Spirits reborn as martyrs and money-spinners

Mother Leakey and the Bishop
March 16, 2007

This book is about two connected stories and how they have been remembered and refashioned by later generations, thus opening up questions about history and about how the past affects the present.

The first is a ghost story, the tale of "Mother Leakey" - more properly Susan Leakey, a widow who died in 1634 at Minehead in the house of her son Alexander. Shortly after her burial, knockings in the chamber where she had passed away indicated that her spirit was not at rest. A year after her death, Alexander Leakey's nephew, aged 14, died in the house of an unidentifiable illness, declaring that "he could not be quiet for his grandmother" and crying out that he could see the devil. In March 1636, Alexander's wife, Elizabeth, discovered the ghost of her mother-in-law in her bedchamber one night, and over the next few months other inhabitants of Minehead encountered the apparition. Elizabeth Leakey had later encounters in which the ghost passed messages to her, in particular directing her to contact Joan Atherton, a married daughter of Susan Leakey then living in Ireland.

These experiences were recorded in official documentation in 1637 and were to live on over the centuries, attracting the attention of, among others, Sir Walter Scott. Somerset folklorists were to find that the Mother Leakey legend was well established, her tale was adapted to their purposes by parapsychologists and was also taken over by the local tourist industry. In the 1980s, a family-owned coach company ran a "ghost bus" over the Quantock hills, with a member of the family representing Mother Leakey regularly appearing in the course of a staged breakdown near Minehead. There was also, until recently, a teashop in Minehead named "Mother Leakey's Parlour".

The other story concerns John Atherton, the husband of Susan Leakey's oldest daughter, Joan. He was an English Anglican clergyman who had left Somerset for Ireland in 1629, becoming bishop of Waterford and Lismore in 1636. In 1640, he was executed in Dublin, apparently after a conviction for buggery, the only Anglican bishop to have suffered that fate. The context by which he came to his "shameful end" was provided by the politico-religious situation in Ireland in the late 1630s, with Lord President Sir Thomas Wentworth pressing for greater royal control while across the Irish Sea England was sliding towards civil war. And, Peter Marshall claims, Atherton was linked to the ghostly appearances of his mother-in-law. In the 17th century, ghosts appeared for a reason. Inter alia, it seems that Susan Leakey's spirit was troubled by the knowledge that her son-in-law had been complicit in the murder of a child he had fathered with a woman other than his wife.

The Atherton story was to go through even more mutations than Mother Leakey's, with the executed and disgraced bishop being excoriated in the later 17th century, recorded without the exact nature of his crime being specified in the 18th and 19th, and reclaimed as a martyr for the gay movement in the late 20th.

Marshall, a distinguished historian of the Reformation, has clearly had a lot of fun in putting this book together and in exploring how the memory and significance of historical events can change over time. He declares that he is writing a popular history, but like many academic historians embarking on such a project, he sometimes protests a little too much. He describes himself (accurately) as a university-based historian who has written on large and "respectable" themes, and he avers that historians of this type do not regard themselves as storytellers. But there was discussion of the revival of narrative among academic historians a quarter of a century ago, and his suggestion that university historians have concerned themselves with quantified accounts of economic and social structures while ignoring the motivation and priorities of people in the past is surely an ill-founded caricature.

More seriously, as Marshall himself more or less admits at several points, there are simply too many loose ends and areas of inconclusiveness in his two interconnected stories, and one suspects that the general reader at whom he is aiming might find this a little troubling. There are many good things in the book. The world, physical and mental, of the Leakeys is admirably evoked, while Marshall shows formidable forensic skills, particularly in his tracing how the Atherton story was reconfigured in the late 17th and early 18th centuries. Yet one has a sense that this book could be classified as a good idea that did not quite work out: that it succeeds to the extent that it does is, ironically, a testimony to Marshall's undoubted abilities as an analytical historian.

James Sharpe is professor of history, York University.

Mother Leakey and the Bishop: A Ghost Story

Author - Peter Marshall
Publisher - Oxford University Press
Pages - 323
Price - £12.99
ISBN - 0 19 9371 5

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