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The Death of Thomas Godby



          On June 8, 1609, Thomas Godby sailed from Falmouth, England on the “Sea Adventure,” commanded by Captain Christopher Newport who was making his fourth trip to the new world.

          Disaster struck within 8 days of the voyage’s end when a storm scattered the ships.  For several days the crew fought the storm until finally land was sighted and the ship was run aground three quarters of a mile from shore.  On July 28, 1609 the shipwrecked crew and emigrants found themselves on land in the Bermuda Islands.

          They set to work building two ships to finish the trip to Virginia.  Sir Thomas Gates supervised the construction of “The Deliverance,” a ship 40 feet long and 19 feet wide.  Sir George Somers was in charge of the building of the second ship, “The Patience.”  On May 10, 1610, after six deaths, three mutinies and at least one execution, the ships set sail arriving finally at Jamestown on May 23, 1610.  When Thomas Godby reached Virginia, there were only about 60 settlers left of the app. 500 who had come from England since 1607.

          After this inauspicious beginning little more is known about Thomas Godby until his death.  He survived the Indian massacre of 1622 and is found in the “Lists of the Livinge and Dead in Virginia Febr: 16th 1623” living in Elizabeth City with his wife Joane.  Joane Godby had only arrived in Virginia in 1621 on the ship “Flyinge Hart”.  The colony’s population in 1622 was still only 1258 and the massacre killed about 1/3 of the colonists.     

          On Dec. 1, 1624, Thomas Godby, an “ancient planter” of Kiccoughtan, in the Corporation of Elizabeth City patented 100 acres between Newport News and Blunt Point adjacent to William Bentley.  The same day William Bentley patented 50 acres.  Bentley was a new planter who had come to Virginia at his own expense in 1624 on the ship “Jacob.”

Elizabeth City in 1625 was the largest community in Virginia with a population of 359 compared to James City’s 175.  Elizabeth City was on the site of an Indian village, Kecoughtan, on Hampton Creek and it was known by its Indian name for over 10 years.  Thomas and Joane Godbey are listed again in Elizabeth City on the Virginia Muster of Jan. 20-Feb. 7, 1625 which was taken upon the dissolution of the Virginia Company.

Three years passed and then on the night of Feb. 8, 1628 the events resulting in the death of Thomas Godby at the hands of William Bentley occurred leading to the trial of William Bentley. 

The death of Thomas Godby, in the fourth year of the reign of King Charles, is a fascinating episode in Godby family history.  An account of it survives in the “Journal of Council and General Court of Virginia” (pp. 190-191).  A transcription of this is found in The Middleton Family by Beth Engel.  Over 370 years after Thomas Godby’s death, his actual words and actions are preserved in the trial record as reported by two witnesses, Richard Peck and William Parker.

Godby was at William Parker’s house on Merry Point with five others including Richard Peck.  After supper, the group shared a bottle of about 5 pints of burnt claret wine and Thomas Godby had about four cups.  William Parker admitted he was a little light headed after eleven o’clock when William Bentley ran aground in Mr. Conges’ boat on the shoals against Parker’s house.

The impression given is that Bentley was floundering in the water shouting for help to a house of men too busy drinking to pay any attention to what was happening outside.

In any case, Richard Peck said Bentley came into the house, probably wet and angry, and asked sarcastically if their orders were to hear men call and not come to help them out of the water.  Godby answered him, “Do you think we have nothing to do but to fetch you out of the water?”  William Parker’s testimony was that Bentley had asked why no one in the house had brought light to help him and that Thomas Godby had said, “Was anybody bound to bring you light to fetch you from the water?”  Both Peck and Parker said Bentley told Godby, “Hold your peace, nobody speaketh to you.”

This apparently tense moment seemed to pass with all sitting by the fire and “many jesting words” passing between Bentley and Godby but Peck said that Godby “gave Bentley many provoking words” which led to harsher words.  After many exchanges, Peck reported that Bently said “Shall we toss some balls?” whereupon Godby said, “If you toss balls to me I will toss the cup in your face.”  Parker said that Bently called Godby a “cuckold” to which Godby replied, “I would as soon be a cuckold as a cuckold maker.”  Both witnesses agreed that Godby called Bentley names such as a “rogue,” “rascal” and “knave” and Peck said that Bentley replied in kind.

Both witnesses agree that Thomas Godby and William Bentley were sitting beside each other on a bench and at this point, Bentley hit Godby with his left hand on Godby’s left ear knocking him into the floor.  The incident perhaps would have only been a drunken fight except that Bentley then stood and kicked Godby until the others separated the two.

Thomas Godby then set upon a chest or a chair but cried out, “Oh my belly and my side” and tried to walk two or three turns across the house.  Probably in an attempt to keep the two separate, William Parker advised Godby to go next door to Richard Peck’s house to sleep.  Parker and Peck led Thomas Godby outside and Parker went back to his house leaving Peck and Godby going to Peck’s house.  Peck testified that on the way, Godby fell down crying out  repeatedly, “Oh, Bentley, thou hast killed me” and “I am cruelly fixed.”  Peck and some of the others then carried Godby back to Parker’s house.

Parker said they hadn’t been gone 15 minutes when Godby was brought back and laid on a bed still crying out, “Oh Mr. Bentley, you have killed me” repeatedly and also saying “Lord have mercy upon us.  Lord Jesus receive my soul” before finally laying very quietly.  Parker, thinking Godby was now asleep left him but in the morning found he was dead.

William Bentley was indicted for feloniously killing Thomas Godby against the peace of the King.  Bentley pleaded “not guilty” but the 12 jurors convicted him of manslaughter.  When asked what he had to say for himself and why he shouldn’t die for his crime, Bentley demanded his Clergy.  A person who could read could claim “benefit of clergy” and after reading from the Bible as proof be freed from other punishment.

And so Thomas Godby was buried and William Bentley was freed.  On October 16, 1629 William Bentley, representing Nuttmegg Quarter (listed next to Elizabeth City), was seated in the Virginia House of Burgesses along with  several of the jurors who convicted him including Richard Kingsmill, John Harris, Thomas Bagwell, and Thomas Harwood.




“Lists of the Livinge and Dead in Virginia Febr: 16th 1623”

“Virginia Muster Jan 20-Feb 7, 1624-5”

Cavaliers and Pioneers, Vol. 1, 1623-1666 by Nell Nugent

Colonial Surry: Surry People Before the Council and General Court

Colonial Virginia Register Compiled by William G. and Mary N. Stanard

Journal of Council and General Court of Virginia

The Conquest of Virginia by Conway Sams

The First Seventeen Years: Virginia 1607-1624 by Charles Hatch, Jr.

The Middleton Family by Beth Engel







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