In every historical era, including today’s, we can look towards people of great celebrity, “superstars” for lack of a better term, who rose from poverty and common obscurity to the heights of fame, power or fortune. In today’s world, most of these renowned “superstars” are royalty, entertainers, and athletes, with occasionally a politician or major religious figure or two. They fill the traditional and social media, with the paparazzi chasing their every move. We just can’t get away from these people, even if we want to. Celebrity “superstars” influence our cultural mores to the very core, for the good and for the bad.
Was it always this way? During the reign of King Henry VIII, a few “superstars” who rose from the depths of poverty came center stage, most notably Thomas Cromwell, Earl of Essex. Remarkably, a woman joined Cromwell’s ranks, eclipsing his popularity most undoubtedly, for in an age where religion reigned true and omens, portents, predictions, legends and ancient prophecies held huge significance, one of the Tudor Era’s greatest and most cherished celebrity “superstars” stepped forward — Elizabeth Barton, the Holy Maid of Kent.
Born in obscurity, Elizabeth Barton’s life as a celebrated English woman began with what at the time was considered by all Roman Catholics an awe-inspiring trance and God sent miracle. While working as a servant in a Kent household, Barton became seriously ill — some today might surmise epilepsy, while others might assume delirium or psychosis. Incredibly, she began to speak in rhyming prophecies. After sharing her vision of a nearby chapel, Elizabeth Barton was taken there and lain before a statue of the Blessed Virgin Mary.
As astounding as this sounds, the woman remained there in a trance for a week. Upon awakening, Elizabeth Barton began prophesying again, predicting the death of a child living in her household, and as detailed by Archbishop Thomas Cranmer in a letter to Archdeacon Hawkins, “speaking of many high and godly things, telling also wondrously, by the power of the Holy Ghost as it was thought, things done and said in other places, whereas neither she was herself, nor yet heard no report thereof.” Soon afterward, she was questioned by a special commission established by then Archbishop William Warham. They determined her trances, visions, and prophecies genuine, and a “star was born”. At least a thousand people took to the road, processing to the little chapel, and like Jim Morrison’s grave, the Ford Theater, the town of Bethlehem, and the shrine of St. Thomas Beckett, it became a place of pilgrimage.
Elizabeth Barton’s illustrious or infamous career, depending on one’s point of you, then began in earnest. Admitted to St. Sepulcre’s nunnery in Canterbury, she professed her vows, and her trances, prophecies and clairvoyance continued and increased unabated. Sister Ellizabeth’s messages of warning and predictions of the future were reported to the world outside her cloistered community by a group of priests close to the convent, and her fame and celebrity rose to the highest zenith of Tudor society. Legitimized as filled with the Holy Spirit by the likes of Archbishop William Warham and Bishop John Fisher, who both met with the “Holy Maid of Kent”, Sister Elizabeth Barton became exceptionally acclaimed throughout the realm, respected for her piety and marveled for her Godly giftedness.
At the height of her celebrity and positive regard, Sister Elizabeth held an audience with Cardinal Thomas Wolsey, Sir Thomas More and King Henry VIII — her popularity rivaling the King himself. With this type of fame and notoriety, why did this remarkable woman become merely a footnote in history? Well, her visions and prophecies took an ominous turn, focusing on the King’s desire to annul his marriage to the great Roman Catholic Queen Catalina de Aragón in favor of the Reformist “usurper” Lady Anne Boleyn.
Sister Elizabeth Barton, whether truly filled with the Holy Spirit, arrogant, self-righteous, courageous, bold, stupid or insane — take your pick — wrote directly to His Holy Father and spoke frankly to both Cardinal Wolsey and the King. To Wolsey Sister Elizabeth warned that if King Henry abandoned his wife the realm would be left in peril. Then Sister Elizabeth frankly warned the King that if he chose to marry the Lady Anne Boleyn, he would reign a mere seven months thereafter, with the Princess Mary eventually ruling the realm. Now chew on that for a minute. This nun told King Henry VIII TO HIS FACE that his death loomed if he carried forward with his plans. What was she thinking? Well, amazingly the King chose to ignore her, and Elizabeth Barton, Holy Maid of Kent, went
What was she thinking? Well, amazingly the King chose to ignore her, and Elizabeth Barton, Holy Maid of Kent, went about her way, holding several meetings with Queen Catherine’s closest courtiers and others taking on her cause. Still, King Henry VIII showed considerable and uncharacteristic restraint, even after as this potentially apocryphal story goes: Sister Elizabeth Barton gained access to the King and the then Marquess of Pembroke in a walled up garden at the abbot of St Augustine’s, Canterbury. There she told then both that should they marry, within one month he would no longer be the reigning monarch, dying a villain’s death. Though Sister Elizabeth was yet again spared the King’s wrath, his patience was beginning to wear thin.
As King Henry proceeded with his plans to marry Anne Boleyn secretly, Thomas Cranmer was named Archbishop of Canterbury after William Warham’s death. Soon after his consecration, Cranmer declared the King’s marriage to Catalina de Aragón null and void, and his marriage to Anne Boleyn legitimate. Obviously, seven months later, King Henry still reigned supreme — at least two major prophecies easily proven invalid. Still, the “Holy Maid” maintained her prestige within the kingdom, revered by the majority of English subjects. Sister Elizabeth met secretly with the papal envoy in Canterbury, going so far as to proclaim a prophecy for His Holy Father, declaring that should he ever approve an annulment for King Henry, that God would plague him.
Still able to hold her credibility with high ranking Roman Catholics, a month after Anne Boleyn became Queen of England, Sir Thomas More paid “the Holy Maid of Kent” a visit at Syon Abbey. What they discussed is lost to history, as they met alone and neither wisely chose to tell the tale. Cautious as always, More told those who inquired, namely Thomas Cromwell, that he merely sought her prayers. Per Thomas More in a letter to Cromwell, “We talked no worde of the Kinges Grace or anye great personage ells, no in effecte, of anye man or woman but of her selfe, and my selfe“. When later supporters of Sister Elizabeth fell like dominoes all around her, More was able to wiggle free, namely because in an age before of photocopying and copy/paste features, he had the presence of mind to keep a copy of a letter sent her way, one that conveniently advised her to stay out of the King’s affairs.
Finally, in the summer of 1533, Thomas Cromwell “expressed his concerns” about Sister Elizabeth Barton to King Henry, who finally commanded that Cromwell, assisted by the Archbishop, investigate the “Holy Maid”. With that, and most likely long before, Sister Elizabeth Barton came into the view of the men who would be her ultimate undoing, the highly placed and reformist courtiers of the King, Archbishop Thomas Cranmer and the King’s Secretary, Thomas Cromwell. Make no mistake about it. Cranmer and Cromwell viewed the popular and nearly universally acclaimed Elizabeth Barton, the “Holy Maid” as a major threat to their reformation efforts. Per Cranmer, “Truly, I think she did marvellously stop the going forward of the King’s marriage by reason of her visions.” More practically, Cromwell likely saw what for him was a wonderful opportunity, the chance to bring down the entire Roman Catholic leadership Cranmer had no ability to manage, because with her fall would come theirs — starting with the most troublesome and problematic of them all, Bishop John Fisher.
Like an episode of Cagney and Lacey or a scene from Bad Boys’ Mike and Marcus, Cranmer and Cromwell, affectionately sometimes labeled quite appropriately “The Tudor Odd Couple”, used their customary “good cop/ bad cop” interrogation style to wear down Sister Elizabeth. Call me skeptical. With only reformist leaning hostile sources to work with, it’s impossible to know with any accuracy what went down, but after seemingly sympathetically listening to Sister Elizabeth fill with the Holy Spirit for several meetings, witnessing trances and visions unfold, and unable to sway her views, the Archbishop handed over the reigns to the King’s Secretary.
Suddenly, under the watchful eye of Cromwell and his agents, Sister Elizabeth “confessed” that she was a fraud. As the Archbishop writes Archdeacon Hawkins, “And now she hath confessed all, and uttered the very truth, which is this: that she never had vision in all her life, but all that ever she said was feigned of her own imagination, only to satisfy the minds of them the which resorted unto her, and to obtain worldly praise: by reason of the which her confession, many and divers, both religious men and other, be now in trouble, forasmuch as they consented to her mischievous and feigned visions, which contained much perilous sedition and also treason, and would not utter it, but rather further the same to their power.” Cromwell, not satisfied that she fall alone, interrogated several of her followers. Subsequently, the “Maid of Kent” and her supporters were made to do public penance at St. Paul’s Cathedral and Starr Chamber, further writing most likely forced confessions detailing their deceptions and fraudulent actions.
After passing a conveniently timed Parliamentary Act forbidding the foretelling of a monarch’s death, a ploy Cromwell and King Henry would use again to trap those opposed to the King’s supremacy, in January 1534, a bill of attainder for treason was filed against Elizabeth Barton, Holy Maid of Kent and thirteen of her supporters, among them Bishop John Fisher and Sir Thomas More. With the exception of More, all others were condemned to imprisonment and forfeiture of all they owned to the Crown. After all, from a legal standpoint, anyone arrested via attainder was guilty without trial and legally dead. Who needs worldly goods?
Elizabeth Barton, Holy Maid of Kent, and five priests who supported her, paid the ultimate price on April 20, 1534. Taken from the Tower, they were all lashed tightly onto wooden planks, their wrists tied together as if praying. These wooden hurdles, hitched onto horses, were dragged five miles across London’s streets to Tyburn. The once acclaimed and universally beloved “superstar” Elizabeth Barton, Holy Maid of Kent, was the most fortunate of the group. After confessing to be a “poor wench without learning”, she was hung. The five priests were then murdered in turn, the remaining men witnessing the death’s of those killed before them. Condemned to a traitor’s death, they were hung until half-dead, revived and then their penises chopped off and stuffed in their mouths, their stomachs then cut open and their intestines tossed in a cauldron of boiling water. This not sufficient, their hearts were cut out and waved in their faces. Long dead by now, their heads were chopped off, parboiled and stuck on poles lining London Bridge. Such was the cruelty of the 16th century, and such were he lengths the ruling regime would go to silence and force English Roman Catholicism’s capitulation and bring down the Tudor Era’s most revered “superstar” celebrity.
Ackroyd, Peter, The Life of Thomas More.
New Advent Catholic Encyclopedia, Elizabeth Barton, http://www.newadvent.org
Cranmer, Thomas, Letter of Archbishop Cranmer to Archdeacon Hawkyns Regarding the Nun of Kent, Luminarium: Anthology of English Literature, http://www.luminarium.org
MacCulloch, Diarmaid, Thomas Cranmer.
Monti, James, The King’s Good Servant but God’s First: The Life and Writings of Saint Thomas More.
Beth von Staats is an historical fiction short story writer and is the owner and administrator of Queen Anne Boleyn Historical Writers. To visit QAB, go to http://queenanneboleyn.com.