Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Atherton, John
ATHERTON, JOHN (1598–1640), bishop of Waterford and Lismore, is believed to have been born at Bawdripp, in Somersetshire, in 1598, where his father. Rev. John Atherton (a canon of St. Paul's), was rector of the parish. At sixteen he went to Gloucester Hall (subsequently Worcester College) but after taking his bachelor's degree he removed to Lincoln College, of which he was a member when he took his master's degree. He entered holy orders, and became rector of Huish Comb Flower in his native county. He acquired a great reputation as a skilful canonist and one learned in ecclesiastical law, and on this account is said to have attracted the notice of Thomas Wentworth, afterwards Earl of Strafford, then lord lieutenant of Ireland, and to have been appointed prebendary of St. John's, Dublin, 22 April 1630. This he held by dispensation with his previous preferment. In 1635 he became chancellor of Christ Church, and held also the rectories of Killaban and Ballintubride, in the diocese of Leighlin. He was chancellor of Killaloe in 1634. His highest promotion was reached in 1636, when (4 May) he became bishop of Waterford and Lismore. In this situation he is said to have 'behaved himself for some time with great prudence, though forward enough, if not too much, against the Roman catholicks in that country' (Wood's Athen. Oxon.). He was in 1640 accused of unnatural crime, and being found guilty was first degraded and afterwards hanged at Dublin, 5 Dec. 1640. His body, by his own desire, was buried in the obscurest part of St. John's churchyard, Dublin.
A theory has been set forth that he was in reality innocent of the crime imputed to him, and a victim to the vindictive feelings of powerful enemies. Wentworth, in his position as lord deputy, had recovered from the Earl of Cork some of the great tithes which he had appropriated, and had compelled the earl to compound for some church lands in his possession. Bishop Atherton sued for the remainder of those lands belonging to the see of Waterford which were still retained by the Earl of Cork; and Carte wishes us to believe that the bishop 'fell a sacrifice to that litigation rather than to justice, when he suffered for a pretended crime upon the testimony of a single witness that deserved no credit. The bishop absolutely denied the fact; and the fellow who swore against him, when he came to be executed himself some time afterwards for his crimes, confessed at the gallows that he had falsely accused him.' Carte's statement is much too strong. Dr. Nicholas Bernard attended him from the time of his sentence to that of his execution, and at the request of Archbishop Usher wrote; A Relation of the Penitent Death of Bishop Atherton.' From this we learn that Atherton's attitude during the trial was 'by all condemned;' but when the fatal issue became manifest his manner changed. Three times daily Bernard visited the prisoner, and after a time he became penitent, and faced the penalty with equanimity. 'The magnanimity of the man,' says Bernard, 'I did much admire.' When the news of the lord-deputy's death brought some hope of a reprieve, 'it moved him not, as rather choosing a present deserved death than the prolonging of an ignominious life ; whereby the scandal would but increase. He did so abhor himself that once a thought rising within him to have petitioned to have been beheaded, he told me he answered himself with indignation "That a dog's death was too good for him," and so judged himself to the last.' Dr. Bernard tells us that the father of Atherton had foretold the shortening of life as a penalty for disrespect to his mother. He had, when a youth, threatened her that he would hang himself with his horse's bridle on a common gallows by which they were riding. On the day of his execution he read the morning service to his fellow-prisoners, and was then escorted by the sheriff of the county, a Roman catholic, who is said to have behaved with much unnecessary harshness. Bernard nowhere expresses an opinion of Atherton's innocence, although he reports his denial 'of the main thing in the inditement, which the law laid hold of, and which hath been since confirmed by the confession of his chief accuser at his execution also, yet in his own conscience applauded and magnified God's justice in it; and so burned a bundle of papers, which he wrote out of law books, in his own defence.' These quotations are clearly incompatible with the idea that Atherton was the innocent victim of a vile conspiracy. It is to be noted that none of his accusers were Roman catholics. His execution was witnessed by an immense crowd, and his last speeches and prayers were broken by a wretch who had climbed upon one end of the gallows in order to interrupt and deride the unhappy man. A penitent and pious letter to his wife, and another to his children, are printed by Bernard.[Wood's Athen. Oxon. ed. Bliss, ii. 892; Fasti Eccles. Hiberniæ; Carte's Life of Ormonde ; Whole Works of Sir James Ware concerning Ireland, ed. Harris, Dublin, 1739, fol., i. 539, ii. 363; Life and Death of John Atherton, London, 1641 (inverse); Bernard's Penitent Death of John Atherton, Dublin, 1641, London, 1641,. 1651, 1709,&c.; Case of John Atherton, London, 1709 (this includes a letter by Thomas Mills, Bishop of Waterford); King's Case of John Atherton, London, 1716.]