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.

No comments:

Post a Comment