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

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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.

The lady in question was Susan Leakey, widowed mother of a distressed Minehead merchant named Alexander Leakey. The witnesses included Alexander's young wife, Elizabeth, who had actually spoken with the ghost during a tense encounter in her bedchamber. Seventeenth-century 'ghosts' were often seen as a way of sorting out disagreements about property and inheritance, and on the surface this case seemed to fit the pattern. The apparition, so Elizabeth claimed, had assigned her and her husband ownership of a valuable golden chain, currently in the possession of a kinswoman in Barnstaple. There was also something about a secret message to be delivered to Alexander's sister, Joan Atherton, in Ireland, which Elizabeth refused to divulge, a detail which seemed interesting, but obscure and unfathomable.

At the time I was collecting materials on ghost beliefs in early modern England, and there was much of interest here. Elizabeth reported that Mother Leakey had on her deathbed threatened to return 'in the devil's likeness'. She also linked the apparitions with the loss at sea of several of Alexander's ships. But I was missing something vital, and failing to ask myself an (in hindsight) obvious question. Why were the authorities taking such an interest? The statements were collected by three Justices of the Peace, and sent up to the royal Council in London, where they were carefully scrutinized by Charles I's leading minister, Archbishop William Laud. Neither the state nor Church authorities usually paid much attention to stories about ghosts, unless some crime were being alleged, or the reputation of some great personage was involved.

In the spring of 2001, while working in the Somerset Record Office, I happened to pull off the shelves a History of Minehead, published by a local vicar in 1903. He blithely informed me that what I had assumed to be an obscure nugget of cultural history was in fact 'the famous Minehead ghost story, immortalized by Sir Walter Scott'. From that point, I became increasingly obsessed with trying to establish how the Minehead ghost had come to the attention of Scotland's greatest Romantic novelist, and why the tale was evidently still familiar at the end of Queen Victoria's reign. What I began to discover was that the depositions from Minehead represented only the tip of an iceberg of rumour and scandal.

Scott (who referred to the case in his poem Rokeby and in his 1830 Letters on Demonology) got his information from a printed source of the early 1700s. From there I worked back to a set of pamphlets about the case published in the mid-seventeenth century, and began to piece together the connections between the Leakeys and Bishop Atherton. Atherton was a Somerset clergyman who had married Mother Leakey's daughter Joan in 1620. In 1630 he took his family to Ireland, where his career was advanced by the Lord Deputy, Sir Thomas Wentworth. Thanks to Wentworth's good offices the king appointed him bishop of Waterford in 1636 (an event that seems to have been the trigger for Elizabeth Leakey's visions). …