Friday, 30 November 2012

The Revolutionary Rising of the Illegitimate Invader

           In the struggle for the succession of the English throne in the late seventeenth century, there is one incident that deserves especial mention – the Monmouth Rebellion. 

James Scott, Duke of Monmouth

King Charles II was married to Catherine of Braganza, a Portuguese Catholic Princess, who had miscarried three times and was unable to bear children. But the licentious Charles had numerous affairs and had illegitimate children by his many mistresses. When Charles died, in 1685, the crown passed to his younger brother James, Duke of York, who became King James II. Many Protestants opposed this, as James was a Catholic, and one of Charles’s illegitimate sons, James Scott, Duke of Monmouth, felt that he was the rightful heir to his father’s crown. So, on the morning of June 11th 1685 (old style, more of this another day) the frigate Helderenbergh and two smaller vessels appeared off the shore of Lyme Regis, Monmouth and eighty-two armed supporters came ashore, and Monmouth read a declaration in the market square. 

Lyme Regis

Bishop Burnet’s History of his Own Times (1724) describes it thus: 
The Duke of Monmouth's Manifesto was long, and ill penned: full of much black and dull malice. It was plainly Ferguson’s style, which was both tedious and fulsome. It charged the King with the burning of London, the Popish Plot, Godfrey’s murder, and the Earl of Essex's death: And to crown all, it was pretended, that the late King was poisoned by his orders.” [Robert Ferguson was a Scottish pamphleteer, known as ‘The Plotter’]. 
But Monmouth was astonishingly popular in the West Country. Men flocked from the surrounding countryside and rallied under his blue standard, and arms and provisions were unloaded from the three ships, including swords, muskets, armour, gunpowder and four pieces of light artillery. 

King James II

News of the invasion reached the King in London at four o’clock on the morning of June 13th, and when Monmouth’s Declaration reached the King two days later, he ordered it to be publicly burnt by the common hangman. Militia were despatched to intercept Monmouth’s forces, although none at the time knew where he intended to lead them, (there were rumours he was heading north, some said to Scotland, others said to Lancashire). On June 14th a body of about five hundred men marched towards Bridport, where they met a county militia composed mostly of farm-workers led by country squires and barristers. 

Lord Grey

When action was joined, Lord Grey panicked and rode his cavalry back to Lyme, whilst Nathaniel Wade rallied the foot soldiers and withdrew in good order. The next day, Monmouth led his army of about 2,000 infantry and 300 cavalry towards Axminster, where the Duke of Albemarle, alarmed by musketeers lining the laneside hedges and the field artillery pieces, and fearing that his Devonshire militia would desert in favour of Monmouth’s popular local appeal, ordered a retreat. Monmouth did not pursue them – if he had, he may have taken Exeter without the need for arms, but he preferred instead to train his new, raw recruits, consolidate his slight gain, and await support from Cheshire. He turned toward Taunton, where he was met with joy and affection. 

The Popular Appeal of Monmouth

Windows were decked with flowers, men wore green boughs in their hats as emblems of support and a train of young girls welcomed him. Agricultural labourers, shopkeepers, dissenting clergymen and apprentices flocked to Monmouth’s cause but no members of Parliament, peers, knights or baronets were to be seen, so Ferguson, his ‘evil angel’, pointed out that either he was the King or his uncle was King. If Monmouth declared himself, the rebellion would be a fight between two rival princes and the nobles would align themselves to either side accordingly. 

And so, on June 20th 1685, at Taunton, he was crowned King – and to avoid the confusion of having two rival Kings both called James, he was designated King Monmouth, although the other side called him ‘Gaffer Scott with his vagabonds’. On the following day, the new King and his army marched to Bridgwater, where he was again proclaimed King. His army was now swelled to about six thousand and would have been double that if they had sufficient arms; as it was, many men had fashioned their own weapons from scythe blades attached to poles. 

Scythes on poles

All the while, the government forces were assembling. Albemarle still commanded the Dorsetshire militia to the northwest, whilst in the east the trainbands of Wiltshire assembled. Henry Somerset, Duke of Somerset, was in arms to the southeast, a noble man of the old sort, an old style cavalier who every day provided nine tables of food for his two hundred tenants, whose kitchen, cellar, stables and kennels were famous throughout the realm, who was generous, affable and well loved by his family and neighbours, and commanded a troop of cavalry of his own. In Oxford, undergraduates removed their gowns and queued to sign to the government cause. In Lyme Regis, the Royal Navy captured Monmouth’s ships, making escape impossible. Across the south, men took up pikes and muskets and swords, and gathered around the surrounded insurrection in Somerset. Monmouth wandered, seemingly interested only in gathering men from the local market towns, in Glastonbury, Street, Frome, Wells and Shepton Mallet. 

Map of Monmouth's movements (Sedgemoor marked in red)

He wasn’t helped by the typical English summer weather – torrential rain fell for days and turned the tracks into quagmires. His heart failed him and he seriously considered slipping quietly away to the continent, to the consternation of his advisors, who begged him to stay. Lord Grey, in particular, was vociferous in his demands and exhortations, but then again Grey was conspicuously brave whenever pistols weren’t being fired or swords weren’t being clashed in his immediate vicinity. 

A slight skirmish with a scouting party convinced Monmouth of the need to return to Bridgwater where, he heard, more armed men awaited him. He went via Wells, where his men tore lead from the cathedral roof, with which to make musket balls, and to their shame defaced the ornaments of the great building. They arrived back in Bridgwater on July 2nd, to much less acclaim than their previous visit, just ten days before. 


Three days later, the King’s forces came into view, advancing from the east, two and a half thousand regular men and five hundred Wiltshire militiamen, they pitched their tents on the vast peat plain of Sedgemoor. 

Tomorrow - Sedgemoor ...

Thursday, 29 November 2012

The Improbable Identity Of the Perjuring Prance

                 Miles Prance was a Catholic goldsmith and maker of religious emblems to Catherine of Braganza, Queen consort of King Charles II. The self-styled ‘Captain’ William Bedloe, an adventurer who placed himself at the heart of Titus Oates’s Popish Plot, spotted Prance either in a corridor or in an eating-house and identified him as one of the men present when he had, he claimed, seen the body of Sir Edmund Berry Godfrey in a darkened room at Somerset House. Prance was arrested and left in a freezing cell, laden with chains, at Newgate gaol and was coerced into confessing that he had been involved in Godfrey’s murder. 

The Rack

He recanted his confession and was returned to Newgate, where he was certainly tortured and was probably threatened with the rack, which had been illegal in England for over fifty years, and made another confession, which substantiated the story, in parts, given by Bedloe. 

Prance - A Narrative of the Murther of Sir Godfrey

On the evidence given by Bedloe and Prance three men, Green, Berry and Hill, were found guilty and hanged for the murder of Godfrey, which added credence to Oates’s allegations that the English Catholics, and in particular the Jesuits, were planning to assassinate the King and aid an invasion from the continent, overthrowing the government and re-establishing a Catholic monarchy, possibly with James, Duke of York and the King’s Catholic brother, as its figurehead. Oates’s claims had been threatening to falter and the Godfrey case regenerated interest and provided credibility for them, adding impetus and creating an anti-Catholic paranoia in England. 

Miles Prance - A True Narrative - 1679

Prance’s version of events A True Narrative and Discovery appeared in 1679, and reveals glaring discrepancies betwen his and Bedloe’s account, whilst also containing numerous examples of crimes, plots and indiscretions committed by English Catholics and Jesuit priests. Nevertheless, Prance was retained, provided further evidence in trials initiated by Oates, and received ‘special’ payments by the secret service. Prance also proved that Sir Roger L’Estrange, Oates’s most vociferous and dangerous critic, was secretly a Catholic, thereby removing the plot’s most formidable opponent. 

The Answer of Miles Prance - 1684

Several years after the plot had been proven to be the invention of Oates, charges of perjury were brought against Prance and in 1686, he was found guilty and sentenced to a fine of £100, to be thrice pilloried and whipped through the streets from Newgate to Tyburn, although this last part was remitted at the intervention of the King. This is odd, as the remaining sentence was remarkably light and it is likely that a deal had been struck beforehand. Prance admitted his perjury, claiming that he had been forced into it through ‘fear and cowardice’.

Miles Prance

And then the story gets really weird. In 1689, following the Glorious Revolution, Miles Prance attempted to escape from England by boarding a hoy Asia, bound from Gravesend to Dunkirk. This, in itself, was not unusual, as many Catholics followed the deposed King James into continental exile. Prance was aboard one of the last boats rowing passengers out to the Asia when the officers of the harbour seized the boat and arrested those already aboard the ship. What is unusual is Prance’s travelling partner - Father John Warner, the late provincial of the Jesuits in England, former rector of St Orme’s and once confessor to King James II, making him the most important Jesuit in England. 

Why was he, of all people, travelling with Prance? He obviously knew him, and knew what he had done. He knew that his perjury had sentenced two innocent Catholics to death. He knew that his True Narrative and Discovery had exposed numerous other Jesuits to immense danger. He presumably appreciated that Prance might reveal his identity at any time, when detection would lead to imprisonment and maybe even death. 

And why was Prance fleeing England? It is true that his confession that his accusations against the Catholics were false would not endear him to the new administration, but he had only to claim that they had been extorted under duress and retract them, to then live in relative safety. Why on earth was he going to France, where there were Catholics enough to resent his former lies? And why was he, of all people, travelling with Father Warner? 

A Remonstrance of Piety - 1683

There can only be one logical explanation. Miles Prance had been a Jesuit double agent all along. This explains the lenient, almost trifling, sentence for his perjury. The King and Father Warner knew his true identity. Warner and Prance escaped from captivity and separated. Warner took a ship from Maidstone using a false passport, and made it to France. Prance was retaken and the Mayor of Gravesend sent him to the House of Lords for questioning, but no proceedings were taken against him and it seems likely that he eventually lived out the rest of his days abroad, most probably in France.

Wednesday, 28 November 2012

The Condign Comeuppance of the Punished Perjurer

                 There was a change in public perception, as the Whigs were thought to be manoeuvring for political position rather than for the general good, intolerant and antagonistic, whereas Charles II began to be seen as steady, restrained and open to compromise, and sympathy shifted in his favour. Lord Chief Justice Scroggs sensed the change of mood and moved his position accordingly, and began to acquit persons accused by Oates. 

Titus Oates

The most prominent was Sir George Wakeman, the Queen’s physician, was had, apparently, been paid £15,000 by the Jesuits to poison the King. Oates swore that he had not seen Wakeman before and then gave evidence that he had seen him twice before, which when pointed out, Oates said that he was ill and asked to be excused, which Justice Scroggins refused. Bedloe accused Scroggins of not summing up correctly and Scroggins, in effect, told him to shut up. The jury asked if they could bring a verdict of guilty of misprision of treason, were told that they couldn’t, so instead returned a not guilty verdict. 

The Tryal of G Wakeman

So Oates, Bedloe and the other regular witnesses were not believed in this case, marking the beginning of their downturn. The following day, the Portuguese ambassador called in person on Scroggins, to thank him on behalf of the Queen. Wakeman went to the continent until things cooled down. Scroggins was suspected of being bribed, there was talk of a barrel of gold being delivered to his house, and Parliament, prompted with stories of drunkenness and bad language supplied by Oates and Bedloe, looked into charges of bias in his cases, called for his removal from the bench, and achieved this aim in April 1681. 

Titus Oates - An Exact Discovery - 1679

Titus Oates brought charges against Adam Elliott that were disproved, with Oates being fined £20 in a retaliatory case brought by Elliott. Oates had claimed that Elliott, a parson, had been captured at Barbary, converted to Islam, murdered his master and escaped, a story which fell apart when this ‘master’ turned up in the retinue of the ambassador of Morocco, very much alive and well in London, (he also asserted his right to owning Elliott, and demanded that his slave return to Morocco with him). In April 1681, Oates’s allowance was reduced to £2 per week, and removed all together in August of the same year, when he was also banned from court. 

Titus Oates, the Pope and the Devil

In May 1684, Oates was arrested at the Amsterdam coffee-house on charges of using defamatory language about the Duke of York and brought before the infamous Judge Jeffreys who, after a brief trial, found him guilty and fined him £100,000. Unable to pay this vast sum, Oates was loaded with heavy chains and cast into the King’s Bench prison. His situation worsened in February 1685, when Charles II died (after a deathbed conversion to Catholicism) and his brother became King James II. The new King had two charges of perjury brought against Oates and he was tried again on the new charges. Jeffreys presided again and told the jury, even before they retired, that Oates “… has deserved much more punishment than the laws of this land can inflict.”   

Titus Oates in the Pillory

Found guilty of the misdemeanours (perjury was not a felony, so did not carry the death penalty), he was fined a further 2,000 marks, stripped of his clerical garb, was sentenced to parade all the courts of Westminster wearing a paper above his head declaring his crimes and then made to stand in the pillories at Westminster-Gate and at Royal Exchange for an hour each on two days with the same paper above him, and to be whipped by the public hangman from Aldgate to Newgate on one day and from Newgate to Tyburn two days later. He would be close confined for life and also, for the rest of his life, on five days per year, he was to stand for two hours in the pillories around London. 

Oates in the Pillory and Oates flogged

The whippings were a particularly savage punishment – Jack Ketch, the hangman, tied Oates to the back of a horse-drawn wagon, and with a whip made with six lashes, he flogged Oates as he passed through the streets. After a day in Newgate prison, an insensible Oates was dragged out and tied to a tumbrel, and Ketch recommenced the flogging. It is estimated that Oates suffered over three thousand lashes and that his back was entirely stripped of skin – it was probably hoped that this would kill him (naval floggings of one hundred lashes often killed a man), but he lay in gaol for ten weeks as his back healed. Then he was loaded with chains and thrown into a cell, until the days came round when he was taken out and pilloried (prisoners often died in the pillory when unsympathetic crowds pelted them with stones). 

Titus Oates in the Pillory

Another version says that Oates was treated well in prison, received numerous gifts from Protestant well-wishers and even had an illegitimate son by a bed-maker in the King’s Bench prison. He was released in 1688, when William and Mary were invited to take the crown in the Glorious Revolution after James II was deposed, (William, Prince of Orange, was James’s nephew and son-in-law, Mary was James’s eldest surviving daughter by his first wife, Anne Hyde), but as the House of Lords debated the legality of his sentence, Oates sent a petition for a bill to reverse his sentence to the House of Commons. Such was the position between the two Houses that whatever the one decided, the other would decide the opposite; one wag suggested that as Oates had been flogged from Newgate to Tyburn, the sentence should be reversed and he should be flogged from Tyburn to Newgate. The Lords sentenced him back to prison for breach of privilege but the prorogation of Parliament in August 1688 freed him again, and the Commons managed to get him a pension of five pounds a week. 

Titus Oates and the Popish Plot - 1816

So Oates married a Muggletonian widow, Mrs Margaret Wells of Bread Street, who had nothing much in the way looks but did have £2,000, causing much ribald conversation in the London coffee-houses. He pressed the King for an increase and was granted £500 to clear his debts with £300 per year for life, and with some small economical respite, he rejoined the Baptists as a minister. That didn’t last long, as they objected to his bad language and his insistence on wearing clerical garb, and after a case of assault and an attempt to defraud a widower, he was expelled from the sect as ‘a disorderly person and a hypocrite.’ 

Titus Oates

He died in 1705, and he has been described as ‘the bloodiest villain since the world began,’ which is some going, considering the competition. Roger North, the lawyer and biographer wrote, 
In a word, he was a most consummate cheat, blasphemer, vicious, perjured, impudent, and saucy, foul-mouth'd wretch, and, were it not for the Truth of History and the great Emotions in the Public he was the cause of, not fit to be remembered.” 
He was directly responsible for the deaths of thirty-five people by judicial murder, and indirectly responsible for the deaths and misery of many thousands of innocent people through his lies and fabrications.

And what of the other players ...

Tuesday, 27 November 2012

The Dreadful Distress of the Persecuted Papists

         The panic that followed the murder of Sir Edmund Berry Godfrey spread throughout London at an alarming rate. A rumour spread that a second Gunpowder Plot was underway, with both Houses of Parliament about to be blown up. The Duke of Monmouth lent soldiers to guard the cellars beneath both Houses, which were examined by Sir Jonas Moore and Sir Christopher Wren, sentinels patrolled the cellars during both day and night and adjoining houses and vaults were cleared. 

Parliament Cellars

The new prison at Clerkenwell was burned down, and the priests inside burned with it. Sir Ossory claimed to have found one hundred thousand incendiary bombs and hand grenades hidden in Somerset House. From Flanders came the rumour that if English Catholics were destroyed, the burghers of Bruges had a similar fate planned for English Protestants in their town. There were Spaniards in Wales, Frenchmen in Scotland and Ireland, there was a joint fleet in the Channel, waiting to invade, Tynemouth Castle had been blown up with gunpowder, at night armed bands of militia men were seen exercising – all rumours, all believed, deliberated over, attention given to, decisions made about. 

Execution of Jesuits

Of the thirty or so thousand Catholics in London, those that weren’t imprisoned fled elsewhere, many to the continent. Catholic businessmen were made bankrupt, Catholic workmen were driven from their livelihoods and into penury. Catholic houses across the country were repeatedly searched and ransacked; Catholic relics, books and vestments were publicly burned. Catholics were arrested, harassed and persecuted. Priests were hunted down and hid in priest-holes, chimneys and hollow walls as their pursuers tore houses down around them in their fervour to discover them. In the northern counties, things were especially harsh with the notoriously grim dungeons of York Castle (in an age of particularly grim dungeons) filled to capacity. 

Titus Oates before the Privy Council

Titus Oates was feted as the saviour of the nation and took to wearing episcopal garb, with a silk gown and cassock, a great hat with satin band and rose, and a long scarf. Now with a troop of soldiers under his orders, he set about arresting the suspected plotters he had named, including the so-called ‘Five Popish Lords’. Oates claimed that the Pope had commissioned these five Catholic nobles – Lord Arundel of Wardour was to become Lord Chancellor, Lord Powis would be Treasurer, Lord Belasis to be General of the Forces, Lord Petre to be Lieutenant General and Lord Stafford to be Paymaster General. On October 25th 1678, the five were arrested, sent to the Tower and impeached for treason. Their trials were delayed over a period of seven years, for a variety of legal and parliamentary reasons. 

Titus Oates

Emboldened by success Oates, with support from Bedloe, went so far to accuse the Queen of plotting, with help from her doctor, Sir George Wakeman, to poison the King. This was a step too far for Charles II, who refused “…to see an innocent woman abused,” and he ordered Oates arrested, his papers seized and his servants dismissed. The Queen was visibly apolitical and it seems that the reason for an attack on her was to force a Royal divorce, with Charles then remarrying a Protestant and, it was hoped, producing a Protestant heir (Catherine was unable to bear children, which resulted in James, Charles’s Catholic brother, being Heir Presumptive.) 

Catherine of Braganza

With the threat of a constitutional crisis looming, Parliament intervened, ordered Oates’s release and moves began, led mainly by Anthony Ashley Cooper, Earl of Shaftesbury, to introduce an Exclusion Act through Parliament, which would prevent James, Duke of York, from succeeding to the throne after the death of his brother, Charles II, (in the end, the Bill failed to be passed by the Lords). In addition, Test Acts were passed, requiring Members of Parliament to make a declaration against transubstantiation, invocation of the saints and the sacrament of the Mass, thereby effectively excluding Catholics from both Houses. The King attempted to oppose many of the measures by dissolving Parliament on a number of occasions, but the problem refused to go away and there were even fears of a second civil war. 


On November 21st 1678, the Catholic William Stayley, a goldsmith’s son from Covent Garden, was tried for treason, on the grounds that he had been overheard in a tavern to call the King a rogue and a heretic, and said he would kill him with his own hand. He was found guilty and hanged at Tyburn on November 26th, but when his body was buried, three days later, over 300 Catholics attended, and masses were said. This infuriated Judge Scroggins, who ordered that the body be disinterred, cut into quarters and displayed on the city gates, and the head set to rot on a pike on London Bridge. Other Catholics were tried and executed for treason, on the verbal testimony of Oates and Bedloe. 

The Popish Damnable Plot

On November 30th 1680, the first of the Five Popish Lords, Lord Viscount Stafford, came to trial. It was Stafford’s sixty-ninth birthday, and over the next seven days sixty-one witnesses gave evidence on the charges that Stafford had offered £500 for the murder of the King. Stafford produced witnesses of his own who contradicted their statements, so further prosecution witnesses were produced to bolster the reputation of the original witnesses. When summing up, Stafford feebly rambled and hesitated, boring the court with minor points of procedure and legal argument, and did his case no good at all. 


On December 6th, thirty-three peers found for him but fifty-five peers found him guilty of High Treason and although attempts were made to obtain a pardon on December 29th 1680, Stafford, bowed with age and infirmity, went to the block at the Tower. The only concession made was that he would beheaded only and be spared the drawing and quartering that were the proscribed penalty for High Treason. He made a long speech declaring his innocence and vindicating his religion, which fell on deaf ears, and in front of a large, hostile crowd, the sentence was carried out.

But changes were coming ...

Monday, 26 November 2012

The Trumped-Up Trial of the Popish Patsies

           The trial of Robert Green, Henry Berry and Laurence Hill at the bar of the Court of the King’s Bench for the wilful murder of Sir Edmund Berry Godfrey began on February 10th 1679. It was not a trial in the sense that we understand that word today. The presiding judge, Lord Chief Justice Sir William Scroggs, is remembered now for his partiality, brutality and fierce animosity toward Roman Catholics. In his History of the Criminal Law, Sir James Stephen writes that neither judges nor counsel at this time had 
“ … any conception of the true nature of judicial evidence.” 
Hearsay was freely admitted, as was uncorroborated testimony. Such cross-examination that took place was usually carried out by the judge himself; the accused were denied counsel and although they were allowed to call witnesses, the law did not permit them to be sworn. Neither were they presented with the evidence that would be used against them until it was presented in court, so that they entered the courtroom entirely unprepared. A trained barrister would have struggled to make a suitable defence; Green could neither read nor write, Berry and Hill were ordinary labourers, so all three were immediately at a great disadvantage. Added to this, the court was crowded with a hostile public audience. 

Broadsheet - The Murder of Sir Godfrey

Titus Oates was the first witness, who told how he had sworn depositions before Godfrey and how the magistrate had told him in conversation that “… he went in fear of his life by the Popish party,” a story corroborated by Mr Robinson, friend and former schoolfellow of Sir Edmund. Miles Prance was called next and repeated the story given in his confession. Next up was ‘Captain’ Bedloe, who re-presented his story about seeing Godfrey’s body in Somerset House, in the presence of other men, which amounted to little more than hearsay. 

The Murder of Sir Godfrey

The prisoners did not address the court directly, but called witnesses in their defence. Mrs Broadstreet, Hill’s landlady, testified that he was always at home by eight o’clock in the evening and could not have gone out without her knowledge, and a body could not have been kept in the small room without her knowing about it. Miss Tilden also spoke for Hill, backing up the evidence given by the landlady. Judge Scroggs elicited that both these ladies were Roman Catholics and, indeed, Mrs Broadstreet’s brother was a priest. Robert Green’s landlord and his wife both gave evidence that he was at home when the alleged murder took place. In Berry’s defence, a corporal and two men of the Guards swore that they had been on duty when the body was supposedly removed and none had seen a sedan chair on that night and all had remained at their posts throughout. 

The Murder of Sir Godfrey

At the end of the trial, Justice Scroggs charged the jury in a biased attack on the accused, declaring that Bedloe’s testimony corroborated that of Miles Prance, that the night had been dark so a sedan chair might have slipped by unnoticed by the guards, that ‘devilish’ priests had been behind the crime and that the alibis provided for Green and Hill were insecure. He attacked priests in a fierce outburst, and Catholics in general, and he dismissed the jury to consider the evidence. After a short while, they returned with a Guilty verdict, Justice Scroggs heartily concurred with their decision, and ‘… the whole assembly gave a great shout of applause.’ 

The Murder of Sir Godfrey

On the following day, all three men were sentenced to death, Green and Hill were hanged at Tyburn on February 21st 1679 and Berry was hanged one week later. All three protested their innocence to their last breath. 

There have been numerous conjectures about who really killed Godfrey and why. Some say it was Titus Oates himself, as a means of stirring up an anti-Catholic frenzy when it seemed that his Popish Plot was in danger of foundering. Others still believe that Green, Berry and Hill really were guilty. Bizarrely, some others subscribe to the theory that Godfrey felt so far out of his depth that he committed suicide, although quite how he managed to break his own neck with a handkerchief, stab himself through his body and then throw himself headfirst into a bramble thicket is something of a barrier to taking this seriously. 

Sir John Pollock - The Popish Plot - 1903

Sir John Pollock put another idea forward in his seminal The Popish Plot (1903), in which he posits that Godfrey saw the name of Edward Colman in Oates’s deposition and contacted his friend to warn him of the coming storm. That Godfrey and Colman conversed urgently and in private soon after is a matter of fact, and that Colman then destroyed some of his private papers is also true. 
Pollock speculated that Colman told Godfrey a secret and when knowledge of this got out, Godfrey was assassinated; Pollock thought that this secret was that the meeting of the Jesuit conspirators had not taken place at the White Horse Tavern on The Strand but in the private rooms of the Duke of York at St James’s Palace. This would have been embarrassing to say the least, as the Duke was the King’s brother and next in line to the throne (he eventually became King James II), and it wouldn’t do if word got out that he had been involved in a plot to kill the King and restore a Catholic supremacy. 
The only problem with Pollock’s theory is that James had met Jesuits at St James’s Palace, on April 24th 1678, but it had been on official business and was on record, so this was very much an ‘open’ secret. However, this is not to say that Colman didn’t tell Godfrey a different secret, a secret secret, about which we know nothing, and it was for this that Godfrey was eliminated. 

The Murder of Sir Godfrey

But unless some forgotten records come to light in the future, we will never know why, for certain, that Sir Edmund Berry Godfrey was murdered. He was not the last to die during the Popish Plot, as we shall see.


With a grim, gallows humour, Londoners popularly referred for a while to Primrose Hill as Greenberry Hill, in memory of the hanged men Green, Berry and Hill. In the intervening years, this piece of Whig, anti-Catholic waggery grew like Topsy, and some writers, unfamiliar with the details, imagine that Greenberry Hill was the original name of the place and it was changed to Primrose Hill at a later time. The ‘coincidence’ is appealing but entirely specious. This situation wasn’t helped when Charles Hoy Fort, that famous collector of the odd and interesting, included this in his Wild Talents (1932),
“In the New York Herald, Nov. 26, 1911, there is an account of the hanging of three men, for the murder of Sir Edmund Berry Godfrey, on Greenberry Hill, London. The names of the murderers were Green, Berry, and Hill. It does seem that this was only a matter of chance. Still, it may have been no coincidence, but a savage pun mixed with murder.” 
The story was popularised in modern days at the beginning of Paul Thomas Anderson’s 1999 film Magnolia, where it is reported as fact. Since tinternet woo merchants got their hands on the story, it has been confidently asserted by folks who should know better but need to get out more that this bunkum has some sort supernatural significance. It doesn’t. It is not a coincidence. It is a joke. And if you believe it to be otherwise, so are you.

And for any of you keeping score, this is my 300th consecutive post. Thank you for continuing to read.

Sunday, 25 November 2012

The Tangled Tale of the Murdered Magistrate

                    Long before Primrose Hill in London became the fashionable stamping ground of sundry celebrities, it was just fields and open farmland, noted for its eponymous yellow spring flowers and ubiquitous brambles. In the afternoon of Thursday October 17th 1768, under a grey sky darkened with heavy cloud, two men, Bromwell and Walters, were out walking in these fields and took refuge from the coming downpour in the White House tavern (later the Chalk Hill Farm tavern). 

Primrose Hill - White House Tavern marked in red.

As the heavens opened outside, they mentioned to the landlord, John Rawson, that they had seen a cane and some gloves lying in the bushes on their way there. The landlord offered them a shillings worth of ale if they would go back and fetch them, but the heavy torrents of rain kept them inside until about 5 pm when, during a brief respite, they went back and found not only a cane and gloves but, at the bottom of the ditch and hidden in the brambles, the dead body of a man.

Rawson brought a constable, Brown, and a posse of locals, and with difficulty in the thickening darkness, they lifted the body out of the ditch. He had been hanging head first and face downwards in it, with his arms awry and his legs suspended in the thicket of brambles. A sword had been thrust through his body so forcefully that six inches of the blade emerged from his back. Scattered around him lay his hat, his wig, a belt, his gloves and cane, and a scabbard; he had three rings on his fingers and there was a large aamount of money in his pockets. Constable Brown, with a struggle, pulled the sword from the body, to make it easier to move, and it was laid on two staves and carried back to the tavern. Once brought into the candlelight, the man was recognised as Sir Edmund Berry Godfrey, a very well known magistrate who had been missing for five days. 

Sir Edmund Berry Godfrey

His two brothers and his brother-in-law, Mr Plucknet, were brought and formally identified the body, and on the following morning, Mr Cooper, coroner of Middlesex, and eighteen jurymen began the inquest, which lasted for two days, resulting in a verdict that Sir Edmund Berry Godfrey had been strangled to death by persons unknown with a piece of linen cloth. 

There were extensive bruises from the neck to the top of the stomach, as if he had been stamped on or hit repeatedly with a heavy weapon, a large contusion below one ear, thick purple creases around the throat and the neck had been broken. There was a wound on the chest, as deep as a rib, and another from the transfixing sword, which had pierced the heart and been driven through the body. The sword was Sir Edmund’s own weapon. As the clothing was not bloodstained, and no blood had been seen in the ditch, it was obvious that the body had been stabbed after death. 

Two witnesses testified that they had been hunting with dogs on the Tuesday and Wednesday at the place where the body had been found, and the body was not there at the time, as their harriers would have definitely scented it out. Other witnesses said that they had seen Sir Edmund alive on Saturday October 12th, after which he had gone missing. He had not been killed during a robbery, as he still had on his rings and a substantial sum of money with him; it was decided that he had been strangled elsewhere and the body taken to Primrose Hill, where it had been stabbed and thrown into the ditch. 

Sir Edmund Berry Godfrey

Sir Edmund Berry Godfrey had been a respected coal and firewood merchant who became a Justice of the Peace and had remained at his post in London during the plague of 1665, during which time he did much to retain order and for which services he was knighted by King Charles II. He had been imprisoned in 1669, when he had the King’s physician arrested for not paying his bills for coal, claiming that whereas the judges had found for him, the King had overridden their ruling. After six days on hunger strike in gaol, the decision was overturned and he was released. Godfrey was considered to be a little eccentric, as he preferred the company of ordinary, working men to that of his higher-born peers. Although a strict Anglican himself, he was known to have had a number of close Catholic friends. And this may well have been behind his brutal murder.

There was a very strong anti-Catholic sentiment in Great Britain at the time, which had its roots in Henry VIII’s split with the Church of Rome and in the Reformation. Protestants had gained the ascendancy in Henry’s day, only to have it replaced by a backlash under Mary I. Elizabeth I had restored England to Protestantism and James I had furthered that position. There had been a number of plots against Protestant monarchs, with Catholics being held responsible for the Ridolfi Plot, the Babington Plot, the Spanish Armada, the Gunpowder Plot and the Great Fire of London. When Charles II became King, in 1660, it was widely feared that he would return the country to Catholicism, not least because his wife, Catherine of Braganza, and his brother the Duke of York were devout Catholics. 

King Charles II

In fact, Charles had signed the secret Treaty of Dover, by which he would receive aid from King Louis XIV of France, in return for a public declaration that he had converted to Catholicism and the abandonment of the Triple Alliance with Sweden and the Dutch (there was, of course, much more to it than that, but that’s the gist of it). The Earl of Shaftesbury learned of the Treaty and gathered a group of like-minded individuals to oppose the King, the so-called Green Ribbon Club, which sought to restore a republic nominally headed by Richard Cromwell. The first meeting of this Club was at The Swan tavern in Hammersmith, an inn owned by one of the Club’s members – Sir Edmund Berry Godfrey. 

Titus Oates

Not long after, in September 1678, Godfrey was required to hear an oath sworn by Titus Oates, a former Anglican minister who had, allegedly, converted to Catholicism. Oates claimed that he had evidence that there was a Catholic plot afoot to assassinate the King, and he needed to swear an oath that his testimony before the Privy Council would be the truth. Godfrey was doubtful of the veracity of Oates’s claims and asked to see copies, with which he was duly presented. There are suspicions that Godfrey saw the name of one of his Catholic friends, Edward Colman, on Oates’s list of conspirators and warned him. Oates had been trying to draw attention to his supposed conspiracy for a while but had not really been taken seriously – even the King himself was reported to have had doubts that Oates’s information was genuine. But Godfrey’s murder provided the catalyst that sparked intense new interest in his claims. 

The 'Godfrey' medal

Everywhere in London, there were whispers and rumours. Ballads were composed in Godfrey’s honour, a medal was struck depicting the Pope himself as the murderer, one broadsheet sold ten thousand copies in less than a month, and one enterprising cutler produced a memorial dagger, with the words ‘Remember the murder of Sir Edmund Berry Godfrey’ inscribed on one side of the blade and ‘Religion’ on the other side. He sold three thousand in a single day, the Duke of York was presented with a special, gilt version (ironically, as he was a Catholic) and titled ladies slept with ‘Godfrey’ daggers under their pillows. 

A 'Godfrey' dagger

The Countess of Shaftesbury had a matched pair of pocket pistols custom-made for her to carry in her muff. The body of the murdered magistrate was laid in state in London for two days, where thousands queued to see it, before it was carried to St Martin’s in the Field, with a procession of seventy-two clergymen leading the way. Dr Lloyd gave the elaborate eulogy, and two able-bodied clergymen, ready to defend him from the expected attack by Catholics, flanked him in the pulpit (it didn’t come). Catholics were banned from a ten-mile radius of the city centre. 

The Funeral of Sir E B Godfrey

Only one thing was missing – the identity of the murderer.

Saturday, 24 November 2012

The Prefatory Propagation of the Popish Plot

             What a piece of work was Titus Oates. Born in 1649, he was sent to Merchant Taylor’s School in 1655 but was expelled in his first year. He entered Cambridge University as a poor scholar in 1667, where according to his tutor, Dr Thomas Watson, 
He was a great dunce, ran into debt; and, being sent away for want of money, never took a degree.” 
Nevertheless, he managed to ‘slip into orders’ of the established church and became his father’s curate at All Saints, Hastings. Oates père et fils brought false charges of sodomy against a local schoolmaster, William Parker, but the case was quashed, with Oates Sr losing his living and Oates Jr charged with perjury, fined £1,000 and thrown into prison at Dover. 

Titus Oates

He escaped from gaol, hid out in London for a while and then inveigled his way into the chaplain’s post on HMS Adventurer. Within months, he was charged with sodomy but escaped the death penalty because of his clergyman’s status. He then moved on to become Anglican minister to the Duke of Norfolk (who just happened to be a Catholic), and on Ash Wednesday 1677, Titus Oates converted to Catholicism. 

Colegio de los Ingleses - Valladolid

He travelled to Spain, to the Colegio de los Ingleses at Valladolid, where he was to study with the Jesuits but within five months he had managed to get himself expelled and returned to England, claiming to have taken the degree of Doctor of Divinity, an impossibility as only Catholic priests took this degree in Spain and Oates was never ordained. The English Jesuits pleaded his case to their continental counterparts and on December 10th 1677, he entered the seminary at St Omer’s, France (which later relocated to Stonyhurst, Lancashire), but by June 1678, with predictable inevitability, his outrageous and obnoxious behaviour caused his expulsion. 

Titus Oates

Oates was, by all accounts, repellent within and without. He was short, with bowed legs and broad shoulders, topped by a bull-neck and a large, moon-faced head. His eyes were small and deep-set beneath a low, heavy brow, his mouth was more of a slit that bisected his purple face, and his chin long and monstrous. He spoke not with so much as a voice but with a rasping whine or an insolent bark. 
A Plot hatched by the Pope in Rome

Back in London, Oates renewed his association with Israel Tonge, a rabid anti-Catholic paranoiac who blamed the Jesuits for the ills suffered by himself and his country, and who was in all likelihood insane. Oates convinced the excitable Tonge that his conversion was a clever front and he had used his time abroad to infiltrate the Jesuit ranks, learning of their plans to kill the King and take control of England. This nonsense was just what Tonge would have wanted to hear, and he and Oates spent July and August producing a manuscript outlining the Popish Plot, the 
True and Exact Narrative of the Horrid Plot and Conspiracy of the Popish Party against the life of His Sacred Majesty, the Government, and the Protestant Religion’. 
Titus Oates - An Exact Discovery

Oates and Tonge detailed how the Pope had declared himself Lord of the kingdoms of England and Ireland, that Jesuit agents were at work fomenting rebellions in Ireland and Scotland, that plans were afoot for a second Great Fire in London, that French Jesuits were ready to invade England, and that Charles II was a bastard and an excommunicated heretic who was to be killed. One Titus Oates had been sent by the Jesuits to assassinate one Israel Tonge because of his sterling work in uncovering their sinister machinations. 

King Charles II

Oates and Tonge named ninety-nine prominent Catholics who were involved in the Plot, together with 541 Jesuits in England, and told tales of a meeting at the White Horse Tavern in The Strand, where Jesuits had laid plans to shoot the King with silver bullets, to have him stabbed, to have him attacked by four Irish ruffians, and to have him poisoned by the Queen’s own physician. Oates hid a manuscript in the wainscot at Sir Richard Barker’s house, and Tonge ‘found’ it on the following day. It was shown to Christopher Kirkby, a chemist who had assisted Charles II in his scientific experiments. Kirkby went to the King and informed him of the manuscript’s existence, but Charles was sceptical and asked Kirkby for proof of the Plot. 

Earl of Danby

Kirkby offered to bring Tonge to the King, who then appointed the Earl of Danby to look into the matter, but Tonge lied to Danby saying that he had only found the manuscript and knew nothing of its author, and urged him to keep it all secret, lest the plotters find they were discovered and flee. The King remained sceptical and urged restraint, adding that word of assassinations might put ideas into people’s heads. But word of the claims spread to the King’s brother, the Duke of York, who urged Charles to take the threats seriously; there were, after all, so many and just some of them might be genuine. Against his better judgement, Charles brought the matter to the Privy Council, which requested that Oates be brought before it to give testimony. And so it was that first on September 6th 1678 and again on September 28th, Titus Oates and Israel Tonge went before a magistrate to swear oaths that the testimony they would give to the Privy Council would be the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. 

Titus Oates swears his oath

That magistrate was Sir Edmund Berry Godfrey. 
And what happened to him next changed everything.