One of the most remarkable characters of the English Revolution of the sixteenth century is Elizabeth Barton. An illiterate mystic who challenged Henry VIII to his face, and was eventually martyred for her stance, Barton influenced the course of history as a small boulder affects the flow of a mighty river.
Elizabeth Barton was born in 1506 in the hamlet of Adlington just twelve miles from Canterbury. The illiterate (and possibly illegitimate) girl was working as a servant for a local farmer in 1525 when she began to experience visions. The visions were apocalyptic in nature and were accompanied by a serious illness—probably epilepsy.
During her illness she would fall into a trance after which she related “wondrously things done in other places whilst she was neither herself present nor yet heard no report thereof.” Her utterances impressed her religious superiors and were said to be “of marvellous holiness in rebuke of sin.”
Her parish priest, Richard Masters, convinced of her sincerity, reported the young mystic to the Archbishop of Canterbury, William Warham, who sent a commission of three Benedictines, Bocking, and Barnes, two Franciscans, and Richard Risby, a diocesan official, and the parish priest to examine her for theological error. Soon after the inquisition Barton prophesied that the Blessed Virgin would cure her at a particular chapel. When the prophecy was fulfilled and her authenticity was attested, the Archbishop arranged for her to be admitted to St Sepuchre’s Priory in Canterbury. While there Barton’s visions and prophecies continued and her fame burgeoned.
Eventually news of the young nun’s visions reached the royal court. Because she was prophesying against Protestantism, she found favor with King Henry VIII, who was at the time, battling against Lutheran heresy and rebellion.
However, in 1526—a year after Elizabeth Barton began to have her visions, the King had quietly begun wooing Anne Boleyn. When he began the process of gaining a decree of nullity for his marriage to Catherine of Aragon, the Holy Maid of Kent began to oppose the king. In 1528 Barton met with Cardinal Wolsey and corresponded with Thomas More and King Henry himself. She warned that if Henry continued his dalliance with Anne Boleyn the realm would be in peril and he would die soon after.
An unsubstantiated story has it that in 1532, on his way back from France with Anne Boleyn, Henry VIII broke his journey at St Augustine’s abbey in Canterbury. The courageous nun went to meet them in the abbot’s cloistered garden and, shaking her finger in their faces, said that should they marry, within one month the king would no longer be the reigning monarch, and would die a villain’s death.
The next year Henry married Anne Boleyn. Soon after Sir Thomas More went to Canterbury to visit Barton at Syon Abbey. In a letter to Thomas Cromwell More denied discussing “the King’s business” with Barton, saying, “We talked no worde of the Kinges Grace or anye great personage ells, no in effecte, of anye man or woman but of her selfe, and my selfe”.
Late in 1533 Barton was arrested, along with her supporters and examined by the new Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Cranmer. She made a confession that she was a fraud, and along with her supporters was executed at Tyburn on April 15, 1534. The men were hung, drawn and quartered. Barton was spared the horrible ordeal by being beheaded, but her head was put on a spike on London Bridge—the only woman to have been so dishonored.
Was Elizabeth Barton an authentic mystic, a self-seeking imposter, or a deluded fraud? Whenever we are dealing with paranormal, visions and prophecies we are in a slippery situation. Visions are experienced in another world and filtered through dream language. Barton prophesied that if Henry VIII married again he would die soon after, but he lived for another fifteen years after his marriage. The cynic would point to an unfulfilled prophecy, but was the prophecy supposed to be taken literally? The believer would say, the king did die at that point because he entered mortal sin, was spiritually dead before God, and everything was downhill from that point.
However, as soon as we point out the prophecies that did not literally come true, we are confronted with the ones that did pan out. Barton said the king’s dynasty would die out. It did. His only son Edward VI died after a short six-year reign, his legitimate heir Mary, died without issue after just five years on the throne—her phantom pregnancy (which scholars now believe was ovarian cancer) was a cruel mockery of the barren-ness of the Tudor line. Elizabeth—Henry’s daughter by Anne Boleyn—died “the virgin queen” so the maid of Kent’s prophecy that the Tudor dynasty would die out did indeed come true.
Elizabeth Barton stands, therefore, with Bishop John Fisher and Thomas More, as one of the stalwart voices in opposition to Henry VIII’s revolution. That all three lost their heads in the effort does not negate the fact that like a boulder in the river, they stood firm while the flood of history washed over them.
As such, the Holy Maid of Kent reminds us, in a similarly tumultuous age, that even the seemingly insignificant can take a courageous stance if the circumstances present. She is a reminder that the humble can put down the mighty from their seat and that even an ignorant servant girl can serve as the conscience of a king.
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