the puzzle lay in a conspiracy. This, it was claimed, involved the Whigs, former political allies of Godfrey, the Earl of Pembroke and some other notorious characters of the day. In fact, none of these solutions seems very satisfactory and it is by merely concentrating upon contemporary evidence, however muddled and muddied, that often we can remove almost all of them.

Ultimately, the medieval philosopher William of Ockham's useful "razor" must come into play: "no more things should be presumed to exist than are absolutely necessary", the multiplicity of theories being a common flaw to the solutions of historical mysteries. Indeed, by using this and the contemporary evidence, we are given the simplest solution of all to the mystery.

With this in mind and in order to answer the question of how and why Godfrey died, the historian must in the end not begin with the death of the man, but ask questions about who he really was and where he came from. Only then can a solution be found to the strange death of Edmund Godfrey.

Alan Marshall is the author of `The Strange Death of Edmund Godfrey' (Sutton Publishing, pounds 25)

PROMOTED VIDEO
News
ebooksAn evocation of the conflict through the eyes of those who lived through it
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs People

HR Analyst - Banking - Bristol - £350-£400

£350 - £400 per day: Orgtel: HR Analyst - Banking - Bristol - £350 - £400 per ...

HR Manager - HR Generalist / Sole in HR

£30000 - £35000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: HR Manager - HR Generalis...

Business Analyst - Banking - London - £350-£400

£350 - £400 per day: Orgtel: Business Analyst - Banking - People Change - Lond...

HR Manager - Milton Keynes - £50,000 + package

£48000 - £50000 per annum + car allowance + benefits: Ashdown Group: HR Shared...

Day In a Page

Air strikes? Talk of God? Obama is following the jihadists’ script

Air strikes? Talk of God? Obama is following the jihadists’ script

The President came the nearest he has come yet to rivalling George W Bush’s gormless reaction to 9/11 , says Robert Fisk
Ebola outbreak: Billy Graham’s son declares righteous war on the virus

Billy Graham’s son declares righteous war on Ebola

A Christian charity’s efforts to save missionaries trapped in Africa by the crisis have been justifiably praised. But doubts remain about its evangelical motives
Jeremy Clarkson 'does not see a problem' with his racist language on Top Gear, says BBC

Not even Jeremy Clarkson is bigger than the BBC, says TV boss

Corporation’s head of television confirms ‘Top Gear’ host was warned about racist language
Nick Clegg the movie: Channel 4 to air Coalition drama showing Lib Dem leader's rise

Nick Clegg the movie

Channel 4 to air Coalition drama showing Lib Dem leader's rise
Philip Larkin: Misogynist, racist, miserable? Or caring, playful man who lived for others?

Philip Larkin: What will survive of him?

Larkin's reputation has taken a knocking. But a new book by James Booth argues that the poet was affectionate, witty, entertaining and kind, as hitherto unseen letters, sketches and 'selfies' reveal
Madame Tussauds has shown off its Beyoncé waxwork in Regent's Park - but why is the tourist attraction still pulling in the crowds?

Waxing lyrical

Madame Tussauds has shown off its Beyoncé waxwork in Regent's Park - but why is the tourist attraction still pulling in the crowds?
Texas forensic astronomer finally pinpoints the exact birth of impressionism

Revealed (to the minute)

The precise time when impressionism was born
From slow-roasted to sugar-cured: how to make the most of the British tomato season

Make the most of British tomatoes

The British crop is at its tastiest and most abundant. Sudi Pigott shares her favourite recipes
10 best men's skincare products

Face it: 10 best men's skincare products

Oscar Quine cleanses, tones and moisturises to find skin-savers blokes will be proud to display on the bathroom shelf
Malky Mackay allegations: Malky Mackay, Iain Moody and another grim day for English football

Mackay, Moody and another grim day for English football

The latest shocking claims do nothing to dispel the image that some in the game on these shores exist in a time warp, laments Sam Wallace
La Liga analysis: Will Barcelona's hopes go out of the window?

Will Barcelona's hopes go out of the window?

Pete Jenson starts his preview of the Spanish season, which begins on Saturday, by explaining how Fifa’s transfer ban will affect the Catalans
Middle East crisis: We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

Now Obama has seen the next US reporter to be threatened with beheading, will he blink, asks Robert Fisk
Neanderthals lived alongside humans for centuries, latest study shows

Final resting place of our Neanderthal neighbours revealed

Bones dated to 40,000 years ago show species may have died out in Belgium species co-existed
Scottish independence: The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

Scotland’s immigrants are as passionate about the future of their adopted nation as anyone else
Britain's ugliest buildings: Which monstrosities should be nominated for the Dead Prize?

Blight club: Britain's ugliest buildings

Following the architect Cameron Sinclair's introduction of the Dead Prize, an award for ugly buildings, John Rentoul reflects on some of the biggest blots on the UK landscape