One would think that during the religiously and politically chaotic times of the 1530s in England, many people would learn to NOT incite the wrath of a vengeful monarch. But, no, many people tempted Madame Fate by actually disagreeing with their lovingly gentle and just monarch King Henry VIII, especially on the issue of his desire for an annulment of his marriage to the saintly Catherine of Aragon. With many people losing their heads and quite literally losing their own heads over “the Great Matter”, it must certainly have been an interesting period of time during which to live.
But let’s back up a bit. Most of us have heard about Henry VIII and his marital woes by exchanging wives about as quickly as Elizabeth Taylor exchanged husbands. And most of us are quite familiar with his losing his own head over a dark-eyed, dark-haired temptress, exchanging a living son for a dead wife, and his other exploits. In the late 1520s and the early 1530s, Henry divorced himself and his country from the Roman Catholic Church in order to marry his mistress Anne Boleyn and annul his marriage to Catherine on the grounds of canon law. Catherine had been his older, dearly departed brother’s wife before her marriage to Henry, and Henry had sought a dispensation from the pope in Rome to marry her. He petitioned this same pope to dissolve his marriage, but seeing as Catherine’s nephew, the Holy Roman Emperor, put extreme pressure on Clement VII, Henry became frustrated at every turn. So what does a spoiled second son do when he can’t get his way? Why, he throws a temper! And it just so happens that this temper brought the Reformation to England. Jolly, right?
All joking aside, Henry’s split from the Catholic Church and subsequent marriage to Anne shocked and horrified many of his subjects, noble and common alike. She was highly unpopular, noted especially for her temper and flagrant disregard for the ‘proper’ conduct for a lady. Thus, many people protested the abuse Catherine received at the hands of her husband and her replacement. One of the numerous vocal protesters was Elizabeth Barton, who became known as the “Nun of Kent” or the “Holy Maid of Kent”.
Not much is known of her early life, but it is entirely possible that she suffered from various ailments including epilepsy. This may have influenced the visions and trances she began having at age nineteen while working as a domestic servant at Aldington in Kent. She claimed to have been at Calais, the only English landholding on the Continent, when Henry met with his rival and fellow monarch Francis I, king of France. At the mass, she told that she received the Holy Sacrament instead of the king, an indication that God disliked the fact Henry was attempting to cast aside his lawful wife. Her clear charisma and the simple fact she spoke out cast an aura that drew many to her. Perhaps it was the fact she gave voice to many masses who disliked the direction the king embarked upon and challenged Henry on that front. Indeed, such was her power that she corresponded with the king’s ministers, including Cardinal Wolsey, Thomas Cromwell, and Sir Thomas More (apparently Henry had an affinity for the name Thomas…!). Eventually, however, Barton strayed a little too far and eventually obtained the taint of treason for prophesying the king’s death and threatening him. Thus, after a flimsy trial (Henry also had an affinity for flimsy trials and evidence…Anne Boleyn, anyone?), she and several others were tried and condemned to death at Tyburn. Elizabeth Barton was executed on 20 April 1534.
Moral of the story? When you mess with fire, you’re sure to be burned…
Unfortunately for historians, we really have no clue whether Barton fabricated her own prophesies or if her supposed illness caused them. As a nun from Saint Sepulchre’s in Canterbury, it would come as no surprise if she genuinely thought she had religious encounters, however. Not much has been said of her piety and devotion. Was she a victim or a genuine threat to Henry’s reign? I’ll let you decide.
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