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Promoting Irish Culture and History from Little Rock, Arkansas, USA


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Execution of John Atherton, Anglican Bishop of Waterford & Lismore

john-atherton-execution-pamphletJohn Atherton, Anglican Bishop of Waterford and Lismore in the Church of Ireland, is executed on December 5, 1640, on a charge of immorality.

Atherton is born in 1598 in Somerset, England. He studies at Oxford University and joins the ranks of the Anglican clergy. In 1634 he becomes Bishop of Waterford and Lismore in the Church of Ireland. In 1640 he is accused of buggery with a man, John Childe, his steward and tithe proctor. They are tried under a law that Atherton himself had helped to institute. They are both condemned to death, and Atherton is executed in St. Stephen’s Green, Dublin. Reportedly, he confesses to the crime immediately before his execution, although he had proclaimed his innocence before that.

More recently, some historical evidence has been developed that shows Atherton might have been a victim of a conspiracy to discredit him and his patrons. This is attributable to Atherton’s status as an astute lawyer, who seeks to recover lost land for the relatively weak Protestant Church of Ireland during the 1630s. Unfortunately for Atherton, this alienates him from large landowners, who then allegedly use his sexuality to discredit him.

English Puritan, Congregationalist and Independent activists, as well as English and Scottish Presbyterian activists, contemporaneously campaign to abolish Episcopacy (bishops) within the embattled Church of England, Church of Scotland and Church of Ireland, notionally expediting the political interest in Atherton’s downfall.

Posthumous accusations of sexual wrongdoing also include allegations of “incest” with his sister-in-law, and infanticide of the resultant child, as well as zoophilia with cattle. However, these allegations begin to be circulated several months after his death in an anonymous pamphlet, and may have been intended to further discredit the bishop’s campaign to restore the finances of the Church of Ireland.

(Pictured: Anonymous pamphlet of the hangings of John Atherton and John Childe, 1641)

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The Homosexuality Trial of Oscar Wilde

The trial of Oscar Wilde on charges of homosexuality, then considered a crime, begins at the Old Bailey on April 26, 1895.

With a warrant for Wilde’s arrest on charges of sodomy and gross indecency having been issued, Robbie Ross finds Wilde at the Cadogan Hotel, Knightsbridge, with Reginald Turner. Both men advise Wilde to go at once to Dover and try to get a boat to France. His mother advises him to stay and fight. Wilde, lapsing into inaction, can only say, “The train has gone. It’s too late.” Wilde is arrested for “gross indecency” under Section 11 of the Criminal Law Amendment Act 1885, a term meaning homosexual acts not amounting to buggery, an offence under a separate statute. At Wilde’s instruction, Ross and Wilde’s butler force their way into the bedroom and library of 16 Tite Street, packing some personal effects, manuscripts, and letters. Wilde is then imprisoned on remand at HM Prison Holloway where he receives daily visits from his partner, Lord Alfred Douglas.

Events move quickly and his prosecution opens on April 26, 1895. Wilde pleads not guilty. He has already begged Douglas to leave London for Paris, but Douglas complains bitterly, even wanting to give evidence. He is pressed to go and soon flees to the Hotel du Monde. Fearing persecution, Ross and many others also leave the United Kingdom during this time.

Under cross examination by Charles Gill, Wilde is at first hesitant, but then eloquently responds to Gill’s question about the meaning of “the love that dare not speak its name.” Wilde replies, “‘The love that dare not speak its name” in this century is such a great affection of an elder for a younger man as there was between David and Jonathan, such as Plato made the very basis of his philosophy, and such as you find in the sonnets of Michelangelo and Shakespeare. It is that deep spiritual affection that is as pure as it is perfect. It dictates and pervades great works of art, like those of Shakespeare and Michelangelo, and those two letters of mine, such as they are. It is in this century misunderstood, so much misunderstood that it may be described as ‘the love that dare not speak its name,’ and on that account of it I am placed where I am now. It is beautiful, it is fine, it is the noblest form of affection. There is nothing unnatural about it. It is intellectual, and it repeatedly exists between an older and a younger man, when the older man has intellect, and the younger man has all the joy, hope and glamour of life before him. That it should be so, the world does not understand. The world mocks at it, and sometimes puts one in the pillory for it.”

Wilde’s response is counter-productive in a legal sense as it only serves to reinforce the charges of homosexual behaviour. The trial ends with the jury unable to reach a verdict. Wilde’s counsel, Sir Edward Clarke, is finally able to get a magistrate to allow Wilde and his friends to post bail. The Reverend Stewart Headlam puts up most of the £5,000 surety required by the court, having disagreed with Wilde’s treatment by the press and the courts. Wilde is freed from Holloway and, shunning attention, goes into hiding at the house of Ernest and Ada Leverson, two of his firm friends. Edward Carson approaches Frank Lockwood QC, the Solicitor General and asks, “Can we not let up on the fellow now?” Lockwood answers that he would like to do so, but fears that the case has become too politicised to be dropped.

The final trial is presided over by Alfred Wills. On May 25, 1895 Wilde and Alfred Taylor are convicted of gross indecency and sentenced to two years’ hard labour. The judge describes the sentence, the maximum allowed, as “totally inadequate for a case such as this,” and that the case is “the worst case I have ever tried.” Wilde responds, “And I? May I say nothing, my Lord?” but it is drowned out by cries of “Shame” in the courtroom.

Oscar Wilde enters prison on May 25, 1895 and is released on May 18, 1897.

(Pictured: Oscar Wilde and Lord Alfred Douglas)