Elizabeth Barton – the Nun of Kent

I mentioned Elizabeth Barton in my previous post, and while many interested in the Tudor era may know who she was,Elizabeth-Barton there may still be many who doesn´t, and as my posts also are a learning process for myself, here she comes;

There isn´t much known about the early life of the woman who would become known as “the Nun of Kent”, firstly both tolerated and respected, depending on which layer of society you´d ask. She is said to have come from a rather poor background in Aldington outside Canterbury, and like so many other women from the lower classes of society, she was working as a servant in a more well off home, the house of Thomas Cobb, when the visions began in 1525 when Elizabeth was 18 years old. The starting point of her visions coincided with a grave illness, where she by some accounts were catatonic up to 7 months, which may be an exaggeration, but on the other hand – without having seen either of them, obviously – what comes to mind is the state of Henry VI which lasted for over a year. After her illness she became a nun at St Selpulchre´s in Canterbury.

There have been suggestions however that she may have suffered from epileptic fits, a thought that may be supported by an account by Thomas Cromwell who wrote to a cleric “Her 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.”

While we today most likely would look with great scepticism on someone claiming to have divine visions, but in Tudor times these were acceptable, even if unusual manifestations of religious devotions and Elizabeth Barton soon gathered a following consisting of thousands of people.

To begin with, her visions were rather harmless, she encouraged people to live good Christian lives and to undertake pilgrimages, she predicted the death of her patron´s son and she claimed to be able to give accounts of faraway places and the afterlife and she gained the blessing of the archbishop of Canterbury.

When she claimed an angle had told her that she had to go to the king and tell him terrible things would happen if he denounced Catherine of Aragon and married Anne Boleyn instead, Henry´s patience started to deteriorate. Even so, there are records that he actually received her twice. She also had meetings with the Archbishop of Canterbury, Bishop John Fisher, Thomas More and a large number of monks at Canterbury, Observant Franciscan Friars from Greenwich and Richmond as well as the Birgitte Nuns and priests of Syon.

It had been all fine and well while she was condemning rebellions and heresy, but when she started to interfere in the King´s business, her days were counted. She turned against the reformation, as well as the marriage to Anne, and stated that Henry himself would soon die a villain´s death. Henry swiftly decided that she was a fraud. Elizabeth Barton was arrested in 1533 and allegedly admitted that all her revelations and prophesies was fraudulent, after which she was condemned by attainder. All information that exists about her confessions, however, come from Thomas Cromwell and his agents.

Elizabeth Barton and five of her chief supporters, five of which were priests, were hanged for treason on April 20th 1534. She is the only woman in history who after execution has had her head put on a spike London Bridge.

 

 

 

Henry VIII – Lucy Wooding

New Worlds, Lost Worlds; The rule of the Tudors 1485 – 1603 – Susan Brigden

The Six Wives of Henry VIII – Alison Weir

The Holy Maid of Kent: The Life of Elizabeth Barton: 1506–1534 – Alan Neame

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