The Ghost and the Bishop

Peter Marshall. Mother Leakey and the Bishop: A Ghost Story. Oxford University Press, 2007.

When the ghost of the recently deceased Susan Leakey of Minehead first appeared to her daughter-in-law in March 1636, about 18 months after her death, she acted in the manner expected of a well behaved SPR approved ghost, as an apparition, dressed as in life, seen around the house. However as this was the seventeenth century things soon took decidedly different turn, for the ghost now gave her daughter-in-law Elizabeth specific messages, one of these aimed at her daughter Joan Atherton in Ireland was to have dramatic consequences.

For Joan was married to the Bishop of Waterford and Lissmore, and rumours circulated about this message. Elizabeth was interviewed by the local justices, who being of a more sceptical disposition than nineteenth century psychical researchers, quickly detected contradictions and weaknesses in the stories she and her servants told, and judged that this was all a ploy to extort money.

But bye-and-bye the Bishop was to be brought down, accused of sodomy by a former servant. This was just the icing on the cake of a series of allegations against the Bishop, which were basically that he shagged anything that breathed, including his deceased wife’s sister, who had borne him a child which they later murdered.

Marshall explores how these related stories, the high political drama in Ireland, part of the struggles that formed the overture to the Civil War, and the local Minehead ghost story wove together in the centuries to come. At first the ghost receded, good Puritans knew that the dead went straight to heaven or hell, and didn’t hang around their parlours delivering ambiguous messages. If you said you saw a ghost you were either lying, or had met one of the minions of the devil in disguise, no doubt to seduce you back into the ways of Romish superstition. Within a generation or so, it was not so much Catholicism as atheism, sadduceeism and general disbelief that was seen as the enemy of all right thinking Anglicans, and a host of intellectuals rushed to compile tales of ghosts and witches and things that go bump in the night to prove the existence of the invisible world.

It was in this climate that a certain John Dunstan produced a pamphlet on the Minehead ghost, compiled from stories collected by a nonconformist preacher, John Quick, some thirty years earlier. In Quick and Dunstan’s account Mother Leakey’s ghost was now very far from SPR approved, it hung around country stiles where it took to kicking sceptics in the butt, worse than that it had taken to whistling down the wind, not only to wreck the ships of her merchant son, but to generally affright local sailors. She is the howl of the hurricane now, a spectre of nemesis. In these tales she has helped the bad Bishop to murder his babe.

We can see the hand of folklore here, and the assimilation of the local ghost into a pre-existing pattern of folk belief, but Magonia readers might pick up on something that Marshall does not; there is a parallel between the pre mortem activities of Bishop Atherton and the post mortem ones of his mother in law. Both are seen as falling into a state of wild nature, the Bishop’s promiscuous and uncontrolled ‘wild’ sexuality, Susan’s assimilation into the wildest forces of nature; sex and storm rip them away from the Christian commonwealth. There seems to be a clear folk message, you never know what dark secrets lie beneath the masks of the righteous, what boiling and terrible passions lie in the breasts of the respectable. This was to be the theme of another 17th century story of secret vice, the incestuous relationship between the ever so respectable Major Weir and his sister Janet, which led to their execution for witchcraft.

Atherton and Susan are not accused directly of witchcraft, but the “unnatural” and supernatural crimes of which they are accused in folk memory are those often attributed to witches and Mother Leakey is indeed turned by later generations into a witch. There is the theme also of those who are the guardians of the social order are secretly subverting it from within, secretly perpetrating the “worst thing there is” (the nature of which varies with time and culture. We can also see echoes of the modern confessional, surely today Bishop Atherton’s “victims” would have been on TV chat shows, “repressed memories” taking the place of ghosts as outers of hidden secrets.

Marshall’s historical experiences also throw light on some other issues, for example the claim that people who claim past lives have access to information found only in obscure archives. This is what Marshall thought of this story, it was stumbled on while searching in just such obscure archives, only to find after several years of research that the whole story had appeared in a Victorian local history, complete with material since lost, and had in fact featured in a popular book by Sir Walter Scott. -- Peter Rogerson

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