On this date in 1640, John Atherton achieved the unenviable distinction of being the only Anglican bishop hanged for buggery.* (His proctor, and alleged lover, John Childe, got the same treatment a few months later.)
Suppose a Devill from th’infernall Pit,
More Monsterlike, then ere was Devill yet,
Contrary to course, taking a male fiend
To Sodomize with him, such was the mind
Of this Lord Bishop, he did take a Childe
By name, not years, acting a sinne so vilde
-From the text of the pamphlet this image decorates
It may well have been the internecine politics of the day that claimed Atherton’s life, just as the civil wars they engendered in the ensuing decades claimed the original trial records.
While posterity is left to speculation, Atherton was defended in print in those years as well. (Defended as no homo, that is — not defended on principle against ubiquitous anti-gay laws.) If it wasn’t really a voracious sexual appetite (not exclusively same-sex**), goes this argument, it was intra-Protestant infighting, with Atherton’s successful clawback of land for the weak Irish Anglican church stepping on the toes of the local land barons who had recently expropriated it.
This politics outside the boudoir argument gets compelling treatment in Mother Leakey and the Bishop, a historical investigative thriller that links Atherton to a weird ghost story† in his native Somerset — that of “Old Mother Leakey,” the Minehead ghost.
Mother Leakey was Atherton’s mother-in-law, and Somerset family members claimed she haunted them — including with a message for the bishop that one of his sisters-in-law actually went to deliver in Ireland. The message isn’t known; in legend, this was a warning from beyond against the prelate’s ungodly behavior; in reality, it was more probably a family shakedown.‡
Despite the skepticism of the Leakey family’s own contemporaries, the facts, allegations, suppositions, and pure flights of fancy somehow managed to blend and recombine into a lasting tale of the paranormal that Minehead still retails to this day.
And it goes right back to the public opprobrium Bishop Atherton endured — as described in that 1641 hanging pamphlet:
“demonstrates the link between the stories of Mother Leakey and Bishop John Atherton … in a highly readable and often entertaining fashion”
… through pride, high fare, and lustfull life,
Incest committed with the Sister of his wife,
For which he sued his pardon, and then fled
To Ireland, where a worser life he led
He surely warned was to mend his life,
By his own Sister Master Leakies wife,
Which Master Leakies Mother being dead,
And in her life-time conscious how he led
His lustfull life, her Ghoast in gastful wise
Did oft appeare before her Sisters Eyes,
But she feare-strucken durst not speak unto it,
Till oft appearing forced her to doe it:
Then thus she spake, Mother in Law what cause
You from your rest, to my unrest thus drawes?
Who answered, daughter tis the wicked life
Your Brother leads, warne him to mend his life;
If not, then plainely tell him tis decreed,
He shall be hangd, bid him repent with speede:
Then shall my restless spirit be at rest,
And not till then; Thus vanisht. She addrest
Herselfe for travaile, Into Ireland went
With this sad message unto him was sent:
Which how he tooke to heart may plaine appeare
By the slight answer he returned her,
What must be, shalbe: If I must, I must dye,
Mariage, and hanging, come by destiny.
Thus scoft her counsell, sent her back, and when
Shee was returnd, he grew farre viler then
He was before, if Viler man may be,
For one bad Act before, committed three.
* According to Who’s Who in Gay and Lesbian History, Atherton and Childe were the second pair of alleged homosexual lovers executed in the British Isles. The first was the Earl of Castlehaven in 1631, along with his manservants.
** “[O]ne should note the compound sexual nature of the ‘sodomy’ charge in this context, a portmanteau omnibus of non-procreative sex, which is what ’sodomy’ was widely held to be.”
† Walter Scott footnotes this legend in Rokeby: “Mrs Leakey … dispatched her [daughter-in-law] to an Irish prelate, famous for his crimes and misfortunes, to exhort him to repentance, and to apprize him that otherwise he would be hanged; and how the bishop was satisfied with replying, that if he was born to be hanged, he should not be drowned.”
‡ Archbishop William Laud dispatched a team of ghost-whisperers to investigate the Leakey story well before the ectoplasm hit the fan for Atherton, and they weren’t buying: “certainly it is a fiction and a practice … it may be some money business.” Bishop Atherton had left home under a cloud with the suspicion that he’d had an affair with his wife’s sister, and this was part of the eventual Irish complaint against the horny goat.