Richard Haydock, fraudulent sleeping preacher of New College
24 September 2021 (Updated 23 November 2021)
Richard Haydock (1569/70–c. 1642) was an artist, physician and fellow of New College who became famous for his apparent ability to preach sermons in his sleep, sermons that he claimed to have no memory of upon waking.
However, his deception was revealed after he came under the scrutiny of none other than King James I.
Haydock's ability is discovered
Richard Haydock was educated at Winchester College before graduating from New College and being made a fellow. Haydock was highly devout and expressed a desire to become a priest, but suffered from a severe stammer that hampered his attempts to preach.
Instead of pursuing his religious vocation, Haydock instead decided to follow in the footsteps of his grandfather who had been physician to Henry VIII and study medicine. He receiving his Bachelor of Medicine in 1601.
It was in the years that followed while Haydock remained at New College that his unique talent became apparent.
One night another fellow at New College heard the sound of uncharacteristically fluent speech coming from Haydock's bedroom. He entered to find Haydock apparently fast asleep in bed but in the middle of preaching an eloquent sermon, with no trace of the stutter that usually characterised his speech.
In the morning Haydock claimed to have been unaware of having spoken in his sleep and to have no recollection of what he had said.
Haydock's fame spreads
Word of Richard Haydock's unusual ability spread. Soon people were coming from far and wide to wait in Haydock's bedroom and hear the sermons he regularly gave in his sleep. People speculated that Haydock must be channelling some divine power.
By 1605 Haydock's fame had reached court, and James I expressed a desire for Haydock to come to London so he could witness his ability in person. It took a while to find Haydock as around this time he moved to Salisbury, perhaps to avoid the royal invitation that would put him awkwardly on the spot.
Haydock gives a royal demonstration
Haydock was perhaps right to be apprehensive. A few years earlier James I had published Demonologie, a book that explored his fascination with rooting out witchcraft. If Haydock's ability was deemed to be of black magical origin then the punishments he faced would be great.
Consequently, it was somewhat reluctantly that Haydock travelled to court where he put on a demonstration of his powers for the king and his advisors.
Some of the advisors were taken in, but King James was skeptical.
Finally, under questioning from the king, Richard Haydock admitted his deception.
A confession before the king
Haydock explained that he had still harboured desires to preach, and hoped to conquer his stutter to allow him to do so. He had taken to writing and memorising sermons. He had found that his stutter was less pronounced when he lay down on his bed and closed his eyes, so started rehearsing his planned sermons in bed at night.
When he was first overheard by his colleague he was embarrassed and claimed to not know what the man was talking about. This excuse backfired on him, drawing more attention to him.
Flattered by the attention that the incident brought him, he decided to double down on his lie and allow his deception to continue. The more his fame spread, the harder it felt to admit his ruse.
A king's pardon
James I apparently took pity on Haydock. The king pardoned him and even offered him a position in church if he would take holy orders, but Haydock turned this offer down.
The only punishment that Haydock was subjected to was the requirement to make a public confession during a sermon at St. Paul's, and to provide the king with a written confession.
Haydock's written confession was dedicated to the king and titled Oneirologia, or, A briefe discourse of the nature of dreames.
- Richard Haydock (www.oxforddnb.com)
- 'The Secret History of Oxford' by Paul Sullivan (The History Press, 2013, ISBN: 9780752499867)