1640: Bishop John Atherton, buggerer

1 comment December 5th, 2010 Headsman

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

The Oxford-educated Englishman was appointed Lord Bishop of Waterford and Lismore by King Charles‘s hated governor Thomas Wentworth.

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.

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Entry Filed under: 17th Century,Arts and Literature,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,Hanged,History,Homosexuals,Ireland,Milestones,Political Expedience,Power,Public Executions,Religious Figures,Sex,The Supernatural,Wrongful Executions

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1641: Thomas Wentworth, Earl of Strafford

1 comment May 12th, 2010 Headsman

On this date in 1641, the doomed English monarch Charles I regretfully sacrificed one of his ablest ministers to the headsman.

Thomas Wentworth and loyal doggie, painted c. 1639 by Anthony van Dyck.

Thomas Wentworth, Earl of Strafford had cut his teeth in Parliament in the 1620s as an advocate of the rights of the Commons as against those of the king, but the notion that he’d be hoisted by his own petard would be little comfort to a King soon destined to find himself in similar straits.

After Parliament forced through the 1628 Petition of Right (and Wentworth’s pro-monarchist personal rival George Villiers, Duke of Buckingham had been conveniently assassinated) Wentworth went over to the king’s camp with the sententious declaration

The authority of a king is the keystone which closeth up the arch of order and government.

The authority of that king, which Wentworth now worked vigorously to uphold during the crown’s Parliament-free Personal Rule of the 1630s, also elevated Wentworth to higher honors.

He would have occasion to exercise his own “personal rule” as dictatorial viceroy in Ireland, and when push came to shove between King and Commons, advocated the most tyrannical measures to compel the compliance of obstinate Englishmen.

By 1640, Wentworth had become in the eyes of his enemies the very embodiment of the monarch’s every sin, and when Charles was obliged by his deteriorating situation to summon Parliament once more, its first order of business was the impeachment of this obnoxious retainer. When Wentworth skillfully repelled the charges and won acquittal on April 10, his parliamentarian opponents simply passed a bill of attainder condemning him to death anyway.

The only thing that stood in the way of the chop was the signature of that ruler whom Wentworth had served so loyally. As Charles dithered — for he had personally guaranteed Wentworth his safety upon his most recent summons to London — popular hatred for the Earl threatened to escalate the crisis into something much more dangerous for the throne.

In one last gesture of fealty, Wentworth dashed off a note to his sovereign, magnanimously releasing him from any obligation save political calculation.

Sire, out of much sadness, I am come to a resolution of that which I take to be the best becoming me; and that is, to look upon the prosperity of your sacred person and the commonwealth as infinitely to be preferred before any man’s private interest. And therefore, in few words, as I have placed myself wholly upon the honour and justice of my peers, I do most humbly beseech you, for the preventing of such mischiefs as may happen by your refusal to pass this bill, by this means to remove this unfortunate thing forth of the way towards that blessed agreement, which God, I trust, shall for ever establish betwixt you and your subjects. Sire, my consent herein shall acquit you more to God than all the world can do beside. To a willing man there is no injury done; and as, by God’s grace, I forgive all the world with a calmness and meekness of infinite contentment to my disloding soul, so, Sire, I can give the life of this world with all cheerfulness imaginable, in the just acknowledgment of your exceeding favours; and only beg that, in your goodness, you would vouchsafe to cast your gracious regard upon my poor son and his three sisters, less or more, and no otherwise, than their unfortunate father shall appear more or less guilty of this death. (Quoted here)

This letter’s place in the annals of sacrificial loyalty is compromised only slightly by its author’s dismay upon finding out that his feckless majesty had quickly taken up the offer:* Wentworth rolled his eyes heavenward and exclaimed

Put not your trust in princes, in a son of man, in whom there is no salvation.**

But the miscalculation was done.

Two days after Charles signed off, Wentworth was beheaded on Tower Hill to the rapture of an audience supposed to have numbered 200,000 strong.


Strafford Led to Execution, by Paul Delaroche, with Thomas Wentworth, Earl of Stafford, receiving the blessing of his ally, the imprisoned Archbishop William Laud.


1642 pamphlet illustration of the beheading, from here.

As things went from bad to worse for Charles in the years ahead, he would have many occasions to regret the sacrifice of so loyal and energetic a minister … and to lament, upon hearing his own death sentence, that he was suffering divine judgment for this date’s act of expedient faithlessness.

A few books about Thomas Wentworth

* In acceding to the sentence, Charles proposed giving Strafford the best part of a week to prepare himself. Parliament ignored that request and set the execution for the very next day.

** That’s Psalm 146:3.

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Entry Filed under: 17th Century,Arts and Literature,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Cycle of Violence,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Famous,History,Ireland,Martyrs,Nobility,Political Expedience,Posthumous Exonerations,Power,Public Executions,Treason,Wrongful Executions

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