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)

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
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

Recruitment Genius: Office Manager

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: Have you been doing a brilliant job in an admi...

Surrey County Council: Senior Project Officer (Fixed Term to Feb 2019)

£26,498 - £31,556: Surrey County Council: We are looking for an outgoing, conf...

Recruitment Genius: Interim Head of HR

£50000 - £60000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Are you an innovative, senior H...

Recruitment Genius: Human Resources and Payroll Administrator

£20000 - £22000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Our client, a very well respect...

Day In a Page

The Last Word: For the good of the game: why on earth don’t we leave Fifa?

Michael Calvin's Last Word

For the good of the game: why on earth don’t we leave Fifa?
HIV pill: Scientists hail discovery of 'game-changer' that cuts the risk of infection among gay men by 86%

Scientists hail daily pill that protects against HIV infection

Breakthrough in battle against global scourge – but will the NHS pay for it?
How we must adjust our lifestyles to nature: Welcome to the 'Anthropocene', the human epoch

Time to play God

Welcome to the 'Anthropocene', the human epoch where we may need to redefine nature itself
MacGyver returns, but with a difference: Handyman hero of classic 1980s TV series to be recast as a woman

MacGyver returns, but with a difference

Handyman hero of classic 1980s TV series to be recast as a woman
Tunnel renaissance: Why cities are hiding roads down in the ground

Tunnel renaissance

Why cities are hiding roads underground
'Backstreet Boys - Show 'Em What You're Made Of': An affectionate look at five middle-aged men

Boys to men

The Backstreet Boys might be middle-aged, married and have dodgy knees, but a heartfelt documentary reveals they’re not going gently into pop’s good night
Crufts 2015: Should foreign dogs be allowed to compete?

Crufts 2015

Should foreign dogs be allowed to compete?
10 best projectors

How to make your home cinema more cinematic: 10 best projectors

Want to recreate the big-screen experience in your sitting room? IndyBest sizes up gadgets to form your film-watching
Manchester City 1 Barcelona 2 player ratings: Luis Suarez? Lionel Messi? Joe Hart? Who was the star man?

Manchester City vs Barcelona player ratings

Luis Suarez? Lionel Messi? Joe Hart? Who was the star man at the Etihad?
Arsenal vs Monaco: Monaco - the making of Gunners' manager Arsene Wenger

Monaco: the making of Wenger

Jack Pitt-Brooke speaks to former players and learns the Frenchman’s man-management has always been one of his best skills
Cricket World Cup 2015: Chris Gayle - the West Indies' enigma lives up to his reputation

Chris Gayle: The West Indies' enigma

Some said the game's eternal rebel was washed up. As ever, he proved he writes the scripts by producing a blistering World Cup innings
In Ukraine a dark world of hybrid warfare and murky loyalties prevails

In Ukraine a dark world of hybrid warfare

This war in the shadows has been going on since the fall of Mr Yanukovych
'Birdman' and 'Bullets Over Broadway': Homage or plagiarism?

Homage or plagiarism?

'Birdman' shares much DNA with Woody Allen's 'Bullets Over Broadway'
Broadchurch ends as damp squib not even David Tennant can revive

A damp squib not even David Tennant can revive

Broadchurch, Series 2 finale, review
A Koi carp breeding pond, wall-mounted iPads and a bathroom with a 'wellness' shower: inside the mansion of Germany's 'Bishop of Bling'

Inside the mansion of Germany's 'Bishop of Bling'

A Koi carp breeding pond, wall-mounted iPads and a bathroom with a 'wellness' shower