Sex, Scandal and the Supernatural

Peter Marshall explains how a chance reference in an old local history book led him to reconstruct the story of a 17th-century church scandal, and its afterlife in literature, culture and politics.

John Atherton, Bishop of Waterford and Lismore, was hanged for sodomy under a law that he had helped to institute; his proctor John Childe was also hanged. Anonymous pamphlet, 1641.

Sometimes historical research and writing is a thoroughly methodical business involving the testing of carefully-formulated hypotheses. At other times it feels much more akin to investigative journalism: the historian senses a ‘story’, follows up intriguing leads, and seeks to make connections. Just such a process has led me over the past few years to a preoccupation with the life, and violent death, of John Atherton (b.1598), Protestant bishop of Waterford and Lismore in Ireland. Atherton was hanged in Dublin in December 1640 for the crime of sodomy, making him the only Anglican ‘gay bishop’ ever to pay the ultimate penalty for his orientation.

The trail leading me to the extraordinary career of Bishop Atherton began with a ghost – not metaphorically, but literally. Some years ago my attention was drawn to a set of papers in the National Archives. This contained the testimony of a group of people from Minehead in Somerset, who in 1637 claimed under oath to have witnessed several apparitions of a recently deceased old lady.

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