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“Hanging is too good for a man who makes puns; he should be drawn and quoted” – Fred Allen

Sir Edmund.  Died by fatal pun.

Sir Edmund. Died by fatal pun.

The universe has a vicious sense of humor.  Don’t screw with it.  It will smack you down and kill you with paronomasia (puns), even if it has to dispatch with innocent bystanders in order to get its point across.  This is exactly what occurred when English magistrate Sir Edmund Berry Godfrey (1621-1678 A.D.) was ostensibly murdered by uncouth gentleman named Green, Berry, and Hill who were subsequently hanged on Greenberry Hill. That’s just existentially cruel.

On October 17th, 1678, Sir Edmund Berry Godfrey was found face down in a ditch and the suspected authors of his death were hung by the neck on Greenberry Hill (later renamed as the tony residential area of London called Primrose Hill). Poor Godfrey had been impaled on his own sword, just begging the analogy of being “hoisted on one’s own petard”, except that “petard” is French, and we know how the English feel towards their antagonists across the Channel.

Sir Godfrey was the eleventh son of a well-to-do family in Kent, knighted in 1666 for diligently staying at his civil service post as a justice of the peace during the plague of 1665.  Although himself Anglican, Godfrey was considered a bit odd in that he consorted with the working class and had numerous Catholic friends.  This bit of egalitarianism and ecumenism no doubt led to his implication in various plots (both real and invented) that emerged amidst the anti-Catholic hysteria that ensued following the disclosure of King Charles II’s 1670 secret Treaty of Dover, wherein he agreed to return England to the Roman Catholic fold if France subsidized the Third Anglo-Dutch War.  This was not all that bright considering the English Civil War was still fresh in everyone’s memory, despite the 1660 restoration of the monarchy that followed on the heels of Oliver Cromwell’s death.  Accusing Godfrey of fomenting rebellion and conspiracy against Charles II must have seemed like a no-brainer, since at one point Godfrey was thrown in jail for having the King’s personal physician arrested (the good doctor owed him money).  I myself try not to piss off kings excessively, as a rule, since it doesn’t pay to play the game of thrones when you, well, don’t have even the semblance of a throne.  Better to avoid even the appearance of anti-monarchist tendencies in such circumstances.  Unless you’re one of them grubby revolutionaries.  Then, by all means revolt away.  The corollary lesson here is that if you are the King’s direct employee, paying your bills is optional.

Whether Sir Godfrey actually was involved in any conspiracies is debatable, although he was at least tangentially associated with all manner of angry characters worried about which way Charles II was leaning on any given day.  Godfrey’s reputation started taking a fatal turn when Lieutenant of the Tower of London officially reported to his boss (Secretary of State Sir Joseph Williamson) that Godfrey was a central member of the anti-Catholic agitator “Peyton Gang”, and that Sir Robert Peyton himself had picked Godfrey to help overthrow Charles II, and declare a Republic headed by Richard Cromwell (son of Oliver Cromwell).  In short, Godfrey was not regarded in a favorable light by the current political powers.  Oddly, that wasn’t likely what got him killed.  Evidently, Sir Godfrey, a devoted Protestant, was also a man of principle, and that just irritated everyone.

When it came time for Titus Oates to invent his Popish Plot, a completely fabricated Catholic conspiracy to assassinate Charles II designed to whip the English populace into an anti-Catholic frenzy, he asked Godfrey to give his stamp of approval to the “evidence” he intended to present, which just so happened to falsely implicate one English Catholic courtier Edward Coleman, a personal friend of Godfrey.  Historians think that Godfrey may have pre-emptively warned Coleman of the accusations.  This did not save Coleman who was eventually drawn and quartered.  A few days later, Godfrey’s bruised corpse mysteriously turned up in a ditch (where there were no signs of struggle), with cash and valuables intact, strangled, neck broken, and impaled on his own sword post-mortem.  Someone was mighty angry.

Oates was not one to waste a good public relations moment, so he quickly attributed Godfrey’s suspicious demise to Catholic plotters in the interest of stirring up even more anti-Catholic sentiment.  Two months later, a man named Miles Prance, a servant to the Queen consort, Catherine of Braganza and a Catholic was arrested under suspicion of involvement with Godfrey’s death (on the testimony of one of his renters who owed him a considerable amount of money), and under torture confessed to being part of a plan to murder Godfrey, although he named the actual murders as three other men (average joes who didn’t have much legal standing): Robert Green, Henry Berry and Lawrence Hill.  Prance proceeded to recant, and then recant his recantation several times, but Green, Berry, and Hill were hung on Greenberry Hill on February 5, 1679.  Most scholars agree that all three men were completely innocent, but the universe doesn’t usually concern itself with trivial issues like justice when it comes to a good punchline.

It is certainly possible that Greenberry Hill took its name from the unfortunate victims of extreme politics that were hanged there, and later reverted to what may have been its original name of Primrose Hill, but in our absurdist universe that encourages holy wars over imaginary friends, “more real than real” reality television, hide-and-go-seek aliens, fish falls, crop circles, and a never-ending stream of strangely unflattering selfies, it seems in keeping with the nature of things that Green, Berry, and Hill would be hung on Greenberry Hill for the murder of Edmund Berry Godfrey.  After all, as theologian G.K. Chesterton reminded us, “Coincidences are spiritual puns”.  Next time you feel the temptation to make a pun, swallow the impulse.  You’re playing with fire.

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