Born: ABT 1506, Aldington, Kent, England
Died: 20 Apr 1534, Tyburn, executed
Called the "Nun of Kent", The career of this visionary, whose prophecies led to her execution under Henry VIII, has been the source of a historical controversy which resolves itself into the question: Was she gifted with supernatural knowledge or was she an impostor?
While still a teenager she was hired as a servant in the house of Thomas Cobb, who was the steward of an estate owned by William Warham, Archbishop of Canterbury. She had an illness, posibly epilepsy, during which she fell into frequent trances and told "wondrously things done in other places whilst she was neither herself present nor yet heard no report thereof". From the first her utterances assumed a religious character and were "of marvellous holiness in rebuke of sin and vice". When speaking, she affected strange turns, unintelligible figures, poetical language, and clothed her visions in rude rhymes, which made the educated smile, but helped to circulate her oracles among the people.
Her parish priest, Richard Masters, convinced of her sincerity, reported the matter to the Archbishop of Canterbury, who sent a commission of three Canterbury Benedictines, Edward Bocking, Hadleigh, and Barnes, two Franciscans, Hugh Rich and Richard Risby, a diocesan official, and the parish priest to examine her again. Shortly after the commission pronounced in her favour, her prediction that the Blessed Virgin would cure her at a certain chapel was fulfilled, when in presence of a large crowd she was restored to health. There was somewhere out in the fields in one part of the parish, a wretched old chapel that had been long deserted, and where a coarse image of the Virgin still remained. Elizabeth Barton gave out that the Virgin would cure her of her disorder in that holy consecrated edifice. She was carried thither with a certain pomp, and placed devoutly before the image. Then a crisis came upon her. Her tongue hung out of her mouth, her eyes seemed starting from their sockets, and a hoarse sepulchral voice was heard speaking of the terrors of hell; and then, by a singular transformation, a sweet and insinuating voice described the joys of paradise. At last the ecstasy ended, Elizabeth came to herself, declared that she was perfectly cured, and announced that God had ordered her to become a nun and to take Bocking as her confessor. The prophecy of the Kentish maiden touching her own disease being thus verified, her reputation increased. Edward Bocking arranged for Barton to enter St. Sepulchre's convent in Canterbury as a Benedictine nun. Once in this primatial city, her oracles and her miracles were multiplied. Sometimes in the middle of the night, the door of her cell opened miraculously: it was a call from God, inviting her to the chapel to converse with Him. Sometimes a letter in golden characters was brought to her by an angel from heaven. The monks kept a record of these wonders, these oracles; and selecting some of them, Masters laid the miraculous collection before Archbishop Warham. The prelate, who appeared to believe in the nun’s inspiration, presented the document to the King, who handed it to Sir Thomas More, and ordered the words of the Kentish maiden to be carefully taken down and communicated to him. In this Henry VIII showed probably more curiosity and distrust than credulity. Her fame gradually spread until she came into wide public notice, with a great reputation for holiness.
During her trances Barton urged Henry VIII "in the name and by the authority of God" to give up his plan to divorce Catalina de Aragon, and prophecied that if he did so he "should no longer be King of this realm...and should die a villain's death". To further her opposition, besides writing to the Pope, she had interviews with John Fisher, Bishop of Rochester, Wolsey, and the King himself. In 1532 Henry passed through Canterbury, and it is reported that Barton forced herself into his presence and tried to frighten him into giving up his marriage to Anne Boleyn. When brought into the presence of the prince, she was at first silent and motionless, but in a moment her eyes brightened and seemed to flash fire; her mouth was drawn aside and stretched, while from her trembling lips there fell a string of incoherent phrases. ‘Satan is tormenting me for the sins of my people', she exclaimed, ‘but our blessed Lady shall deliver me by her mighty hand... O times! O manners!... Abominable heresies, impious innovations!... King of England, beware that you touch not the power of the holy Father... Root out the new doctrines... Burn all over your kingdom the New Testament in the vulgar tongue. Henry, forsake Anne Boleyn and take back your wife Catherine... If you neglect these things, you shall not be King longer than a month, and in God’s eyes you will not be so even for an hour. You shall die the death of a villain, and Mary, the daughter of Catherine, shall wear your crown'. This noisy scene produced no effect on the King. Henry, though prompt to punish, would not reply to Elizabeth’s nonsense, and was content to shrug his shoulders.
One eminent and large-hearted catholic, Sir Thomas More, had however some doubts; and the monks who were Elizabeth’s advisers set every engine at work to win him over. During the Christmas of 1532, Father Risby, a Franciscan of Canterbury, arrived at Chelsea to pass the night there. After supper, he said: ‘What a holy woman this nun of Kent is! It is wonderful to see all that God is doing through her'. — ‘I thank God for it', coldly answered More. — ‘By her mediation she saved the cardinal’s soul', added the monk. The conversation went no farther. Some time later a fresh attempt was made: Father Rich, a Franciscan of Richmond, came and told More the story of the letter written in letters of gold and brought by an angel. ‘Well, father', said the Chancellor, ‘I believe the nun of Kent to be a virtuous woman, and that God is working great things by her; but stories like that you have told me are not part of our Credo, and before repeating them, one should be very sure about them'. However, as the clergy generally countenanced Elizabeth, More could not bear the idea of forming a sect apart, and went to see the prophetess in the little chapel at Syon monastery some time in the summer of 1533. Members of the Brigittine nunnery of Syon, with which Barton was very closely connected, also opposed Protestant rule in England. More was satisfied to give her a double ducat and commend himself to her prayers.The Chancellor, like other noble intellects among the catholics, was prepared to admit certain superstitions; but he would have had the nun keep in her religious sphere; he feared to see her touch upon politics. ‘Do not speak of the affairs of princes', he said to her. ‘The relations which the late Duke of Buckingham had with a holy monk were in great part the cause of his death'.
Owing to her reputation for sanctity, she proved one of the most formidable opponents of the royal divorce. Henry's marriage to Anne was celebrated in Jan 1533, followed in May by annullment of the marriage to Catalina. Barton's statements became increasingly inflammatory and treasonable. Archbishop Thomas Cranmer (who performed Henry's annulment) had succeeded Warham in Mar and began investigating Barton's performances.
Canterbury, the primate’s archiepiscopal city, was the center of the criminal practices of the Kentish girl. One day the Prioress of the Holy Sepulchre received the following note from Cranmer: 'Come to my palace next Friday; bring your nun with you. Do not fail'. The two women duly came; Elizabeth’s head was so turned that she saw in everything that happened the opportunity of a new triumph. This time she was deceived. Cranmer questioned her; she obstinately maintained the truth of her revelations, but did not convince the Archbishop, who had her taken to Cromwell.
Thomas Cranmer's description may draw upon a pamphlet about the case known to have been written by one Edward Thwaites. But this pamphlet does not survive in its entirety, being known to us only in the portions which are preserved in William Lambard's Perambulation of Kent of 1576, which do not contain the descriptions given by Cranmer. Although Thwaites refers some of Elizabeth Barton's utterances to 'the voice that spake in her', there is no hint of ventriloquial speech in the way in which Lambard, following Thwaites, reports the scene in the chapel described by Cranmer: he reports only that 'there fell she eftsones into a marueilous passion before the Image of our Lady, muche like a body diseased of the falling Euill, in the whiche she uttered, sundrye metricall and ryming speaches'.
Cromwell took steps against her and, after examination by Cranmer, she was in Nov, with Dr. Bocking, her confessor, and five others nuns, committed to the Tower. Subsequently, all the prisoners were made to do public penance at St. Paul's and at Canterbury and to publish confessions of deception and fraud. The Bishop of Bangor preached; the nun and her accomplices, who were exposed on a platform in front of him, confessed their crimes before the people, and were then led back to the Tower.
Besides an epileptic girl and a few monks, the names of Fisher and of More were in the indictment. Cromwell urged both the Bishop and the statesman to petition the King for pardon, assuring them they would obtain it. ‘Good Master Cromwell', exclaimed More, ‘my poor heart is pierced at the idea that his Majesty should think me guilty. I confess that I did believe the nun to be inspired; but I put away far from me every thought of treason. For the future, neither monk nor nun shall have power to make me faithless to my God and my king'. Cranmer, Cromwell, and the Chancellor Audley prevailed on Henry VIII to strike More’s name out of the bill. The illustrious scholar escaped the capital punishment with which he was threatened. His daughter, Margaret Roper, came in a transport of joy to tell him the news: ‘In faith, Meg', said More with a smile, ‘quod differtur non aufertur, what is put off is not put away'. The case of the Bishop of Rochester was more serious: he had been in close communication with all those knaves, and the honest but proud and superstitious churchman would not acknowledge any fault. Cromwell, who desired to save the old man, conjured him to give up all idea of defending himself; but Fisher obstinately wrote to the House of Lords that he had seen no deception in the nun. The name of the King’s old tutor was left, therefore, in the bill of attainder. The bill was introduced into the House of Lords on the 21 Feb, and received the royal assent on the 21 Mar. The prisoners were brought together in the Star Chamber to hear their sentence. Their friends had still some hope; but the Bull which the Pope had issued against Henry VIII on the 23 of Mar, endangering the order of succession, made indulgence difficult. The King and his ministers felt it their duty to anticipate, by a severe example, the rebellion which the partisans of the pontiff were fomenting in the kingdom. Sentence of death was pronounced upon all the criminals.
All were condemned under this bill; seven, including Bocking, Masters, Rich, Risby, and Elizabeth herself, being sentenced to death, while Fisher and five others were condemned to imprisonment and forfeiture of goods. Elizabeth and her companions were executed at Tyburn on 20 Apr 1534. On reaching the scaffold, she said: ‘I am the cause not only of my own death, which I have richly deserved, but of the death of all those who are going to suffer with me. Alas! I was a poor wretch without learning, but the praises of the priests about me turned my brain, and I thought I might say anything that came into my head. Now I cry to God and implore the king’s pardon'.
Protestant authors allege that these confessions alone are conclusive of her imposture, but Catholic writers, though they have felt free to hold divergent opinions about the nun, have pointed out the suggestive fact that all that is known as to these confessions emanates from Cromwell or his agents; that all available documents are on his side; that the confession issued as hers is on the face of it not her own composition; that she and her companions were never brought to trial, but were condemned and executed unheard; that there is contemporary evidence that the alleged confession was even then believed to be a forgery. For these reasons, the matter cannot be considered as settled, and unfortunately, the difficulty of arriving at any satisfactory and final decision now seems insuperable.
Act of Attainder, 25 Henry VIII, cap. xii
Wright, Suppression of the Monasteries
Gardner, Letters and Papers of Henry VIIIfor 1533-4
Lee in Dict. Nat. Biog., III, 343
Gasquet, Henry VIII and the Eng. Monasteries (1889), I, iii
Bridgett, Life of Fisher (1890), xi
Idem, Life of More (1892), xvii.
The Catholic Encyclopedia, Volume II
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