In late October 1634, in the fishing village of Minehead in Somerset, England, Susan Leakey died. She was a widow who had been living in her son Alexander's home, and Alexander's wife Elizabeth was there as well. Mother-in-law and daughter-in-law had not gotten along well, and on her deathbed, Susan Leakey said she would be back to haunt Elizabeth "in the devil's likeness." It would not be too surprising if she did; hauntings happened all the time in the seventeenth century, and no one but the family might have been concerned. But when Susan Leakey did come back, it not only bothered the family, but it resulted in justices of the peace being summoned by the privy council of Charles the First himself to investigate what was going on. Why should they care about this ghost when there were so many others? The question intrigued historian Peter Marshall, and he set to investigate. The result, _Mother Leakey & the Bishop: A Ghost Story_ (Oxford University Press) is a wide-ranging look at a tiny incident. Marshall tours us through the politics of the era, the relationship between Ireland and England and between the different churches of the age, and the different ways that people understood visitants from beyond the grave. There are, to be sure, dead ends in the investigation; they are to be expected when looking almost four centuries back, at records from an obscure locale. Much remains murky and out of the reach of the most intrepid historian. But Marshall shows that Susan Leakey's spirit is not at rest, and continues to have surprising effects even into our own times.
Mother Leakey's ghost wanted to get a message to the bishop. The investigation by the eminent personages appointed by the privy council was probably caused by suspicion on the part of the Archbishop of Canterbury that this was some subversion against his bishop, possibly blackmailing because of a past charge of incest. The bishop had made enemies in Ireland, but the blackmail, if any, didn't make a difference. Mother Leakey's hauntings may have put more of a spotlight on him, but what made a difference was that he was charged with sodomy, and he was hanged in 1640. The bishop's literal ghost did not itself come to haunt those left behind, but it did so figuratively, starting with a book reporting his penitence, which was advertised seventy years later with a new charge of sexual congress with a cow. Whatever his flaws (he certainly had some), and whatever the truth of the case, the bishop is featured in some current writings and websites as a homosexual martyr. Mother Leakey has shown up in literature; Sir Walter Scott wrote a poem about her. She has not ceased her effects on her section of the world. Not long ago she had a tearoom at quayside in Minehead, Mother Leakey's Tearoom, but the name has now changed. She is, however, still credited with causing bad weather in the region ("It looks like Mother Leakey's up to her old tricks again," said an old sailor).
Marshall's entertaining and witty book is at its best in presenting the conceptions of ghosts from Mother Leakey's time to our own. Making storms, for instance, is something witches were more likely to do than ghosts, and Mother Leakey has entered the literature here and there as a witch. Ghosts could be part of Catholic beliefs before the Reformation, because a dead person, if forgiven, was spending time in purgatory before heaven, and might come visit the family before making a permanent celestial home. Indeed, after the Reformation, Protestants, who believed that if you were going to heaven, you made no sojourn through purgatory, taught that friars and monks had staged hauntings merely to reinforce beliefs in purgatory (and to get money), but the Leakeys were not Catholics. If there were no purgatory, souls in hell could not get out to haunt, and souls in heaven would not want to, so what were these ghosts? Why, angels and demons sent from one place or the other; it was hard to ascertain from which place, as Hamlet would tell you. Mother Leakey conformed to the behavior of ghosts of her time, coming back shortly after her death to people that remembered her; the family would not have as easily believed in ghosts of the distant past as we know them: "ghosts of the modern heritage industry are the ancient fixtures of the stately homes circuit". Looking back on the traces Marshall could find of the many questions he brings up "has at times been an exercise in the sheer and uncooperative difficulty of history, an exposure to the blank impenetrability of the past." But Mother Leakey and the bishop are historic figures, mutated by subsequent generations to serve different purposes, and this is a wonderful story of the stories of history.