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.

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