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When Henry VIII met the Holy Maid of Kent

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On Monday 20 April 1534, a twenty-eight-year-old Benedictine nun was taken from her cell in the Tower of London, stripped of her religious habit and bound hand and foot to a hurdle.

She was dragged behind a horse for five miles through London’s filthy streets to Tyburn, where she was hanged, strangling to death in front of a baying crowd. She was then decapitated and her head boiled in a cauldron, before it was taken to London Bridge and stuck on a pole as a dreadful warning to others. The rest of the body of the woman known to history as the Holy Maid of Kent – or sometimes the Mad Maid of Kent – was buried in the Grey Friars churchyard in Newgate Street. What had brought her to this untimely and barbarous end?

Elizabeth Barton had been born in 1506 in Aldington, a village about fifteen miles south-west of Canterbury, which was then the site of one of the Archbishop’s palaces. All that is certain of her early life is that she became a servant in the house of Thomas Cobb, farmer and local land agent to the Archbishop. An apparently uneventful existence ended when in 1525 Elizabeth fell ill with a recurring and painful complaint, and in the throes of her agony, began to fall into trances, to have visions and to prophesy.

Her fame began to spread beyond the bounds of her own parish, and the Rector of Aldington felt compelled to tell the church authorities. He made his report direct to the Archbishop, William Warham. He was given a watching brief. Meanwhile, Elizabeth began to visit a rundown hermit’s chapel at nearby Court-at-Street, where she prayed before a statue of Our Lady, though not alone: by this time her visits were attracting crowds of the pious and the merely curious. On one of these occasions she fell into another trance, and when she woke was completely cured of her mysterious malady.

Archbishop Warham ratified this as a miraculous cure, and directed that Elizabeth should enter the Benedictine convent of St Sepulchre in Canterbury, which was under his protection. Here, in the intervals between work and prayer, she continued to fall into trances and now, to work miracles. Her fame spread further and the chapel at Court-at-Street was refurbished to cater for the numbers of pilgrims visiting the site of the miracle.

In 1528, now a professed nun, Elizabeth asked Archbishop Warham for a letter of introduction to Cardinal Wolsey. It was a bold step. Thomas Wolsey was not only a man of great religious influence, but as Lord Chancellor of England, had enormous secular power, too, and the ear of the king. Henry VIII was at this time pressurising Wolsey to rid him of Catherine of Aragon and arrange a way in which he could legally marry Anne Boleyn.

Elizabeth went to London, Wolsey received her and listened to her message that God had revealed to her that a divorce would be contrary to His will. Wolsey seems to have been impressed by the young nun, and arranged for her to speak to the king. Once in the royal presence, she told Henry plainly that an angel had appeared to her and told her that if he married Anne, the vengeance of God would plague him.

On this occasion, Henry brushed off the remarks. But the next year Elizabeth had another vision, the gist of which she shared with her many admirers in Canterbury before going to deliver it to the king in person. She told him bluntly that his voluptuousness and carnal appetite were leading him to disregard God’s laws, and that if he divorced Catherine and married Anne, he would die a shameful and miserable death within the month. Henry was not amused and did not invite her to the royal presence again.

Thomas Wolsey died in 1530, and Archbishop Warham in 1532 and with them most of Elizabeth’s protection, though Sir Thomas More was still a cautious supporter. Later in 1532, when Henry and Anne were at Canterbury, en route to France to meet the French king, Elizabeth accosted them while they were walking in a monastery garden. Not troubling to bow or introduce herself, she bluntly told them again that if they married, Henry would shortly die a villain’s death.

Matters now moved quickly. Anne welcomed the king into her bed, pregnancy almost immediately ensued and the couple were secretly married. But Queen Catherine’s supporters, including Sir Thomas More and the papal nuncio, unaware of this, continued to use Elizabeth’s prophecies against Henry, and she, also unaware, continued to say that he would die if he married Anne. Catherine was duly divorced, the marriage made public and Anne crowned queen on 1 June 1533.

In September 1533, Henry was still very much alive, and he wanted an example made of the nun who had insulted him. Elizabeth was detained and taken before Thomas Cromwell, Wolsey’s successor as Henry’s enforcer. She confessed to him that her visions were imaginary, her trances faked and her prophesies lies. Twice she made public acts of penance, in London and in Canterbury, but they could not save her. After being kept in miserable conditions in the Tower of London for months she was found guilty of treason and heresy and sentenced to die, together with five of her adherents, all monks and priests. Sir Thomas More had quietly withdrawn his support.

Was Elizabeth Barton a fraud? All that we know of her confession comes from Thomas Cromwell’s pen. We do not know if she was threatened or even tortured or what blandishments were put to her. Was she an innocent, manipulated by men who had something to gain from her prophesies against the king? We cannot know. Sadly, today, her main claim to fame is that she remains the only woman ever dishonoured in death by having her head displayed on London Bridge.

By Anne Petrie

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