Elizabeth Barton, known as the “Holy Maid of Kent” or the “ Nun of Kent”, was executed on 20 April 1534 along with a handful of her followers.Her ‘crime’ was that she predicted a bad end for Henry VIII if he continued to flout the will of Rome and separate his kingdom from the Catholic Church.
Barton was born to a poor family in 1506, and as a teen she went to work as a servant to yeoman farmer by the name of Thomas Hobb. While in his employ she fell ill and afterwards she believed God sent her visions:
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.”
As she became more famous for her predictions, a local parish priest Richard Masters turned to Archbishop Warham to verify whether this girl was blessed or barmy. Warham appointed a commission to look into the matter, and when the commission decided that her claims were theologically sound, Warham arranged for Barton go in the Benedictine St Sepulchre’s Priory, Canterbury.
At the time, a woman wanting to become a nun usually had to bring a ‘dowry’ with her to the convent, so there weren’t a whole lot of sisters from the lowest economic strata. Archbishop Warham must have been impressed with Barton’s holiness and predictions, because the convent either waived her dowry or the church gave them money so they could take her in.
As a nun, Barton’s renown as a holy woman continued to spread. Henry VIII was initially pleased by the Kentish prophetess, because her predictions were all favorable to him and his goals. This changed, however, when Barton began issues dire warnings about what would happen should he put Katherina of Aragon aside and marry Anne Boleyn. She understandably became a focal point of the pro-Katherina, pro-Catholic faction. Here was ‘proof’ that God didn’t like Anne Boleyn and the reformation either.
Prior to early 1530s, Henry still put up with Barton’s existence, although he did his best to discredit her. Things changed after the king’s 40th birthday on 21 June 1531. He became more and more irked with the nun, and eventually demanded she cease prophesizing. She ignored the king’s directives and continued to support Papal authority and the sanctity of Henry’s first marriage.
Why did she feel safe enough to flout the king? Well, Henry hadn’t yet turned into the slaughter-happy, blood-soaked tyrant we think of him as today. When he had Barton and some of her loyalists arrested in 1533, she probably wasn’t even that afraid of what he might do to her. Torture a woman, especially a nun, was theoretically illegal. Any of the other religious nay-sayers to the king were either imprisoned or banished; they weren’t being killed. Why should she be any different?
I argue in Blood Will Tell that Henry’s personality became radically different after his 40th birthday because he manifested McLeod syndrome, a disease turned him paranoid and irrational. Others have argued that the many blows to the head he suffered over a long jousting career gave him chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), which causes “cognitive dysfunction” and can make the sufferer bat-crap crazy and potentially violent.
Either way, the days of Henry giving a pass to those who vexed him were over. In January 1534 a bill of attainder was issued against Barton and thirteen of her sympathizers, six of whom were condemned to die with her. The rest of her admirers, including such luminaries as Bishop Fisher and Thomas More, were sentenced to imprisonment and forfeiture of goods. Barton was hanged and then decapitated. The nun’s head was impaled on a spike and became a gruesome ornament on the London Bridge.
The number of religious devotees who would fall before Henry VIII’s new temper would steadily grow larger in the coming years. Only a little over two years after Barton’d death, Queen Anne Boleyn would also find herself shorter by a head due to her husband’s discontent.
Was Barton a fraud? After all, she confessed she had made everything up after her arrest, and again before her execution. But what was her “confession” worth under such duress? And did she even “confess” at all?
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.
We’ll never know if Barton believed her visions or falsified them for attention, but we do know she died young as the result of breathtaking injustice.