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A Murky Business

John Gibney

Mother Leakey and the Bishop: A Ghost Story, by Peter Marshall,Oxford University Press, 336 pp, £12.99, ISBN: 978-0199273713

When The Tudors recently arrived on Irish television screens reviewers tended to dwell on the portrayal of Henry VIII’s sexual adventures, without reflecting on the fact that once upon a time marital sex and procreation were very serious matters. Henry married Catherine of Aragon; given that she was his brother’s widow he had had to receive a dispensation from the Pope to do so. But he was unable to have a son with her, and came to the conclusion that the marriage was sinful in the eyes of God. He found backing for his position in the Bible, but in seeking to have the Vatican rescind its original decision he automatically challenged the authority of the Pope. This was the basis of the English Reformation.

The break with Rome ultimately set England at odds with the greater part of Western Europe for much of the next three centuries. A small Protestant island would be faced with the increasing hostility of Catholic powers such as Spain and France to its south and east, with the overwhelmingly Catholic island of island to the west providing another potential source of concern. These were the political implications of Henry’s actions, but the Reformation of which the English secession from Rome was a part touched upon virtually every facet of human life in Western Europe. It took very different forms in different countries, but the most obvious common characteristic was in the tendency to return to the source of the Christian faith, in the form of the word of God as contained in scripture. In doing so, the Church of England that was established as a consequence of Henry’s break with Rome sought to supplant many of the folk beliefs that were such a vital part of English religious life before the Reformation. But ghosts posed a particular problem.

Traditionally, ghosts were seen as products of the medieval doctrine of purgatory, as souls who briefly returned to earth to warn friends and family to mend their ways or even to beseech them to provide for their repose. But purgatory was anathema to Protestant reformers, for it had no biblical basis: therefore ghosts were simply another superstition to be banished by scripture. The Thirty-Nine Articles of the Church of England declared: “The Romish doctrine concerning Purgatory … is a fond thing vainly invented, and grounded upon no warranty of Scripture; but rather repugnant to the word of God.”

Yet such beliefs persisted, leaving Protestant reformers at a loss as to how they might explain or understand them. No consensus was arrived at as to what ghosts actually were, and this uncomfortable reality meant that in certain circumstances the authorities might take an interest in reports of visitors from beyond the grave. In February 1637 a royal commission heard testimony about a haunting that had taken place the previous year in the Somerset port of Minehead. The ghost of a Mrs Susan Leakey had appeared throughout 1636 to members of her family and various acquaintances. These culminated in an encounter with her daughter-in-law Elizabeth, who, among other things, was supposedly told to take a message to Mrs Leakey’s daughter Joan, who lived in Ireland and was married to John Atherton, an up and coming clergyman in the Church of Ireland.

Mrs Leakey was never seen again, and the officials charged with investigating her supposed appearance were unconvinced and believed it to have been a fabrication. Despite this, she has had a long afterlife in folklore and memory, even attracting the attention of literary luminaries such as Sir Walter Scott. Her story has lived on in both the paranormal history of Britain and in the tourist industry of Somerset. By contrast, the story of Mrs Leakey’s son-in-law seemed to reach its zenith in 1710, with the publication of a tract entitled The case of John Atherton, Bishop of Waterford in Ireland, who was convicted of the sin of uncleanness with a cow, and other creatures; for which he was hanged at Dublin, December 5 1640. In a helpful touch for the curious browser, the word “cow” was printed in large letters, the better to build upon the facts elaborated in the title of a long verse published in 1641, where Atherton had merely been indicted for “incest, buggery, and many other enormous crimes”, and consequently, “having lived a vicious life, died a shameful death”.

It seems unlikely that Atherton ever had sex with a cow: the publisher probably realised that, then as now, sex sold. But either way the Church of Ireland seems to have been trying to discreetly forget about him ever since. Atherton began his Irish career at Christ Church Cathedral in Dublin and ended up being buried a stone’s throw away in a rubbish tip on Fishamble Street. It should be said that Catholics and Presbyterians, who might have been expected to look for an embarrassing stick with which to beat the Church of Ireland, did not particularly dwell on the crimes imputed to him. In 1662 however, he was accused by one Catholic priest of introducing sodomy to an Ireland that had never previously experienced it.

He is unlikely to have introduced it; but he was certainly executed for it. In November 1640 John Atherton was found guilty of buggery, as was the official term, and on December 5th, 1640 he was hanged in Dublin. The offence was seen as the culmination of a priapic career of little discrimination:

Now to the Bishop we returne agen,

With whose loath’d Crimes I loath to fowle my pen,

A strict lyst being taken of each whore

He was known to use, amounts to sixtie fower.

But this would have been the least of his worries. Philandering was not a capital matter; buggery however was. Thanks to the death of the relevant official, Atherton was not defrocked before he was hanged, and so retains the dubious distinction of being the only Anglican bishop ever to have been executed for homosexual offences. In the light of the virtual schism within the Anglican communion in recent years over the presence of openly gay bishops, his fate is a sobering footnote. Some years ago Aidan Clarke of Trinity College Dublin interpreted his life and career in a pithy and elegant essay.(1) Peter Marshall’s Mother Leakey and the Bishop is an attempt to make sense of it on a larger scale.

Atherton was from Somerset, and after beginning his career in the Church of England and marrying Joan Leakey, he decamped to Ireland, found a position at Christ Church and rose through the ranks of the Church of Ireland to become Bishop of Waterford and Lismore in May 1636. His earlier career was attended by rumours of various financial and sexual improprieties. It was a common complaint that the English clergymen who often filled the ranks of the Church of Ireland were questionable characters: a century later Jonathan Swift sought to explain this by suggesting that pious English clerics en route to Ireland were being murdered along the way and replaced by criminals. But concerns about Atherton’s moral qualities did not interfere with the essential purpose of his appointment, for that had its origins in other realities.

The Church of Ireland was another child of the English Reformation, and was essentially intended to extend that reformation into Ireland. Britain was faced by hostile Catholic powers in Europe and it was a strategic necessity to safeguard its western flank. A continued Irish allegiance to the Roman church had the potential to facilitate an alliance between Catholic forces in Ireland and on the continent. There should be no mistaking the original purpose of the church. It was a missionary endeavour, intended first and foremost to engineer the conversion of the Catholic Irish (of whatever ethnic origin) and thus secure their spiritual and political loyalties. Equally, there should be no mistaking the fact that it failed to do so.

The conflicts of late sixteenth century Ireland were between an increasingly brutal English Protestant state and Irish magnates such as Hugh O’Neill, earl of Tyrone, who over time adopted the cause of Catholicism and sought help from Spain. But the political and military defeat of the Irish by 1603 did not translate into a religious or spiritual victory for Protestantism. The majority of the population retained its allegiance to the Roman Catholic Church, and the Church of Ireland made few inroads into the religious beliefs of the Irish and the Old English, which were later bolstered by the Counter-Reformation. As the devastating conflicts of the sixteenth century gave way to the new colonial dispensation of the seventeenth, the Church of Ireland became an unwitting victim: alongside natives who would not convert to it new British colonists who had arrived in Ireland were swindling the church out of the rents that were meant to provide funds for it. Without an adequate income, it could not carry out its mission, which seemed defunct by the 1620s. However, the authoritarian tenure of the viceroy Thomas Wentworth in the 1630s brought these issues to a head. As Wentworth sought to reform the government in Dublin and reassert its supremacy over the “New English” settlers who had come to power and privilege, he also sought to reform the established church. But to be overly concerned about spiritual matters at this time was perhaps to put the cart before the horse.

Hence the opportunity presented to Atherton, who was basically a hatchet man. Wentworth recognised his protégé’s more worldly, and useful, attributes. He had not been appointed to convert the natives but to recover the Church of Ireland’s lost income. Others could succeed him and embark upon the spiritual mission that he was supposed to facilitate. Hence his appointment to the see of Waterford and Lismore in the face of lingering doubts over his moral probity, for whatever about temporal matters, in moral and spiritual terms Atherton was perceived by some as unsuitable material for a bishopric. William Laud, the Archbishop of Canterbury, was no fan of Atherton, and his appointment would be added to the list of Wentworth’s iniquities when he himself was tried in 1641.

There had always been Protestants in England who felt the Church of England was not reformed enough and remained too close in ethos and spirit to the hated Church of Rome. As the English parliament began to come into conflict with Charles I in 1640-41, Wentworth, as the king’s most powerful servant, was deliberately targeted. For the “Puritan” interest in parliament, his appointment of Atherton seemed to exemplify the type of corruption they were seeking to root out. But in 1636 the Church of Ireland had been impoverished: Atherton was seen by Wentworth as the perfect choice to begin the process of rectifying this. In particular, his appointment reflected Wentworth’s animosity toward Richard Boyle, Earl of Cork and the wealthiest man in Ireland, at least some of whose enormous family income was being siphoned off from the diocese of Waterford and Lismore.

Atherton’s appointment was not impeded by the reported (and presumably unwelcome) return of his spectral mother-in-law, who was rumoured to have a message for him, telling him that unless he repented of an unspecified crime he would be hanged. It was said that Atherton had fathered a child by his niece, and that Mrs Leakey had helped him to hide this by killing the child and hiding its body: this, supposedly, was the essence of her message from beyond the grave. But Atherton was in fact only hanged after his steward, John Child, accused him of having a homosexual relationship with him: a capital offence for both parties. He denied the charge, though he admitted reading “naughty books”, not to mention “some adulteries and single fornications”.

Some women he did doe in charitie

And some because they us’d good cookery,

Knew how to please his pallat as his bed,

So that at once his corpes and lust he fed ...

... t’audvance his lust this lustfull elfe,

Had tricks enough wherby to helpe himselfe.

But he was convicted on the capital charge and executed. Child, who remains an enigma, was hanged in Bandon some months later. And Atherton passed into history.

In the course of his long campaign to have Ireland’s laws against homosexuality repealed (which happened only in 1993), Senator David Norris, in 1990, erroneously accused Atherton of having masterminded the original 1634 legislation against buggery, thereby representing his fate as a salutary (if severe) irony. But Atherton’s trial in 1640 prompted an outburst of rumours relating to his alleged many and various sexual excesses. “Sodomy” was a catchall phrase that encompassed sexual deviancy in general and lacked the specific connotation it has today. There was however a great irony to the allegations as Atherton was notoriously harsh on the sexual offences came across in the ecclesiastical courts. But it is difficult to get a full grip on the circumstances of his demise. There were lingering suspicions that his success in reclaiming lands for the Church had grated with the “New English” plutocracy who had possessed them, most particularly the Earl of Cork, who was suspected of being involved in a campaign to remove Atherton that may have culminated in his execution: other clergymen too seemed to fall foul of the earl. But even if this were true, the presumption of innocence this might suggest must be weighed against the question of Atherton’s repentance or otherwise, another source of much contemporary debate. There are no clear-cut answers, and Atherton’s case was soon eclipsed by the storm that broke over Ireland and England from 1641.

All of which brings us back to the book. Atherton is at the core of it, but there is much else besides. Peter Marshall has taken the various stories that intersect in his subject’s career and attempts to weave them together and tell the tale as a whole. He does so in a distinct manner, eschewing a straightforward narrative account in order to “introduce into the way this book is ordered and paced something of what an historian’s voyage of exploration can feel like … I have consciously replicated some sense of the pattern of discoveries ... which I encountered in the course of my research.”

It’s easy to get worried when an academic historian informs his readers that they are going to be taken on a “voyage of exploration”, for the potential for self-indulgence is writ large. But for the most part Marshall writes well enough to get away with this kind of smoke and mirrors storytelling. Some of the later chapters contain too much detail, some stories are better than others and on one occasion there is a lapse into the bizarre condescension that sometimes afflicts English historians when they turn their attention to Ireland. It would be nice to know exactly what he was thinking when he wrote that “some aspects of Ireland’s condition were bred in the emerald bone”. But quibbles aside, the nature of his tale – for he explicitly casts it as a tale – ensures that the various strands become intertwined over the course of the telling. It is fragmented, but Marshall exploits this very well, veering off on various tangents to reveal much that might have been left to one side had this been a more conventional book: beliefs in ghosts in early modern England, the commercial world of Somerset, the colonial world of early seventeenth century Ireland and the crisis that broke over three kingdoms in the 1640s, not to mention the tabloid world of eighteenth century grub street journalism. It is a lively and vivid work, backed up by a weight of academic scholarship that is here rendered intelligible and accessible, illustrating much of the way in which the process of understanding and writing history takes place as the reader’s voyage of discovery brings him (or her) to the end of the tale and the answers ... only to find that there are none.

Here is the rub. At the end we are none the wiser as to whether Atherton was guilty or whether he was the victim of a conspiracy, or on any of the other questions that his curious case raises. And at that point one begins to wonder whether this was a tale that should not have been told in a more straightforward and conventional manner, whether the self-consciously idiosyncratic structure was unnecessarily forced. After all, it ultimately tells one no more about the essence of Atherton’s life and career than did Clarke’s incisive little essay. This is a book aimed at a popular audience, but do the prospective readers who make up that audience really need to be taken by the hand in the way Marshall attempts to do here, or could they have figured it out for themselves? It all works well in terms of Atherton’s story, but there is a loss of focus as the author attempts to trace the tale through the eighteenth century and beyond. It seems unfair to be too harsh: after all, it would have taken far more time and effort to write the book than it does to read it, and Marshall himself admits to asking “was it worth it?”, for he has, in his own words, written “a thing made up of disconnected fragments and shards”. This does, however, offer a key as to how best to get something out of it.

Mother Leakey and the Bishop is an unconventional addition to the genre of microhistory, and is perhaps best approached as a series of interlocking, distinct essays connected by threads, rather than as a single coherent story. It is not perfect. But there is enough in it worth reading. The nagging feeling that ultimately it may amount to less than the sum of its parts does not make those parts redundant. So this is perhaps a book to read in sections, to dip into rather than go through from cover to cover. Whether it will end up on sale in the gift shops of Christ Church and St Patrick’s is another question entirely.

1. Aidan Clarke, “A Woeful Sinner: John Atherton”, in Vincent Carey and Ute Lotz-Heumann (eds) Taking Sides: Colonial and Confessional Mentalités in Early Modern Ireland (Dublin 2003).

John Gibney is a Government of Ireland postdoctoral fellow at the Moore Institute for Research in the Humanities and Social Studies, NUI Galway

John Gibney is a Government of Ireland postdoctoral fellow at the Moore Institute for Research in the Humanities and Social Studies, NUI Galway.

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