The Murder of Sir Edmund Godfrey (John Dickson Carr)

  • By John Dickson Carr
  • First published: UK: Hamish Hamilton, October 1936; US: Harpers, November 1936

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Although renowned for his detective fantasies, Carr’s masterpiece of history and detection (arguably the same philosophy, as this, the works of Lillian de la Torre and Josephine Tey’s The Daughter of Time all testify) is his reconstruction of The Murder of Sir Edmund Godfrey. Carr has an obvious anti-Whig bias and adores Charles II (the only great monarch between Elizabeth and George III), but his historical method is excellent; he weighs up the odds impartially and draws a most dramatically colourful picture of Restoration London. The theories are brilliantly argued, and equally brilliantly demolished, and the final solution is quite convincing. Superb.

Blurb (US)

Here is the true story of one of the most amazing crimes in history – and a perfect murder mystery.

On a certain day in 1678 a famous London magistrate, Sir Edmund Godfrey, was found dead – strangled and stabbed.

Titus Oates, a renegade priest, came forward with evidence that linked the crime with a Popish plot to poison Charles II.

A dozen people were brought to trial.  Among the suspected were Cathreine, the Queen, and Samuel Pepys.

Three men were judged guilty and died on the scaffold – later their innocence was proved beyond question.

To the present day no one knows the answer to the question, Who killed Sir Edmund Godfrey? – though a score of biographers and historians have set their wits to the task, including Hume, Macaulay, Sir George Sitwell, Andrew Lang, and Lord Birkenhead.

Now a modern writer of detective stories reconstructs the famous crime and offers a plausible solution.  Frank Swinnerton says: “He handles it with the skill to be expected from his experience…the book has a novelty and interest all its own.”

Blurb (UK)

The Murder of Sir Edmund Godfrey is probably the first historical detective story.  In 1678 Sir Edmund Godfrey, a famous magistrate and the possessor of a great State secret, was found murdered.  On examination it was discovered that a sword had been thrust through the body of a man already strangled.  There was no clue as to the murderer’s identity.  The excitement in 17th century England was as intense as it would be today if a plot against the throne were discovered, involving the principal ministers of State.  “I am master of a dangerous secret,” Godfrey had said, “and it will be fatal to me.”

Who killed Godfrey?  Was it the enemies of the King?  was it the friends of the King?  was it a Catholic or a Protestant?  Was it Titus Oates, “the Saviour of the nation”?  Was it by order of the Green Ribbon Club?  Was he murdered in a private quarrel?  Was it suicide?  All the evidence is presented to the reader, who is invited to solve the problem, before Mr. Carr presents his own solution at the end.

Mr. Carr, whose modern detective stories are famous, writes with an intimate knowledge of the period and his reconstruction of the scene is based entirely on authentic records.

Contemporary reviews

Times Literary Supplement (Dermot Michael Macgregor Morrah, 10th October 1936): THE POPISH PLOT


By common consent the murder of Sir Edmund Berry Godfrey in 1678 constitutes the most mysterious crime in English history—mysterious not because of the paucity of evidence, like the death of the Princes in the Tower, but because of its contradictory nature.  It has often been observed that here real life has provided all the elements required for a first-rate detective story; and now at last an experienced writer of such stories has tried his hand at marshalling and interpreting the evidence.  Mr. Carr lapses too often into an affected and unlovely style, with a queer taste for elaborate metaphors from chess, a game he does not understand.  But he unfolds his story with historical accuracy and considerable dramatic effect; he examines the many theories of the crime with impartiality and critical power; and he presents a persuasive case for the solution he prefers.  Those already familiar with the controversy will find that Mr. Carr’s 348 pages add nothing of substance to the half-dozen in which Mr. J.G. Muddiman first propounded this solution twelve years ago; but the general reader could have no more lucid guide through the mazes of the Popish Plot.

Sir Edmund Godfrey disappeared from his home on Saturday, October 12, 1678.  Within a few hours the town was buzzing with rumours that he had been done to death by papists; for Godfrey was the magistrate before whom Titus Oates had lately sworn to his startling allegations of treasonable conspiracy.  The last traces of him showed that he had asked his way to Primrose Hill; and, though later on the Saturday he had been seen returning from that lonely spot near Hampstead village, it was there that he was found on Thursday, October 17, dead in a ditch and transfixed with his own sword.  Medical evidence immediately showed that the sword wounds (there were two) were not the cause of death; Godfrey had been starved for two days, violently belaboured about the chest and strangled; also his neck was broken.  His well-polished shoes in the muddy field suggested that he had not met his death where he was found.

William Bedloe, a perjurer second only to Oates himself, came forward with a story accusing three members of the Queen’s Popish household at Somerset House, but broke down badly under cross-examination by the King.  The Whig believers in the plot then produced a silversmith named Prance, who had been employed about Somerset House, and drew from him with much prompting and the application of something very like torture a circumstantial story of how Godfrey had been inveigled into the Queen’s palace by three men named Green, Berry and Hill.  These three were said to have murdered him and subsequently removed his body to the place where it was found, there arranging it to give a clumsy suggestion of suicide.  On the evidence of Prance the three men were hanged.

Almost the only certainty about the affair is that Green, Berry and Hill were absolutely innocent.  Godfrey before his death had made some cryptic utterances about a dangerous secret he possessed, which he feared would be fatal to him.  He was a close friend of Edward Coleman, a prominent Catholic henchman of the Duke of York, through whom, it is now known, French money was passing to the Whig leaders.  Godfrey’s secret, therefore, may have compromised either of the two hostile parties, the Jesuits and the Whigs; and theories have been propounded implicating both in the murder.  Mr. Carr gives strong reasons for dismissing both hypotheses, although he perhaps slightly under-estimates the case for suspecting Shaftesbury.  His main point is that nothing was “planted” by the corpse directly implicating the Papists—not even a rosary or a bloody dagger inscribed with pax vobiscum.  But was it necessary?  For five days Shaftesbury’s Green Ribbon Club had been filling the town with rumours of a Popish crime.  The whole monstrous legend of the plot was built up on the idea of mystery, of a conspiracy by devilish assassins of super-human cunning.  To leave no trace of the criminal was exactly consonant with this theory of the hidden Popish hand, and such an account of the crime would inflame the popular imagination with fear of the unknown while offering the minimum of material to that deadly cross-examiner, King Charles II.

SPOILER The theory of Mr. Muddiman, here argued by Mr. Carr, is that Godfrey’s murder was an act of private vengeance by the Earl of Pembroke.  Pembroke was a drink-sodden degenerate of homicidal tendency, who had lately been tried by his peers for kicking a man to death.  He had been convicted of manslaughter, but escaped punishment by pleading his clergy.  The grand jury that presented him for the crime was presided over by Sir Edmund Godfrey; and when Pembroke was released Godfrey absented himself from the country for four months.  There is evidence connecting Godfrey’s last movements with Leicester Fields, where Pembroke lived; and the bruises on the chest of the corpse suggested the same manner of assault from which Pembroke’s previous victim had died.  Godfrey, on the morning of his disappearance, received a mysterious letter, which caused him much disquiet; and Mr. Carr gives sound reasons for believing that, if summoned by Pembroke, he should have been impelled to go even though he suspected danger.

The theory is probably the most plausible that has yet been advanced; but it does not quite, as Mr. Carr claims, explain all the facts.  It does not explain why Godfrey wanted to go on Saturday to Primrose Hill.  If he was in search of a quiet place to commit suicide, is it credible that he should choose one so unfamiliar that he had to inquire the way?  The theory does not explain why rumours of Godfrey’s death were in circulation all over London within an hour or two of his leaving home, as we know from news-letters sent out of town that very day.  For these rumours the Green Ribbon Club must almost certainly be responsible, and the implication is that they knew something of the fate intended for Godfrey.  Mr. Carr has some difficulty in circumventing another small difficulty, that Godfrey, after taking down his best coat on the Saturday, decided not to go out in it.  No one familiar with the social conventions of the seventeenth century will find it easy to believe that a simple knight would call upon an earl, however hostile and however vicious, in anything but his best clothes.  But the fact that Mr. Carr considers this trifle at all is proof of his scrupulous attention to detail; and, for all the lack of direct evidence, the theory he has chosen to espouse remains at least as probable as any that historians have yet devised.

A fairly comprehensive bibliography is made almost valueless to the general reader by the omission of all reference to dates of publication.  Mr. Carr reproduces, from the set in the Guildhall, the contemporary playing-cards illustrating the plot, one of which we give above.

Chicago Daily Tribune (Frank Swinnerton, 19th September 1936, 140w): The book has a novelty and interest all its own.

Manchester Guardian (23rd October 1936, 470w): Mr. Carr argues the case with great, even excessive, ingenuity.  It would have been more cogent if he had been less anxious to show all that is in his literary bag of tricks as well as the minuteness of his learning.  A book in which Thomas Carlyle and Miss Dorothy Sayers, Sir Walter Scott and Mr. Philip Guedalla all seem to be trying to speak at once makes formidable reading.  Need one be so terribly bright?

Books (Alfred Kazin, 22nd November 1936, 650w): On the principle that the apparatus should be worthy of the intent, Mr. Carr has brought a meticulous learning to his task, a good eye, and all the tricks of the trade.  Everything in his book is true, save the conclusion, and that, he insists (rather convincingly), is probable.  Where such big wigs as Macaulay and David Hume have not been afraid to play detective, Mr. Carr has not been afraid either; the result is that one can read his book with all the high seriousness in the world, but add the keen sense of pleasure we all derive from the amiable solution of another’s murder.

NY Times (22nd November 1936, 550w): The story becomes considerably longer and more broadly complicated than the ordinary detective novel dares to be.  It becomes more valuable, naturally, and more interesting to those connoisseurs of murder who have also a taste for history.  But it is history first.  And it is not a swift-moving tale.

Sat R of Lit (5th December 1936, 30w): For connoisseurs.

Springfield Republican (10th January 1937, 650w): Mr. Carr makes a virtually iron-clad case against the murderer whom he charges with the crime.  It is safe to declare that any jury would convict on such evidence.  Whether or not Mr. Carr presents a complete historical analysis, he interestingly combines the historical novel and the standardised mystery tale.  Such a handling should make new mystery ‘fans’.