Elizabeth Barton

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BARTON, ELIZABETH

"The Nun of Kent"; b. c. 1506; d. London, April 20, 1534. In 1525 Elizabeth, a servant in the Aldington, Kent, household of Thomas Cobb, steward of William Warham, Archbishop of Canterbury, suffered an illness that gave rise to trances, religious ecstasies, and prophecies. A diocesan commission headed by Edward Bocking, OSB, examined her and pronounced her condition of divine origin. The "servant girl who spoke to angels" soon received much attention and renown. Removed to Saint Sepulchre Priory near Canterbury, Elizabeth became a nun and continued her warnings and prophecies, which found credence with high and low. Bocking and his fellow monks appear to have used her to revive pious devotions and to weaken heretical teachings. Miracles were attributed to her despite the skeptical attitudes of Thomas More and of the king himself. During the royal divorce proceedings, the nun more plainly admonished the king and his sympathizers. Elizabeth seems to have convinced Warham, her patron, and to have swayed even Wolsey to oppose the king's insistence on marrying Anne Boleyn. John Fisher, Bishop of Rochester, the Marchioness of Exeter, the Countess of Salisbury, and other supporters of Queen Catherine, consulted Elizabeth from 1528 to 1532, and she became a champion of Henry's opposition. Catherine never consulted Elizabeth. Elizabeth announced that Henry would die if he remarried and that he had forfeited his throne before God. In 1533 Thomas Cranmer succeeded to the See of Canterbury, and with Thomas Cromwell, used the nun to ensnare the enemies of Henrician reform. Cranmer skillfully extorted a confession in which Elizabeth admitted deceit and duplicity. Denounced as a fraud, Elizabeth, with a number of others, More and Fisher included, was eventually condemned by a bill of attainder. More's earlier skepticism won his exclusion from the action, but the nun and six others were condemned to death. Fisher and five others were imprisoned and their goods confiscated. Elizabeth was executed at Tyburn, publicly confessing her guilt and pride. Cromwell's methods undoubtedly raise some question as to the validity of the charges made by him. On the other hand, it seems clear that Elizabeth was exploited by Bocking and others for religious and possibly political reasons.

Bibliography: p. hughes, The Reformation in England. s. lee, The Dictionary of National Biography from the Earliest Times to 1900 (London 18851900) 1:126366. g. mattingly, Catherine of Aragon (Boston 1941).

[p. s. mcgarry]

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Barton, Elizabeth (c.1506–34). Prophetess. Known as the Maid of Kent, Elizabeth Barton, a domestic servant, developed religious mania, with trances and visions. She was taken up by local catholic priests and used to discredit Lutheran ideas. But when she took up the cause of Catherine of Aragon and declared that Henry VIII would die if he divorced her, the Maid moved into deep waters. For a time she was protected by Warham, More, and Fisher, but when Cranmer succeeded Warham as archbishop he interrogated Barton and obtained a confession that her revelations were feigned. With several of her associates she was executed at Tyburn in April 1534.

J. A. Cannon

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Elizabeth Barton, 1506?–1534, English prophet, called the Maid of Kent or the Nun of Kent. She was a domestic servant who, after a period of illness, began (c.1525) to go into trances and to utter prophecies, which were claimed to be of divine origin. She entered a convent in Canterbury, and, under the influence of Edward Bocking, her prophecies became increasingly dangerous politically. She foretold dire consequences to King Henry VIII should he divorce Katharine of Aragón and marry Anne Boleyn. Bocking probably hoped to stir an uprising against the king, but his protégée was arrested (1533) and brought to confess herself an impostor. She and her accomplices were put to death.

See biography by A. Neame (1971); study by E. J. Devereux (1966).