The Holy Maid of Kent

(Elizabeth Barton, 1506-1534)

Elizabeth Barton was born in 1506 at Aldington, Kent, England. She had epilepsy and was subject to nervous disorders as a child. While still a teenager she was hired as a servant in the house of Thomas Cobb, who was the steward of an estate owned by William Warham, Archbishop of Canterbury.

In 1525 Barton became ill and developed religious mania. She fell into ecstatic trances that lasted for days at a time, during which she raved with "marvelous holiness in rebuke of sin and vice." On recovering from her illness Barton continued to have trances during which she prophesied and made political statements. Richard Masters, the local parish priest, heard of the visions and reported them to Archbishop Warham. She quickly became a local celebrity, so much so that in 1526 the Archbishop sent two monks to inquire into her case.

Edward Bocking, one of the monks, arranged for Barton to enter St. Sepulchre's convent in Canterbury as a nun. She became an attraction for the city's numerous pilgrims, who believed her to be in direct communication with the Virgin Mary (as, in fact, she herself claimed). She corresponded with a number of important ecclesiastical figures of the time, including Sir Thomas More.

During her trances Barton urged Henry VIII to give up his plan to divorce Katherine of Aragon, and prophecied that if he did so he "should no longer be king of this realm...and should die a villain's death." In 1532 Henry passed through Canterbury, and it is reported that Barton forced herself into his presence and tried to frighten him into giving up his marriage to Anne Boleyn.

However, Henry's marriage to Anne was celebrated in January of 1533, followed in May by annullment of the marriage to Catherine. Barton's statements became increasingly inflammatory and treasonable. Archbishop Thomas Cranmer (who performed Henry's annulment) had succeeded Warham in March and began investigating Barton's performances. Barton was arrested and interrogated, at which point she confessed that she had feigned her trances and invented the religious visions.

On the 25th of September, 1533, the authorities arrested Bocking and another monk, who implicated Masters. Barton and her accomplices were tried in the Star Chamber and ordered to read a public confession at St. Paul's Cross. (Paul's Cross was an outdoor pulpit on the grounds of St. Paul's Cathedral and was frequently used for public announcements of various kinds, not unlike today's television news.)

In January, 1534, Henry passed a bill of attainder that condemned Barton, Masters, Bocking, and others to death. The maid and the other prisoners were publicly hanged at Tyburn on the 21st of April, 1534, in the presence of an enormous crowd.

The question of whether Barton's visions were genuine or invented remains unsettled, as does the question of whether her confession was extracted without torture. The Encyclopedia Britannica concludes, "It is not certain that her confession...was the result of anything but confusion and fear, for she had no education and little intellect. If she was more a hysteric than a saint, it is probable that she was, in the main, sincere, more deluded than deluding."

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