Securing our history for the future

Bishop John Atherton 1598-1640

John Atherton was born in Bawdrip, the son of the local rector. Always a controversial character, he proved to be the cause of concern for both parents. On one occasion, as a young lad, when out riding with his mother, he stopped and stared at a gallows. It fascinated the young man with thoughts of how it would be to hang there himself “I’ll hang myself from there one day, mother. With my horses bridle. That’s how I’ll do it.” said John to his mother.

The impact was devastating. The previously calm mother, enjoying a morning’s ride, was now quite distraught. To hear her son talk this way terrified her. Surely he couldn’t mean what he said. Surely it was just a young man’s fantasy.

John’s father, on hearing how his son had behaved, was furious. How could the boy upset his mother so. “It will be a truly short life for you, my lad, if that’s the way you behave.

How dare you show such disrespect to your to mother”. Perhaps unbeknown to himself, he had predicted his son’s premature end. At the age of sixteen, John was sent to Gloucester Hall to further his education taking a bachelor’s degree before transferring to Lincoln College to complete his Masters. Full time education complete, he entered Holy Orders and became rector of Huish Combe Flower in Somerset. He continued his learning and developed an in depth understanding of   ecclesiastical law and attracted the attention of Thomas Wentworth, the Earl of Stafford and Lord Lieutenant of Ireland. It was through this association that John was appointed the Prebendary of St. John’s, Dublin on April 22nd, 1630.

In 1635 he became the Chancellor of Christ Church and May 4th, 1636 took the position of Bishop of Waterford and a position in which he was described as having ‘behaved himself for some time with great prudence, though forward enough, if not too much, against the Roman Catholics’.

His unpopularity appears to stem from his attempts to acquire large areas of land for the church. One particular claim was against the Earl of Cork and in this way he made himself many powerful enemies and hastened his premature downfall. In 1640 he was accused of ‘unnatural crime’ and found guilty of sodomy with his tithe proctor. Throughout the case he pleaded his innocence in the face of flimsy evidence. His sole accuser was a man lacking integrity and credibility. It was his word against John’s. The accuser won the day and the outcome was inevitable. With John out of the way, the threatened loss of lands would presumably disappear. The trial over, John Atherton was condemned to death by hanging and taken to Dublin Gaol awaiting execution. One contemporary said John ‘fell a sacrifice to that litigation rather than justice?

Right to the end, John maintained his absolute denial of the charge. On his execution day, he read a service to his fellow prisoners, dignified to the end, and proceeded to the gallows with the execution party. A huge crowd gathered for what was clearly a popular occasion and gave John the opportunity to address the public and protest his innocence. Alas his statement and final prayers were subjected to the barracking of a local hooligan who had climbed the gallows and, enjoying his five minutes of attention, threw verbal abuse at the condemned bishop. It was an undignified end on that winter’s day on December 5th, 1640.

Years later, the man on whose sole evidence John was condemned, was himself brought to justice and hanged. At the gallows, he confessed his sins and in that confession declared that the accusation he raised against John Atherton had been completely false. John Atherton was innocent.