Elizabeth Barton, The Nun of Kent

In Under These Restless Skies, Will and Emma witness the execution of Elizabeth Barton, the Nun of Kent. Barton was a mystic who incurred the wrath of the king when she prophesied Henry's death if he married Anne Boleyn.

Barton was probably born around 1506 in the village of Aldington. She was from a lowly background, and as with most of the girls of her class, she became a servant. We don't know if she had a religious vocation from a young age, but it wouldn't have mattered if she did. Convents required dowries to enter - just like a marriage - unless the convent was extremely wealthy and decided to waive the requirement. Barton's family likely couldn't come up with the funds. Working-class girls like Barton would work as a domestic servant to save up their own dowries.

Barton entered service at the home of Thomas Cobb, who was a steward at one of the estates of Archbishop Warham. While there, Barton fell ill, lying in a rigid, catatonic state - by some reports, upwards of seven months, though that is almost certainly an exaggeration. She may have been epileptic, given the description of the "terrible faces" she made when she was attacked by one of her fits.

 Cromwell wrote about it in a letter to a cleric:

[H]er face was wonderfully disfigured, her tongue hanging out, and her eyes being in a manner plucked out, and laid upon her cheeks, and so greatly disordered.

When Barton began to speak again, she uttered prophecies. At one point, she accurately predicted the death of one of Cobb's children, who was also lying ill. Word of this strange and seemingly miraculous event spread through the neighborhood.

Her visions continued, and she described things occurring in far-off places, and of souls in the afterlife. What awed her contemporaries was that her lips were not seen to move, and the voice seemed to issue from deep within her belly, as though from within a barrel. When she spoke of heaven, her voice was sweet and melodic, and when she spoke of hell, it was "terrible" and frightening to the listeners. To modern ears, this sounds like simple ventriloquism, but to those of the Tudor age, it seemed supernatural.

According to the sermon preached after her downfall, the attention went to her head:

When this said parson [Richard Masters] came home, he shewed her that the said archbishop [Warham] took the matter very well, and said it was notable; and commanded him to be present if she had any more such speeches and to mark those same: affirming that the speeches that she had spoken came of God, and that she should not refuse neither hide the goodness and works of God. And likewise said unto her Thomas Cobb her master. And as soon as she was able to sit up her master caused her to sit at his own mess with her mistress and this Parson of Aldington. 
And thereupon she, perceiving herself to be much made of, to be magnified and much set by by reason of the said trifling words spoken unadvisedly by idleness of her brain, conceived in her mind how she (having so good success and furtherance of so small occasion, being nothing to be esteemed in deed) might further enterprise and essay what she could do, being in good avisement and remembrance, to illude the people giving audience unto her, who were so ready to make so much of her idle and trifling words aforesaid.

She prophesied she would be cured of her illness if she was taken to the nearby chapel of Our Lady of Court-at-Street, and so her growing number of followers carried her there. One report says Barton was accompanied by a crowd of thousands, drawn to hear the miraculous "holy maid." Upon arrival at the chapel, Barton fell into an ecstatic state in front of the icon of the Virgin Mary, and arose cured, as she had predicted.

Her visions had  pious, Catholic fervor, exhorting people to renounce sin and live a good, Christian life. Barton admonished listeners to eschew the sin and vanities of the world, and embrace the values of the church, and she had the charisma to incite her listeners to religious fervor as well. 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 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.

Archbishop Warham formed a commission to look into the matter of this prophesying girl. They questioned Barton about the conventional matters of the faith, and after reading over her pronouncements and prophecies, Warham said he saw ho heresy in her. They were in line with Catholic doctrine, and Barton was urging her followers to obey the Church in all things. Warham decided to sponsor her so she could enter the tiny Benedictine convent at St. Sepulcher in Canterbury.

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.

This source says that because Barton was a fully ordained choir nun, 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 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 advisor, 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 of the miracle, and to meet with the Holy Maid of Kent.

Barton began to produce souvenirs of her mystical travels. She had a veil that had been scorched in the fires of hell, a manuscript in gold supposedly personally written by Mary Magdalene in heaven, and a befouled handkerchief with which she'd wiped her face after Satan spat on her when she spurned his advances. She was also said to have performed miracles:

[She] continued her accustomed working of wondrous myracles resorting often (by way of traunce onely) to our Lady of Court of Streete, who also ceassed not to shew herself mighty in operation there, 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, and finally dooing al good, to all such as were measured and vowed (as the popish maner was) unto her at Court of Strete.
If these companions could have let the King of the land alone, they might have plaied their pageants as freely, as others have beene permitted, howsoever it tendeth to the dishonour of the King of heaven.

As Lambard above notes, Barton might have continued indefinitely as a holy mystic had she not turned her attention to the matter of the king's annulment. By 1527, everyone knew Henry wanted to set aside his wife, Katharine, and marry Anne Boleyn. Barton was outraged about it and began to predict dire consequences for the king, for the pope - if he agreed to it - and to any other supporters of the annulment.

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 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 they didn't have anything to charge her with. 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.

Bishop Fisher interrogated Barton not long after her meeting with the king. She told him about her interview with Henry. Since Barton told him she'd said the same things to his majesty, Fisher didn't bother informing king of the visit, which later turned out to be a terrible mistake.

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.

Around this time, Thomas More wrote to Barton and told her to leave off prophesying on political matters. He warned her of what had happened to others who meddled with these matters, reminding her specifically of the Duke of Buckingham, who had been executed in 1521, and it was said he'd been incited to aspirations to the throne by a "holy monke."

She didn't take his advice. 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.

In the autumn of 1533, Barton was placed under arrest, along with Dr. Bocking. She was examined by Archbishop Thomas Cranmer, and it didn't take long for her to break. He wrote later to Archdeacon Hawkins about the matter:

Now about Midsummer last, I, hearing of these matters, sent for this holy maid, to examine her and from me she was had to Master Cromwell, to be further examined there. And now she hath confessed all, and uttered the very truth, which is this: that she never had vision in all her life, but all that ever she said was feigned of her own imagination, only to satisfy the minds of them the which resorted unto her, and to obtain worldly praise: by reason of the which her confession, many and divers, both religious men and other, be now in trouble, forasmuch as they consented to her mischievous and feigned visions, which contained much perilous sedition and also treason, and would not utter it, but rather further the same to their power.

Once upon a time, Barton's status as a nun would have protected her, but now Henry was the head of the church. Barton was also a commoner, which made her eligible for torture. None is mentioned in her case, but perhaps it wasn't needed.

The charges against Dr. Bocking and Barton are outlined in the Letters and Papers:

Edward Bocking, D.D., frequently railed against the King's marriage before the false nun of St. Sepulchre's, whose ghostly father he was. She, to please him, feigned to have a revelation from God that the King would not live a month after his marriage; and when this did not come true, feigned another revelation to the effect that the King was no longer accepted King, by God. after his marriage. They reported this among those whom they knew to be opposed to the King's marriage.
The Nun has confessed that the letter purporting to have been written by Mary Magdalene in Heaven, and sent to a widow in London, was written by a monk of St. Augustine's, in Canterbury, named Hawkeherst, who has confessed to the writing thereof and the lymning of the golden words “Jesus Maria" above the letter.

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.

Her voluminous recorded prophecies and admonitions were searched for anything that could be deemed heretical, and anything contrary to Catholic doctrine was pointed out in the sermons that condemned her. It was important to show she was not as perfectly in line with doctrine as she'd been made out to be. She could not be the voice of God is she had errors in her teachings.

Bishop Fisher and Thomas More also stood in jeopardy, but More was able to produce the letter in which he urged her to stop speaking on political matters, and Bishop Fisher was let off with a fine ... for a time. Lady Exeter threw herself on the mercy of the king, pleading her gender as a defense: 

I am but a woman whose fragility and brittleness is such as most facile easily and lightly is seduced and brought into abusion.

Chapuys wrote to the emperor about Barton's arrest, and says there were efforts to tie her activities to Katharine:

Some days ago the King ordered the arrest and trial of a nun who had hitherto borne both the name and reputation of a good, simple, and sanctified creature, and of having been blessed at times with Divine revelations. The cause of her imprisonment is her having said, written, and affirmed in public, as well as in private, that she had had a revelation to the effect that within a very short period of time not only would this king lose his crown, but would also be expelled from the kingdom and damned, and that she had had a spiritual vision of the particular place and spot destined to him in Hell.
Various friars and other worthy people have been committed to prison charged with having stirred up this said nun to deliver that and other prophecies for the express purpose of promoting revolution among the people. And yet it would seem as if at all times God had inspired the Queen to behave in such a manner as to avoid the possibility of the King's suspicions falling on her; for notwithstanding the many and oft-repeated efforts made by the nun to obtain an audience, in order, as she said, to console her in her affliction and adversity, it was always denied her. The Queen, in fact, would never receive her, and now finds that she acted wisely.
All this time the King's Privy Councillors are making most diligent search and inquiries as to whether the Queen ever wrote or sent a message to the said nun; but she is perfectly at ease on that score, for she declares that she never had anything to do with her, but only with the marquis and marchioness of Excestre (Exeter), and with the good bishop of Rochestre (Fisher), who, it must be said for the sake of truth, have been on very intimate terms with the said nun.

The charges against Barton weren't quite enough. Henry didn't want to create a martyr in the eyes of the people. The king's agents began to spread rumors that Barton had been unchaste. The sermon preached against her at St. Paul's after her arrest said she left her cell at all hours of the night, and she "went not about the saying of her Pater Noster!" She was said to have been brought to Dr. Bocking at night by his servants and returned to the convent in the morning.

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.

In the end, there was no trial. Henry was uncertain he had enough to legally condemn Barton and her followers of treason, since the laws were not yet in place which he would use to condemn later "traitors" who merely spoke against him. Barton and her followers were condemned by Act of Attainder.

They hunted down every copy of Barton's books of prophecy, and did the job so effectively that not a single copy survives to the the present day.

John Capon, a protegee of Anne Boleyn - who hoped for an appointment as a bishop - preached the sermon which denounced barton at St. Paul's. Barton stood on a platform before the crowd as the sermon was delivered condemning her as a fraud. The sermon debunked the "souvenirs" of her mystical travels, such as the veil she'd said were scorched in the fires of hell as being burned by Barton herself. She'd had a local monk create the gold-embellished manuscript, and had simply rubbed the handkerchief on some smelly thing to make it stink. "You know wot I mean," the sermon reads after that last line, presumably with a waggle of the eyebrows for comedic effect. The sermon stated Barton had gotten fat off the offerings of her followers while ordering them to fast to starvation for their sins.

When the hour-long sermon ended, Barton and her followers read a confession admitting what had been said was all true and begging for forgiveness from the king. They were taken to the Tower to await their fate.

Barton would not have been housed in the luxurious apartments where Anne Boleyn was later imprisoned, nor even in the stark confines of the Bell Tower where Bishop Fisher later languished. Barton would have been thrown into one of the miserable dungeon cells, chained to the wall in a dank, dark stone chamber, perhaps with a thin handful of straw scattered on the floor and a bucket for her waste.

On March 24, the Bill of Attainder passed Parliament, and three weeks later, Elizabeth Barton, Dr. Bocking, Richard Masters, and seven others were transported to Tyburn. Barton was dressed only in a shift. Her nun's habit had been stripped from her. She was likely filthy from her long imprisonment, starved and weak. Prisoners of the era had to pay for their food, water and bedding, and Barton was indigent. Her nun's habit had probably been taken to pay her jailor.

She made a brief speech, almost certainly not of her own authorship:

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. 

Hanging in the Tudor era didn't involve a swift snap of the neck like modern hanging. The condemned stood in the back of a cart while nooses were looped around their neck, tied to the triangular frame above them. The horses were slapped and the cart drawn away from under them. They slowly strangled as the crowd watched.

Some condemned paid for the privacy of hoods to cover their faces. Barton wouldn't have had the money for that. They could also pay the executioner to ensure a quicker death; he would grab hold of their legs and pull downward to make them strangle quicker. Barton wouldn't have been given the courtesy.

She would have died with the sound of the crowd laughing and jeering at her reddened face, and protruding tongue. The Tudors loved executions and saw them as a jolly good time, and Henry's agents had done a fine job of destroying her image as a holy woman. 

After her body finished jerking in their death throes, it was cut down and beheaded. Her head was boiled to preserve it and then impaled on Tower bridge as a warning to other traitors. 

Her followers fared far worse, suffering the full horrors of a traitor's death. They were cut down 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 clothing was stripped as a payment for the executioner. Barton's headless corpse was buried in a mass grave in the cemetery of the Grey 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. Barton's ghost is said to haunt the church of Grey Friars.

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