John Atherton

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John Atherton
Atherton, John (1598-1640) & Childe, John (16 -1640) - 1641 (cropped).jpg
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
ChurchChurch of Ireland
DioceseChurch of Ireland Diocese of Waterford and Lismore
Personal details
Somerset, England
DiedDecember 5, 1640(1640-12-05) (aged 41–42)
Stephen's Green, Dublin
Alma materOxford University

John Atherton (1598 – 5 December 1640) was the Anglican Bishop of Waterford and Lismore in the Church of Ireland. He and John Childe (his steward and tithe proctor) were both tried and executed for buggery in 1640.[1][2]

Life and death[edit]

Early life and education[edit]

Atherton was born in 1598 in Somerset, England. His father was a parson. He studied at Oxford University and joined the ranks of the Anglican clergy.[3]

Career in the Anglican clergy[edit]

In 1630, he became prebendary of the Church of St. John the Evangelist in Dublin, chancellor of the Anglican Diocese of Killaloe in 1634, chancellor of Christ Church Cathedral and rector of Killaban and Ballintubride in 1635.[3]

In 1636, under the patronage of the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland Thomas Wentworth, 1st Earl of Strafford, he became Bishop of Waterford and Lismore in the Church of Ireland under the protests of the Roman Catholic majority in his see.[3]

After the Buggery Act 1533 was found on 1631, during the Mervyn Tuchet, 2nd Earl of Castlehaven case, to not apply to Ireland, Atherton pushed for the enactemend of "An Act for the Punishment for the Vice Of Buggery" on 1634.[4]


In 1640 Atherton was accused of buggery with a man, John Childe, his steward and tithe proctor. Even though his fellow clerics attempted to prevent his trial to save the reputation of his Church, they were the first to have been tried under the law that Atherton himself had helped to institute.[2][4]

They were found guilty and both condemned to death, to the applause of the crowd, with Atherton being nearly lynched on his way to prison at Cork; Atherton was executed by hanging in Stephen's Green, Dublin, after reading the morning service for his cellmates. Reportedly, he confessed about the crime to the priest ministering him immediately before his execution, although he had proclaimed his innocence before that and kept doing so during the execution.[2]

Atherton was ironically the first to be executed for buggery in Ireland under the law he pushed to enact.[4]


Character assassination and conspiracy[edit]

Since 1710, some historical evidence has been developed that shows Atherton might have been a victim of a conspiracy to discredit him and his patrons. This was attributable to Atherton's status as an astute lawyer, who sought to recover lost land for the relatively weak Protestant Church of Ireland during the 1630s. Unfortunately for Atherton, this alienated him from large landowners, who then allegedly used his sexuality to discredit him. The conspiracy has been alleged to have been led by a lawyer named Butler, over land in Killoges, near Waterfeld. Butler became insane after the execution, claiming to see Atherton at all time.[2]

English Puritan, Congregationalist and Independent activists, as well as English and Scottish Presbyterian activists, contemporaneously campaigned to abolish Episcopacy (bishops) within the embattled Church of England, Church of Scotland and Church of Ireland; notionally expediting the political interest in Atherton's downfall.[5]

Posthumous accusations of sexual wrongdoing also include allegations of "incest" with his sister-in-law, and infanticide of the resultant child, as well as zoophilia with cattle. However, these allegations began to be circulated several months after his death in an anonymous pamphlet[3], and may have been intended to further discredit the bishop's campaign to restore the finances of the Church of Ireland.[6]


A legend had him linked to the Old Mother Leakey, a Somerset ghost accused of shipwrecking.[7]

Another legend describes the house of Butler, the lawyer who allegedly led the conspiracy against Atherton, as being hauhted by the ghost of the bishop.[2]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Norris, David (17 May 2009). "Changing Attitudes". Public Address at the service to mark international day against homophobia in Christ Church Cathedral. David Norris. Archived from the original on 6 June 2009. Retrieved 29 November 2009.
  2. ^ a b c d e Aldrich, Robert; Wotherspoon, Garry (2002). Who's who in Gay and Lesbian History: From Antiquity to World War II. Psychology Press. ISBN 9780415159838.
  3. ^ a b c d "Homosexuality in 18th-cent. England: The Life and Death of John Atherton". Retrieved 7 April 2019.
  4. ^ a b c Hendriks, Aart; Tielman, Rob; Veen, Evert van der (1993). The Third Pink Book: A Global View of Lesbian and Gay Liberation and Oppression. Prometheus Books. pp. 151–152. ISBN 9780879758318.
  5. ^ Bray, Alan (1982) Homosexuality in Renaissance England London: Gay Men's Press
  6. ^ Marshall, Peter (February 2007). "Sex, Scandal and the Supernatural". History Today: 70–71.
  7. ^ "How whistling Somerset ghost accused Bishop of infanticide, incest & sodomy & started shipwrecking". Retrieved 7 April 2019.

Further reading[edit]