Image of two men kissingHomosexuality in Eighteenth-Century England: A Sourcebook compiled by Rictor Norton

The Life and Death of John Atherton

John Atherton (1598-1640) was born near Bridgwater in Somerset, the son of an Anglican parson. He was educated at Oxford, and served as Anglican rector of Huish Comb Flower, Somerset. He became prebendary of St John's, Dublin in 1630; chancellor of Killaloe in 1634; chancellor of Christ Church and rector of Killaban and Ballintubride in 1635. In 1636, under the patronage of Thomas Wentworth, Earl of Strafford, Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, Atherton was appointed as Lord Bishop of Waterford and Lismore, but he was not welcomed by the Roman Catholic majority in his see. In 1640 he was accused of buggery with his steward and tithe proctor, John Childe. The Bishop's fellow clerics did everything they could to prevent justice being done, to avoid disgrace to the reformed religion of Ireland. But the verdict of guilty was hailed by cheers in court, and he was nearly murdered on his way from the bar to the gaol in Cork. On the day of execution, he read the morning service for his fellow prisoners, and then was placed in a carriage with his arms pinioned to prevent escape, and, while Christ Church tolled the Passing Bell, in a great company of halberds led by three sheriffs, he passed through the thronged streets to Dublin Castle. When Atherton saw the crowds, he said "I am made a spectacle not only to Man, but I hope to Angels also, who are attending to receive my Soul." He was hanged on Gallows Green on 5 December 1640. He always denied the specific charge of sodomy, and did so once again from the gallows, though he had virtually admitted his guilt to the divine who attended him in prison (Nicolas Barnard, The Case of John Atherton (London, 1710), pp. 17-18). At his execution "he was dressed in a suit of mourning, and appeared not in the least intimidated; but even smiled when the populace shouted with indignation as he ascended the scaffold" (William Benbow, The Crimes of the Clergy (London, 1823), pp. 25-26). His lover John Childe was hanged shortly afterwards at Bandon Bridge. This was the second pair of men executed for sodomy in UK history (the first men executed for sodomy were Lord Audley, Earl of Castlehaven and his two menservants, in 1631. The contemporary pamphlet reproduced below, The Life and Death of John Atherton (1641), has illustrations of both men hanging on the gallows. The trial records, like most other records throughout Ireland, were destroyed in the Jacobite rebellion that broke out almost immediately after Atherton's execution, but in 1710 Atherton was defended as a victim of a conspiracy, on evidence gathered from people recently living. The main reason for the Bishop's disgrace may have been his political zeal in opposing the Articles of Irish Convocation in 1634, and the personal enmity of the Earl of Cork, whom he had successfully sued in a dispute over land rights. Atherton's patron, the Earl of Strafford, also an enemy of the Earl of Cork, was executed for treason in May 1641. The conspiracy may have been organized by a lawyer named Butler, who was disputing with Atherton over the ownership of some land at Killoges, near Waterford. Butler went mad soon after Atherton's execution, and claimed to see his apparition constantly before him. Even as late as 1710 Butler's former house was said to be haunted by the Bishop's ghost (The Case of John Atherton ... Fairly Represented (London, 1710)).





within the Kingdome of Ireland,
borne near Bridgwater in Somersetshire.

Who for Incest, Buggery, and many other enormous crimes, after having lived a vicious life, dyed a shamefull death, and was on the fifth of December last past, hanged on the Gallows Greene at Dublin, and his man Iohn Childe being his Proctor, with whom he had committed the buggery, was hangd in March following at Bandon Bridges, condemned thereunto at the Assises holden at Corke.

London Printed, 1641.

Confusion give my thoughts once leave to be
Exempted from thy lawless Tyranny:
If for the space of but one poore halfe houre,
O give me leave to sit in quiets Bower,
That I with patience may delineate,
In lines of life this Prelates sordid state,
Who first in England did his life receive,
His education Oxford did him give,
Thence to a Benefice preferd he was,
In which he vitiously his time did passe,
And although married to a handsome wife,
Blest with sweet children th'only joy of life,
Yet so farre baseness did in him prevaile,
That unto Lust he himself set to saile;
Defloured Virgins, Marriage beds defilde,
With many other vitious crimes too vilde
To be conceivd, beyond all measure proud,
Impudence and ambition did him shroud.
Amongst his flock he sow'd seditious strife,
Set friend 'gainst friend, husband against wife.
So that 'mongst many he did live alone,
And loving none, beloved was of none.
Lastly 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, [A2]
There through insinuation did obtaine,
The Parsonage of S. Iohn, became Chaplaine
Vnto that honored Lord and worthy Peere,
Lord Chancellor there, Lord Viscount Loftus here,
By whose assistance he did eke require,
To be Sub-deane of Christ-church, one step higher,
Whose goodnesse for to guerdon he did prove,
A Iudas, and betrayd him for his love,
Brought him into disgrace with that great Sir,
Who brookt no Rivall nor Competitor,
Straffords sterne Earle, a man of eminent hight,
Knowledge, and wit, had it beene governd right.
Courage and resolution to those high
Imployments he had give him, but why
Should he his merits banish and so dye,
Imping his wings with false felicity?
Winning on him, by him he was preferd
Vnto the Bishoprick of Waterford,
And of Lysmore, where he did five years Lord it
In such sort, as all good men much abhord it.
But in the Interim marke what did befall,
If so he had had any grace at all,
At which he aimd, but not the grace of God,
But at such Grace as had our Graceles Laud
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: [A2v]
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.
Here Lord like Prelates, two things I propound,
Or leave your Seas, or in them your vice Dround.
If ye will Bishops be, be such as was
That Godly Timothy, make him your glasse,
Shun avarice, shun extortion, shun vaine pride,
Shun hate, dissimulation, let your Guide
Be godlinesse. Shun Lust, Shun Buggary,
Shun Incest, Rape, and shun Adultery.
Be practizers of every honest thing,
Be meeke like Christ your Bishop Lord and King,
So may you live belov'd, and dye to life,
Not by the Axe or by the hangmans knife,
A halter as this Bishop here hath done,
When being hangd your selves due scarce bemone: [A3]
And Proctors be ye warnd by Iohn Childs fall,
Least that his fate betide unto you all.
Lust, Avarice, Extortion of Fees
Caus'd him at London bridge his life to leese.
Y'are alike guilty: let not the same thing
Draw you like him to Heaven in a string.
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 knowne to use, amounts to sixtie fower.
Nor was it out of frailty he did sin
In this vile sort, That might excus'd have bin.
For when that nature faild all these to please,
To provoke Lust he used Cantharides [aphrodisiacs],
Nor did this Bravo as some Lechers use
When they have acted sinne, seeke to excuse
The same by mincing or a flat deniall,
He scornd such basenesse, let him make a triall
Of any neighbours wife, as oft he did,
He would not have his dealing to be hid.
He'd rather Iustifie the act for good,
As thus, twas done, to purifie the blood.
Or if a barren wombe he chanc'd to prove,
Twas cause he did not the Stone Collick love.
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.
Thus many salves he had for many sores,
But still the cure was wrought by the art of his whores.
If not, t'aduance his Lust this Lustful Elfe
Had tricks enough whereby to helpe himself. [A3r]
A man well knowne in Waterford had neede
To borrow A hundred pounds, in hope to speed
Vnto this Reverend Lord he did addresse
Himselfe, and his sute, which thus he did expresse:
My Lord I oft have tasted of your favour
And promises to doe me good, which rather
Induceth me unto this bould request.
Your Lordship wilbe pleas'd to make me blest
With the Loane of 100. pound which Ile repay
Within a month or else on any day
Your Lordship shall appoint. This courteous Lord
Answer'd, Sir you shall have it on your word
And more to doe your good, but let your wife
Be present, least there should be any strife,
If you should faile for to repay the same,
Or I for breach of payment should make claime.
He grants, and goes, shee comes, the mony's ready,
So is my Lord, And the poore Cuckold's needy.
sir faith my Lord, though't be an intire summe,
It is odd mony that to me is come.
Amongst it all ther's but one piece of gould,
That with the rest not easie to be tould,
Goe draw it out within my study dore,
Ile trust you there, but will not many more.
But cause your credits crackt, mean while your wife shal stay
And talke with me: tis granted, in his seat
The Bishop mounts, and does the well knowne feat.
Another when his Lordships watch digrest,
As he himself did alwayes, to a feast
He invites himselfe: which ended, he requests
The Goodman of the house (there being no Guests [A4]
To spoyle his sport) That he would set his watch
At his Sunne Dyall, at which he doth catch,
Proud of such favour, goes without deniall,
Meane while another's set by his wives noone dyall.
These are but tricks of youth, now arme your eares
With patience, for to heare of pallid feares:
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,
As is forenam'd; this Childe a Proctor too,
Nor him alone, but his Parrator he must doe;
These and a Thousand like these he hath done,
Besides endeavouring to eclipse the Sunne
Of this our Skie, by making Charles waine draw
Sublunary, by subverting the Law
Fundamentall, and putting in the place,
Commission high, Popes Canons, Great Lauds Grace.
For the subverting of such Devillish plots,
From staining of our Kingdome with such blots,
For th' happy raigne of our most Sacred King,
And those that from that Royall Stocke doe spring,
For Parliament, and health of Martiall men,
All Loyall Subjects cry with me, Amen.

FINIS. [A4r]

SOURCE: The Life and Death of John Atherton, London, 1641. Introductory material copyright Rictor Norton, partly from material in my entry on Atherton in the Who's Who in Gay & Lesbian History, ed. Robert Aldrich and Garry Wotherspoon (London and New York: Routledge, 2001). (ACKNOWLEDGEMENT: I am grateful to Giovanni Dall'Orto for sending me a pdf copy of the 1641 pamphlet.

CITATION: If you cite this Web page, please use the following citation:
Rictor Norton (Ed.), "The Life and Death of John Atherton, 1641", Homosexuality in Eighteenth-Century England: A Sourcebook. 16 February 2004, updated 15 June 2008 <>.

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