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Mother Leakey and the Bishop: A Ghost Story [Hardcover]

Peter Marshall
4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (4 customer reviews)

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Book Description

22 Feb 2007
Halloween 1636: sightings of the ghost of an old woman begin to be reported in the small English coastal town of Minehead, and a royal commission is sent to investigate. December 1640: a disgraced Protestant bishop is hanged in the Irish capital, Dublin, after being convicted of an 'unspeakable' crime. In this remarkable piece of historical detective work, Peter Marshall sets out to uncover the intriguing links between these two seemingly unconnected events. The result is a compelling tale of dark family secrets, of efforts to suppress them, and of the ways in which they finally come to light. It is also the story of a shocking seventeenth-century Church scandal which cast its shadow over religion and politics in Britain and Ireland for the best part of three centuries, drawing in a host of well known and not-so-well-known characters along the way, including Jonathan Swift, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and Walter Scott. A fascinating story in its own right, Mother Leakey and the Bishop is also a sparkling demonstration of how the telling of stories is central to the way we remember the past, and can become part of the fabric of history itself.

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Product details

  • Hardcover: 352 pages
  • Publisher: OUP Oxford (22 Feb 2007)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0199273715
  • ISBN-13: 978-0199273713
  • Product Dimensions: 2.5 x 13.9 x 20.4 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (4 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 1,004,003 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
  • See Complete Table of Contents

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Product Description


A valuable contribution to the micro-histories of the early modern world. There is much for general readers to enjoy and scholars to admire...the details is so skilfully handled as to be unerringly involving and illuminating. (Malcolm Gaskell, TLS)

Peter Marshall... is a beautiful writer and his book is a shining example of how narrative history can be used to illustrate a complicated subject such as 17th century religious belief...a remarkable piece of detective work. (John Coulter, Tribune)

Marshall brings a formidable hinterland of learning to these stories, but he wears this lightly... A thought-provoking and enjoyable read. (Jeremy Gregory, Church Times)

More sheer entertainment value than any other history book you'll ever read...If you have the slightest inclination to find history interesting, you really can't help but love Peter Marshall's book. (Lucy Wooding, Literary Review)

Shrewdly calibrated, abundantly entertaining. (Jonathan Keates, Spectator)

Marshall's way with witty modern parallels is just one of the delights of this book. (Jonathan Sale, The Independent)

[A] beautifully intelligent book...It is an ugly story, of course, but Marshall's way of telling it makes it irresistible. (John Carey, Sunday Times (Culture))

Interesting, absorbing and written in an engaging style. (Fortean Times)

Marshall's splendidly written book is a model of how history should be written and practiced (William Gibson, Archives)

About the Author

Peter Marshall is Professor of History at the University of Warwick, with a particular interest in the study of religious belief and practice in sixteenth and seventeenth-century England and the cultural impact of the English Reformation. He has published widely in the field, including a survey of the period, Reformation England 1480-1642, and The Catholic Priesthood and the English Reformation, also published by Oxford University Press.

Inside This Book (Learn More)
First Sentence
IN February 1637, three important and powerful men sat and listened to the tale you have just read, or to something very similar, and decided that they did not believe a word of it. Read the first page
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Front Cover | Copyright | Table of Contents | Excerpt | Index
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Customer Reviews

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Magical mystery tour 11 Feb 2008
This is huge fun ... or at least, it starts as fun and ends up as a bit more than that. The sensationalist raw material - the ghost, the bishop convicted of sodomy (though probably not of bestiality, sadly), and the weird connections between them - are up front. But having given us this racy drama, Marshall then won't let us get familiar with it: he keeps showing us the same events through different eyes, how history and prejudice and everyone's agenda has changed it. You start by enjoying a rollocking tale, and you finish wondering how we actually know anything about anything. Oh, and mourning for the loss of the teashop.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A great read 5 Dec 2008
By MHeery
This is a cracking history book based upon the obscure tale of a seventeenth century haunting in Minehead and the related execution of a bishop for sodomy in Dublin. The book adopts an amusing and sardonic tone, but is in fact a serious investigation into the relationship between supernatural events and politics, ideas, and the social order in early modern England. Peter Marshall deserves credit for producing a really imaginative book. To my mind it is almost up there with Eamon Duffy's great book The Voices of Morebath or Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie's book Montalliou. Micro-history at its best!
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
From the moment this book, (which I had read about around the time of its publication but never seemed to get around to purchasing)landed on my door mat I was literally unable to put it down - the story is so original and reads like a classy detective story. I must admit that I as a history graduate with a passion for the seventeenth century and social and religious history in particular I was absorbed in a way that the reader in pursuit of a ghost story in the conventional sense might not be; in particular the sections explaining the intricate complexities of the Church of Ireland's position, particularly within the context of the Civil war; I did feel slightly that had I not studied the period at university I may have struggled a bit whilst trying to follow the twists and turns of Marshall's pursuit for the truth of the Mother Leakey story and perhaps more importantly, whether the truth about Bishop Atherton's true deed leading to his execution would be revealed. Without spoiling the story, I did feel the story slid down the hills of Minehead before I was really able to make my mind up about what was and wasn't true,but this is to miss the subtly inferred point of the whole work really, as it is essentially an essay on how history is transmitted from age to age whilst using a frankly fascinating story as a case study; I would have liked a bit more of the 'World of the Leakeys' as the book is largely concerned with Marshall's predecessors in the hunt for the truth, but nonetheless I thoroughly enjoyed the chase!
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2 of 9 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars I gave it to Oxfam 23 Dec 2007
This book is very tedious. He wanders all over the place. I can't believe he was given a grant to write it. Some of his phraseology is toe curling.

Harsh words I know. Maybe one has to be a very passionate lover of the seventeenth century to like this book.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on (beta) 5.0 out of 5 stars  1 review
1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Real Ghost Story within Real History 25 Jun 2007
By R. Hardy - Published on
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
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.
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