Bishop John Atherton and his steward John Childe went to the gallows on this day in 1640. On December 5, six years after he advocated for the enactment of the Buggery Act in Ireland, Atherton became its first victim.
John Atherton moved to Ireland in 1630 after attending Oxford. In 1636, became Bishop of Waterford and Lismore.
Along the way, he became known for promoting the local enactment of Henry VIII’s Buggery Act.
Introduced in England in 1533, Henry’s daughter Mary later repealed the act, preferring religious courts to deal with such matters. However, on Bloody Mary’s death, her marginally less homicidal half-sister Elizabeth I re-enacted the law.
In 1631, Mervyn Tuchet, 2nd Earl of Castlehaven, lost his head following convictions for the rape of his wife and sodomy with two male servants. During his trial, it emerged that the Buggery Act did not apply in Ireland. Atherton, busy making a name for himself as a priest/lawyer went into bat for the local enactment of the act.
The Irish House of Commons passed An Act for the Punishment for the Vice of Buggery on November 11, 1634. The act prohibited anal sex in all and any circumstance.
Hoist by his own petard
In 1640, Bishop Atherton himself faced accusations of buggery with his steward John Childe. Fellow clergy tried to hush up the scandal to protect the church. But to no avail. The prosecution proceeded and resulted in convictions for both men.
On December 5, 1640, John Atherton was hung in Dublin. He thereby became the first victim of a law he wanted. Childe went to the gallows shortly after the bishop.
Atherton previously pissed off large landowners in Ireland by attempting to take back land for the church. That inspired posthumous allegations of a conspiracy against him, despite a reported confession to a fellow priest before his execution.
Following Atherton’s death, stories emerged of further crimes.
Porn, incest and farmyard frolics
Biographia Britannica reported in 1744 that Atherton “committed incest with his wife’s sister, and was so inadvertent in this unlawful intercourse, that it came to be discovered to the shame and scandal of them both.”
The author explained Atherton’s sinfulness as resulting from defilement “in his youth, by one of his own sex, probably before he left university.”
The Bishop apparently fell further into moral corruption through the ‘reading of naughty books and viewing of immodest pictures’. And let’s not forget the bestiality.
“There was a favourite but unlucky Mare, by which the unweary Bishop got his deadly downfall.”
Fans could read more in the snappily-titled pamphlet published after Atherton’s death. The Case of John Atherton, Bishop of Waterford, in Ireland; convicted of the sin of Uncleanness with a Cow, and other Creatures; for which he was hanged at Dublin.
While we would argue sex with a sister-in-law does not constitute incest, it was all bullshit anyway. Sensational clickbait intended to lure readers. Bishop Atherton only faced a charge of buggery – no mention of incest, porn or frolicking with farm animals until after his death.
The Buggery Act
Henry VIII’s Buggery Act targeted homosexual sex. Despite the Irish legislation outlawing all anal sex, English courts only established in 1716 that heterosexual sodomy also fell within the purview of the original act. Oral sex however remained legal, only becoming a crime in 1885, discreetly named a ‘gross indecency’.
The last English executions for sodomy occurred in 1835. However, executions continued in the dominions with Tasmania being the last British territory to hang men for homosexual sex acts.
Read More: <— On this day —> December 6
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