Barton, Elizabeth (c. 1506–1534)

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Barton, Elizabeth (c. 1506–1534)

English zealot. Name variations: The maid of Kent, Nun of Kent, or Holy Maid of Kent. Born, according to her statement, in 1506 at Aldington, Kent; executed at Tyburn on April 20, 1534.

Elizabeth Barton was a servant in the house of Thomas Cobb, caretaker of an estate near Aldington owned by William Warham, the archbishop of Canterbury. At age 19, she suffered an illness which resulted in "religious hysteria." While convalescing, Barton lapsed into trances that lasted for days; her ravings were of such "marvellous holiness in rebuke of sin and vice," including rebukes of those in power, that the locals believed her to be divinely inspired. Cobb reported the matter to Richard Masters, the parish priest, who in turn informed Archbishop Warham. When Elizabeth Barton recovered and found herself the object of veneration, she continued to feign trances and divulge prophecies, or so she would soon state in a coerced "confession."

In 1526, as Barton's fame grew, Warham instructed the prior of Christ Church, Canterbury, to send two monks to examine her. One of these, Edward Bocking, pronounced her sincere and gained her admission the following year as a Benedictine nun to St. Sepulchre's convent, Canterbury. With Bocking's instruction, Barton's prophecies became even more remarkable. The 20-year-old attracted many followers, who believed her to be, as she asserted, in direct communication with the Virgin Mary.

Though Barton was uneducated, her rantings were directed towards political concerns; a widespread sensation was caused by her declaration that should Henry VIII persist in his intention of divorcing Catherine of Aragon , he "should no longer be king of this realm … and should die a villain's death." Even such men as the bishop of Rochester and Sir Thomas More corresponded with Barton. On Henry's return from France in 1532, he passed through Canterbury and is said to have allowed the nun to confront him in an attempt to frighten him into abandoning his marriage. After the Act in Restraint of Appeals granted sovereignty to the English Church court and Henry's divorce was allowed in May 1533, Barton's utterances became increasingly treasonable. She was brought before Thomas Cranmer (who had succeeded as archbishop upon Warham's death) to be examined, and she confessed. On September 25, Bocking and another monk were arrested; in November, Richard Masters and others were implicated. The maid and her fellow accomplices were examined before the Star Chamber and ordered to be publicly displayed at St. Paul's Cross, where they each read a confession. In January 1534, by a bill of attainder, they were condemned to death and executed at Tyburn on April 20. While some have held that Elizabeth Barton's confession was derived by force and therefore is valueless, the evidence of her deception is usually considered conclusive.

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