Historical Notes: An unsolved crime three centuries old

Alan Marshall
Sunday 23 October 2011 05:36

"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)

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