When one thinks of the notable figures of the English Reformation, a few names come to mind. Aside from monarchs, they likely include Thomas More, John Fisher, Stephen Gardiner, Reginald Pole, Thomas Wolsey, Thomas Cranmer, and Thomas Cromwell, amongst others. Thinking of female figures, and besides the obvious Mary I, a few (or none) might spring to mind. The Guernsey Martyrs, Anne Askew, and a few other women are usually the most well known. Despite her wit, influence over the King, and symbolism as an act of resistance against a tyrant, few people would think of Elizabeth Barton, the ‘Holy Nun of Kent’.
Barton was executed on this day 485 years ago, on the 20th of April 1534, alongside Edward Bocking, John Dering, Henry Gold, Hugh Rich, and Richard Risby. What separates Barton from these men, all of whom were clergymen, is more than just her gender. A woman in mid-Tudor England, Barton outshone them all in her popularity, notoriety, and position as a greatly influential religious figure.
Barton’s early life — up until 1525 — saw little out of the ordinary occur. She was a servant at the household of Thomas Cobb, himself a steward of an estate owned by the Archbishop of Canterbury, William Warham. It was when she was 19 years old that her trances began. Likely arising from an illness she had (possibly epilepsy), her murmurings and religious claims intrigued Richard Masters, a parish priest, who contacted Warham and in return was sent a commission of five men to assess the legitimacy of Barton’s wondrous claims. To their surprise, they witnessed what might best be described as a miracle. Barton claimed that her ailment could be cured by the Virgin Mary at a certain chapel and much to the awe of the crowds who watched her, she seemed vindicated, claiming that her illness had been remedied. Whilst the legitimacy of a self-reported, God-given cure from illness might today receive an extraordinary amount of scepticism and necessitate medical examinations to verify the claim, such was the lack of scientific knowledge and ingrainment of religious belief that her reputation greatly increased upon her alleged healing.
These early actions were harmless and her inclusion of Christianity at the core of them meant that she faced no charges of heresy or witchcraft. This was soon to change, however, as Barton would become one of the thousands of people executed under Henry VIII on the grounds of treason against the King. However, despite Barton’s Catholic convictions, it would be wrong to merely dump her in with the rest of the Catholic dead. Her position was much more elevated than many of them, and certainly all the women. She met with Thomas Wolsey, the King’s right-hand man, in 1528, Thomas More, one of the King’s closest friends, and Henry himself twice. At this time, her prophecies tended to warn of heresy and condemn revolt, something which very much pleased the King at a time when he was not yet pushing Protestantism down the throats of the English people but rather supported Catholicism — at this time still the ‘Defender of the Faith’ since 1521.
When Henry VIII started the process of annulling his marriage to Catherine of Aragon, Barton’s prophecies started to turn against him. No longer were her teachings music to Henry’s ears, nor were they of only mild annoyance — they were treasonous and regarded the most personal matter to the King — Anne Boleyn. It was in 1532 that Barton first publicly prophecised about the pain that would arise from Henry’s ‘Great Matter’. She was not subtle in her warnings, proclaiming that (if he were to go ahead with the annulment), Henry “should no longer be King of this realm […] and should die a villain’s death”. Henry’s love-life was something which he did not deal lightly with when it came to criticism. Indeed, Henry’s two key advisers (Wolsey and Cromwell) would both meet their ends due to their actions in this field and now Elizabeth Barton, a woman of comparatively little means or personal appeal — both politically and friendlily — to the King came into his crosshairs.
One might fairly suspect Henry to have quickly orchestrated her downfall, using loyal servants, spies, and head-hunters to deal with this turbulent, low-born nun. However, this was not to be the case. Barton would remain alive and kicking for nearly a year, protected by her enormous popularity, which could see any act of harm against her manifest itself in a nation-wide popular rebellion, the likes of which Henry never hoped to see (although later would in 1536/7 during the Pilgrimage of Grace). However, this was Tudor England and Barton was going to need a little more than her popularity if she wanted to avoid the gallows. As her popularity increased and predictions continued, Henry saw that he faced trouble no matter what choice he take. Leave Barton alone and risk her leading a revolt against the King, lay harm to her and risk that same revolt being carried out in revenge.
Henry decided to act. Barton was swiftly accused in 1533 of being mentally ill and having been involved in sexual relationships with various members of the clergy. Her reputation now compromised, Henry acted fast. Barton was arrested, charged with treason, pressured to denounce her prior predictions and attainted, thus never facing trial. Thus, the 20th of April 1534 marked the end of the mysterious life of Elizabeth Barton before she had even turned 30 years old.
Was Barton mad? Possibly. Did she have a connection with God? Probably not — her ‘miracles’ are often vague and easily fakable, her illness may well not have ever been cured, and her prophecies against Henry VIII — namely that his decision to divorce and remarry would bring him death in but a few months — never came true. Yet, it does not matter if Barton was mad, or if she had a connection with God, or if she was merely a charlatan who capitalised on the religious gullibility of 16th-century England. What matters is that she was a woman who rose from servitude to become a religious leader in England, visited from people all around the country, who preceded the likes of Robert Aske, leader of the Pilgrimage of Grace, Thomas Wyatt, leader of Wyatt’s Rebellion, and stood up in the face not only of Henry VIII but of her own church. The submission of the clergy had begun in 1532 and the systemic subjugation of the church which followed stands in stark contrast to the heroic effort demonstrated by Barton, sane or not, to oppose Henry VIII, although in doing so she gave up her life.