|This engraving of Elizabeth Barton is probably by Thomas Holloway based on a painting by Henry Tresham, and comes from David Hume's History of England (1793–1806).|
She was probably born around 1506, but Barton was a peasant girl, and their births were rarely recorded. From an early age, she seems to have felt a religious calling, but nunneries required dowries to join, and Barton's family had no money.
She went to work as a servant girl, probably intending to save her wages for a dowry. Her employer was Thomas Cobb, who was himself a servant of the Archbishop of Warham. Barton seems to have had some health issues. She may have been epileptic, given the description of the "fits" that seized her.
While living in Cobb's house, Barton became ill, and lay on her bed as if in a coma. Later reports say that she was in that state for months, but that's likely an exaggeration. The concept of "sick leave" was several centuries in the future, and Cobb likely wouldn't have paid for her care if she was unproductive for so long.
When she woke, Barton began to give prophecies and tell of visions she'd had during her catatonic state. She spoke of things occurring in far-off places, and of glimpses she'd had of the afterlife.
One of Cobb's children was also ill and Barton predicted he would die. When her prophecy came true, word began to spread around the neighborhood of this miracle.
She fell back into trances, and voices came from her seemingly-unconscious body. They seemed to echo, as if from deep within a barrel, and her lips did not move. When she spoke of heaven, the voice was so sweet and melodious "that every man was ravished with the hearing thereof". When she spoke of hell, it was in a terrible and frightening tone that scared the onlookers.
People began to gather to hear the words of this miraculous servant girl. Barton predicted she would be cured of her fits if she was taken to a nearby shrine. Her followers complied, carrying her through the streets as the crowd followed - one report says it was thousands of people.
When she reached the shrine, Barton fell into another fit, but rose up, cured as predicted.
Archbishop Warham heard of this strange occurrence in the household of one of his servants and created a commission to look into it. Barton was examined as to her beliefs and her prophecies were studied to make sure they contained no heresy. The commission decided she was harmless. What she was saying was in line with Catholic doctrine - go to church, obey the scriptures, and avoid the sinfulness of the world. Moreover, she had the kind of charisma which inspired religious fervor in her followers.
The parson of her parish, Richard Masters, came to visit and listen to her, and was apparently convinced the girl had been touched by God. Masters began to record her prophecies, filling reams of paper with her words.
Small pamphlet-style books containing Barton's pronouncements were published, a respectable run of 700 copies. Some of the prophecies/exhortations were either uttered in rhyming couplets, or recorded that way in the book, which Thomas More later lamented was "full rude" and unimpressive. She touched on some somewhat obscure theological matters, which later was pointed to as evidence of coaching by her spiritual adviser, but others saw as evidence the untutored girl had been chosen by God to voice His word.
The archbishop sponsored Barton's entry into a small convent. The prioress was reluctant. Even if Barton wasn't a heretic, she was a sickly peasant girl with no dower. The convent was very small, with only five nuns and the prioress. They couldn't afford to take on the burden of caring for a girl who might fall comatose again, and the prioress wasn't sure she wanted the notoriety of housing a mystic. But Warham's personal involvement convinced her, and after joining the order, Barton came to be known as the Nun of Kent.
Some sources say that Barton was a fully ordained choir nun, which would mean she must have been literate in Latin, but I think that's unlikely. She may have learned to read and write while in the convent - as evinced by the fact she was later able to read her confession aloud - but she probably had little or no prior education to joining the convent. She was put under the tutelage of a spiritual adviser, a monk named Dr. Edward Bocking.
As Barton's fame spread, she began to correspond with the learned theologians of the day, including Thomas More, Bishop Fisher, and at one point, she even wrote to the pope himself.
Barton's rise must have indeed, seemed miraculous to her. Only a few years ago, she had been a poor peasant servant, and now she was a mystic with a following of thousands. The shrine she favored was becoming wealthy from the attention she brought it as pilgrims came to leave offerings at the site and to meet with the Holy Maid of Kent.
She was said to perform miracles: "... lighting candels without fire, moistning womens breastes that berfore were drie and wanted milke, restoring all sorts of sicke to perfect health, reducing the dead to life againe..."
Her career as a mystic might have gone on indefinitely if she hadn't turned her eyes toward the king and his marital woes. Henry VIII was seeking to end his marriage to Katharine of Aragon in order to marry Anne Boleyn. Barton condemned him for it in no uncertain terms. Several nobles, including Thomas More, warned Barton to back off this topic, but she wouldn't be silenced.
The king ignored Barton for as long as he could, but her popularity was steadily growing, and not just among the peasants. She was also attracting the attentions of the nobility, including the Marchioness of Exeter, and others - some of whom had Yorkist blood in their veins. Barton told Lady Exeter that her husband would inherit the crown - deeply dangerous words. (Though she said on an occasion prior to that Princess Mary would inherit the throne, and would marry another Yorkist, Lord Montague; Barton does not seem to have noticed she contradicted herself in these statements.)
Thomas More and Bishop Fisher are both known to have corresponded with her. Bishop Fisher seems to have been more enthusiastic about her; Thomas More was unimpressed.
Barton pleaded by letter to meet with Katharine of Aragon or Princess Mary, but both refused an audience, though an ambassador noted they were very interested in her. It may be that Katharine and the princess were concerned about appearing to support Barton's political pronouncements and angering the king. She wrote to both of them, but there's no evidence they ever replied to her letters.
In 1528, Warham wrote to Wolsey and said Barton wished to speak with Henry, though he didn't know if what she wanted to say was good or bad. Oddly enough, the king decided to grant her an audience.
Barton was either extremely brave or foolhardy. We don't have an eyewitness account (which is a pity!) but she apparently warned him that the Archangel Michael had told her there would be terrible consequences if he separated from his wife, Katharine. She urged Henry to destroy the heretics of the New Learning who were beginning to question papal authority in the wake of Luther's teaching. Henry seems to have dismissed Barton as delusional, and sent her back to Canterbury, but Warham kept him up to date on her pronouncements with regular dispatches.
In 1529, Barton had second audience with the king in which her rhetoric had escalated to threatening. She said if he married Anne Boleyn, he would not survive for an hour afterward. Henry tried to convince her of the soundness of his theological argument for the annulment, but Barton was unmovable in her conviction. It's said by some sources that Anne Boleyn's partisans tried to bribe Barton to silence - even going as far as to offer her a place in Anne's court, but Barton refused.
Henry's apparent patience in the matter of Elizabeth Barton seems remarkable, especially in light of what happened to others who stood in his way, but what seems to have stayed his hand was that Henry was oddly particular about obeying the law. If the law got in the way of what he wanted, he changed it so his actions were nicely legal. In this case, they technically had nothing to charge Barton with. Not yet, anyway.
Unfortunately for Henry, these two meetings in which Barton had boldly condemned the king to his face and walked away unscathed only increased her esteem in the eyes of her followers. Even Henry was in awe of her, as they saw it.
When Wolsey died, Barton claimed he'd managed to get into heaven because he hadn't capitulated to the royal will, and she had intervened on his behalf to save him from damnation. Wolsey's death marked a change in Henry's religious policy. Wolsey's replacement - Archbishop Cranmer - was to prove a facilitator of that royal will, and to take England in the direction Barton abhorred.
In November of 1532, Henry sailed for France with Anne Boleyn to meet with King Francis and to essentially obtain his seal of approval on Anne as royal consort. Barton claimed that during the visit, Henry had attended mass with Francis, but since Henry was in such a state of sin, the Virgin Mary had taken the communion host from Henry and given it to the invisibly present Barton to consume instead.
The Virgin had shown Barton the spot in hell that Henry would occupy after he "died a villain's death" within a month if he married Anne. She claimed to have used her powers to prevent Henry from marrying Anne in Calais - but somehow missed the wedding that actually did take place as soon as they returned to England.
When Henry appeared hale and hearty enough after marrying Anne, Barton said that her prophecy had been fulfilled in that the king had been deposed in the eyes of God. She claimed to have seen a devil whispering in Anne Boleyn's ear as she tried to influence the king's policy.
She had reached a critical point. Warham and Wolsey were dead. Thomas More had resigned as chancellor. Bishop Fisher had fallen from favor. Henry was done with tolerance. Barton was popular. She was loud. And she could no longer be ignored. Barton had to be silenced, and she had to be discredited.
After Henry became the head of the church in England, Barton's pronouncements became treason and she was arrested. Once upon a time, her status as a nun would have protected her, but those days were over. Barton was accused of being in a conspiracy with the pope's agents and other persons to put the king "in a murmur and evil opinion of his people," and thus endanger his crown and royal dignity. Her prophecies were deemed to be "lyes by them unlawfully and traiterously practysed devysed ymagyned and conspired, as well to the blasphemy of Almyghty God."
There are no specific records relating to Barton's imprisonment, but it would have been a brutal time for her. Her nun's habit would have been seized by the jailer, part of his traditional payment for the expenses of housing the prisoner. She would have shivered in her bare cell, wearing only her shift. Since she was indigent, she would have gotten only the barest necessities of keeping her alive - no luxuries like a fire to keep her warm or blankets, or water for washing.
As a commoner, it was legal to torture her to wring out a confession. It's unknown if this tactic was employed, or the misery of her conditions were enough to break her down. Whatever it was, Barton quickly confessed to being a fraud.
It was important to King Henry that Barton's reputation be destroyed. Arresting her wasn't enough - her followers might see her as a martyr. She had to be torn down in public opinion, her holiness stripped from her. It's probably the reason he decided not to give her a trial, but to condemn her by act of attainder.
On November 23, she was denounced at St. Paul's Cross in a public sermon. In it, Barton confessed to faking her visions because she loved the attention it brought her. She was accused of getting fat off the offerings her impoverished followers starved to give her.
The sermon also insinuated that Barton had been unchaste, noting that she was taken to the apartments of Dr. Bocking, her tutor, and was known to stay there all night, "not about the saying of her Pater Noster!" The relics she had brought back from her spiritual travels, such as a letter signed by the Virgin Mary, were uncovered as fakes, as the people who'd created them were revealed.
As Dr. Bocking was accused of coaching her as to what to say in her "revelations," Barton was reduced from a "holy maid" to a woman faking visions to please her lover. Instead of a holy mystic, she was merely the tool of traitorous men, or perhaps those who wanted to enrich themselves and the little shrine by making it a site of pilgrimage.
The king's agents hunted down every copy of Barton's books of prophecy, and did the job so effectively that not a single copy is known to survive in the present day.
Barton read out a public confession of her falsehoods before her execution at Tyburn in March.
"Hither I am come to die, and I have not been only the cause of mine own death, which most justly I have deserved, but also am the cause of the death of all those persons which at this time here suffer. And yet to say the truth, I am not so much to be blamed, considering that it was well known to these learned men that I was a poor wench without learning, and therefore they might easily have perceived that the things that were done by me could not proceed in no such sort; but their capacities and learning could right well judge, from whence they proceeded, and that they were altogether feigned; but because the thing which I feigned was profitable to them, therefore they much praised me, and bore me in hand, that it was the Holy Ghost and not I, that did them; and then I, being puffed up with their praises fell into a certain pride and foolish fantasy with myself, and thought I might feign what I would, which thing hath brought me to this case: and for the which now, I cry God and the King's Highness most heartily mercy, and desire you, all good people, to pray to God to have mercy on me, and on all them that here suffer with me."
Perhaps it was this willingness to confess in public that saved Barton from the usual execution for a woman of burning at the stake. She was sentenced to be hanged.
In the Tudor era, hanging wasn't a swift snap of the neck as it is today. Prisoners were placed in the back of a wagon with a noose about their necks, and then the wagon was driven away from beneath them. They slowly strangled while the crowd watched and laughed at the faces they made.
Prisoners with the funds could pay for a hood to cover their faces, and for the executioner to pull down on their legs to end their suffering quicker, but Barton had no money. Her death would have been slow, and she would have died with the jeers of the crowd ringing in her ears. After she was dead, her head was cut off.
Her followers weren't given the mercy of hanging. They suffered the full horrors of a traitor's death. They were cut down from hanging while still alive, castrated, then their stomachs cut open and their entrails burned before them. Only then were they beheaded, ending their torment. Their bodies were hacked into quarters to be sent all over the kingdom and displayed as an object lesson in what happens to those who fall afoul of the wrath of the king.
Their severed heads were boiled, then put on a pike to display on London Bridge as a warning to those who might follow the dangerous path of the Nun of Kent. She is the only woman to have had the dubious "honor" of having her head displayed on London Bridge. Her headless corpse was buried in a mass grave in the cemetery of the Gray Friars.
St. Sepulchre convent was dissolved in 1537, and the land later granted to one of Henry's courtiers. No trace of the convent buildings remains today, but Barton's ghost is said to haunt the premises.