Reformation Day 500th Anniversary Highlight: The Uncommon Common Women of the English Reformation

by Beth von Staats

To celebrate the 500th Anniversary of “Reformation Day”, meet my favorite remarkably tenacious, courageous, and resourceful “common women” of the English Reformation: Elizabeth Barton, Margarete Cranmer, Anne Askew, Anne Vaux and Eleanor Brooksby — badass women, one and all.


Elizabeth Barton, portrayed by Aimee-Ffion Edwards. Wolf Hall, BBC

“Tudor England’s Super Star Celebrity”, Elizabeth Barton, Holy Maid of Kent

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 view, 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 Elizabeth’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.

Elizabeth Barton, Holy Maid of Kent
(Thomas Halloway)

What was she thinking? Well, amazingly the King chose to ignore her, and Elizabeth Barton, Holy Maid of Kent, went on 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 them 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 deaths 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 was the 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.


Julia Wakeman as Margarete “Joan” Cranmer
The Tudors, Showtime

“The Wife in a Box”, Margarete Cranmer

While following King Charles throughout Europe in 1532, Thomas Cranmer, Archdeacon of Taunton,  visited the independent city of Nuremberg, then increasingly Lutheran in both its governance and religious teaching.

At the time Cranmer arrived in Nuremberg, his theological beliefs very closely aligned with King Henry VIII. Besides a strong belief in the Royal Supremacy, Cranmer was highly humanist in his thinking, heavily influenced by Desiderius Erasmus. Thomas Cranmer’s two visits to Nuremberg, however, unleashed a watershed change in Cranmer’s religious beliefs, which were heavily influenced by a friendship he developed with Lutheran priest and theologian, Andreas Osiander.

Beyond the religious discussions Cranmer and Osiander enjoyed, which influenced both men’s theological development, Andreas Osiander, as well as other Lutheran priests in Nuremberg, was happily married with children. He introduced Cranmer to his niece, Margarete (surname unknown) over dinner.

Soon after, Cranmer did the absolutely unthinkable for a priest working directly in service for the King of England. He ignored his vows of clerical celibacy and married, a Lutheran woman at that. The risks were incalculable. What was the man thinking? Perhaps Cranmer decided it was God’s will. If so, he was right. Though the marriage endured years of secrecy and long separation, Thomas Cranmer and his wife begot children and lived openly and by all appearances lovingly upon the ascension of King Edward VI.

Now secretly married, however, Archdeacon Thomas Cranmer continued his services to King Henry VIII through his Ambassadorship to the Holy Roman Emperor, following King Charles through his travels. Given the Holy Roman Empire’s ongoing war with the Ottoman Empire, Cranmer’s job was a dangerous one indeed. He eloquently updated King Henry VIII, often in cipher, of the horrors he witnessed.

Unknown to Cranmer at the time, William Warham, Archbishop of Canterbury, died August 22, 1532. The death, though not unexpected, provided King Henry VIII, Thomas Cromwell, and the Boleyns with an outstanding opportunity to hand select a new Archbishop like-minded to resolving the “King’s Great Matter”.

Who was their man? Certainly not Bishop Stephen Gardiner, who though highly qualified, recently enraged the King through his defiance over Church liberties. Instead, at the urging of the future Queen of England, King Henry VIII appointed the Boleyn family patronized Archdeacon Cranmer, a move that stunned everyone but those who proposed it. After all, Thomas Cranmer’s title of Archdeacon was largely honorary. He never administered a single parish, let alone a diocese.

In October 1532, Cranmer was shocked to learn of his appointment while on assignment in Italy. Commanded to return home immediately to prepare for his consecration as Archbishop of Canterbury, he was left to sort out what steps were needed to safeguard the secrecy of his marriage and more importantly, the safety of his wife.


Those that God hath joined together let no man put asunder.
— Book of Common Prayer (1549), translated from the Book of Matthew —

Thomas Cranmer’s wife depicted hidden in a crate.
Julia Wakeham, The Tudors, Showtime

Exactly when Margarete Cranmer stepped on English soil is not known, but all indications are that she arrived after her husband’s return. Where did she live? A closely guarded secret successfully kept, her location was and still is unknown. Margarete certainly was not either at Lambeth Palace, where a German woman’s presence would elicit curiosity — nor as humorously and commonly believed, hidden in a large wooden box.

In December 1543, Thomas Cranmer endured the personal tragedy of his palace at Canterbury being destroyed by fire. One of his brothers-in-law and several of his faithful servants were killed.

Saved from the fire was a precious box owned by the Archbishop, the contents within unknown. This, in turn, evolved into a story commonly enjoyed and told repeatedly by Roman Catholics during the reigns of Queens Mary and Elizabeth Tudor. Margarete was hiding in that box. Well, of course, she was!

Shortly after Thomas Cranmer’s martyrdom, detractors published a widely distributed and humorous story weaving a plot where during the reign of King Henry VIII, Cranmer traveled throughout England with his wife, carefully hidden in a large crate with breathing holes. Later versions of the story portray Cranmer anxiously praying for the safe retrieval of a precious wooden crate during the Canterbury Palace fire, the box, of course, containing “this pretty nobsey”. Unfortunately, this is our only hint of Margarete Cranmer’s appearance.

In reality, a complete silence enveloped Margarete Cranmer during her stay in England throughout the 1530’s. For all intents and purposes, she was invisible. For the politically naive Thomas Cranmer, this was an outstanding accomplishment. In fact, the feat was “astonishing”, claims historian Diarmaid MacCulloch. With conservative detractors seeking any way possible to upend him for good, Cranmer’s ability to keep his wife and later also his daughter safe speaks to his steadfast commitment to his family and his remarkable resourcefulness.

Unfortunately, even with Thomas Cranmer’s great caution, by 1539 it became too dangerous for his wife Margarete and their young daughter Margaret to remain in England. The passage of the Act of Six Articles through Parliament, which included a mandate of strict adherence to clerical celibacy, imposed all married clergy put away their wives. The risk to his family now untenable, he arranged for their exile in Europe. Thus, Thomas Cranmer was separated from his family for the remaining eight long years of King Henry VIII’s reign.

Upon the death of King Henry VIII, Archbishop Thomas Cranmer became theologically liberated to craft a Church of England in line with his increasingly Protestant religious beliefs. His first two decisions clearly forecast the sweeping reforms to come. Cranmer began growing a beard, commonly known to be a casting away of Roman Catholicism and papal authority. Far more importantly, he brought his family home.

For the first time since marrying 15 years earlier, Thomas and Margarete Cranmer lived openly as man and wife. An utter astonishment to all those but the very few entrusted through the years, their long kept secret was finally revealed. Unfortunately, they enjoyed a mere five years of family life together before the untimely and premature death of King Edward VI. Soon after, Archbishop Cranmer was arrested by Queen Mary Tudor. His fate sealed, Cranmer’s separation from Margarete and his two children, the youngest less than five years old, was permanent.

Thomas Cranmer’s arrest, imprisonment and eventual execution a foregone conclusion, some sources propose that with the help of friends in the London printing community, Margarete Cranmer and her daughter escaped the wrath of Queen Mary Tudor and again lived in exile in Europe. Whether reports Margarete fled England are accurate, the London printing community was forefront in her sheltering and protection.

Cranmer’s young son, Thomas, was entrusted to the care of his brother, Edmund Cranmer. They too fled with 100% certainty to the Continent. Without the support of his family, and then later colleagues Hugh Latimer and Nicholas Ridley, the Archbishop completely broke down, signing the recantations so damaging to his legacy.

Eventually, after Thomas Cranmer’s magnificent final speech and ultimate martyrdom at age 66, the much younger Margarete remarried his close friend and favored publisher, Edward Whitchurch while still in Europe. Upon the ascension of Queen Elizabeth Tudor, the couple settled down with her daughter of Thomas Cranmer in Surrey.

Widowed once more, Margarete married yet again, this time to Bartholomew Scott. Some historical sources claim that Scott married Margarete solely for her money, so she reportedly left him, seeking refuge with Thomas Cranmer’s close friend Reyner Wolfe, yet another London printer who hailed originally from the Netherlands, and his wife.

Margarete Scott, the widow of Thomas Cranmer, England’s first Protestant Archbishop of Canterbury, died on a date lost to history during the 1570’s. Unfortunately for us all, her legacy to the nation is unknown but to her family, those who knew her and God.


Anne Askew, portrayed by Emma Stansfield,  The Tudors, Showtime

“The English Reformation’s Feminist Change Agent”, Anne Askew

Anne Askew, a well-educated daughter of a wealthy gentleman and knight once in King Henry VIII’s service, and in one of the oddities of history, a juror in Queen Anne Boleyn’s treason trial, was a devout Protestant forced into a marriage with a Roman Catholic named Thomas Kyme, a man once promised to her dead sister. The marriage was a complete and utter disaster. In 1543, King Henry VIII, in concert with his conservative faction, changed his view on just who in the realm could read the Bible. By Parliamentary Law it became illegal for any women or man below the rank of gentleman from reading God’s Word. This dramatic shift in acceptable theology practice did not deter Askew. Though two children were born of the marriage, she is said to have been studying the Bible with like-minded Protestants when her husband kicked her out of the home for her disobedience to him, heresy and treason.

Anne Askew, retaining her given name despite her marital status, moved in with her brother and pursued a divorce based on her scriptural interpretation that Christians need not be “yoked to non-believers”. Unsuccessful in her attempts, Askew moved to London. Taking the unlikely leadership role of a pious woman with a mission, Anne Askew became a “gospeller”, more commonly known today as a preacher. Through her intelligence and scholarship, Askew set out to share her Protestantism with those not permitted access to the Bible themselves through scripture committed to memory. Askew also continued to pursue her desire for a divorce.

Upon arriving in London, Askew connected with Protestant friends who introduced her to several people close to Archbishop Thomas Cranmer, who by this time was absent from court, retreating to Kent. Cranmer’s absence from London clearly signaled King Henry’s change in stance, which became increasingly more traditionalist since the establishment of the Six Articles and the fall of Thomas Cromwell, Earl of Essex. Through Askew’s connections, she came to know and associate with Bishop Hugh Latimer, Dr. Nicholas Shaxton, Dr. Edward Crome most certainly, and perhaps, though unproven, more clandestinely with known Protestant sympathizers Catherine Brandon, Duchess of Suffolk, Anne Stanhope, then Countess of Hereford, and other ladies close to Queen Catherine Parr.

Anne Askew became increasingly popular throughout London for her abundant scriptural knowledge, her charismatic “gospelling”, and her ability to reach out to people of all classes and persuasions. Thus, she gained attention not only from admirers but also those committed to King Henry’s changed theological stance. By 1545, traditionalists with Roman Catholic leanings including Bishops Stephen Gardiner and Edmund Bonner, Thomas Howard, Duke of Norfolk, and Lord Chancellor Thomas Wriothesley were actively gunning for people of high authority within King Henry VIII’s inner circle, including Queen Catherine Parr and Archbishop Thomas Cranmer. Together they developed a strategy to bring Parr and perhaps even Cranmer down by first focusing their attention to more minor evangelicals with the intention those targeted would implicate others with more power closer to the King. Within this context, Anne Askew became tangled in a web, caught in the midst of a power struggle between the conservative traditionalist faction and reformers.

In 1545, Anne Askew was arrested and interviewed by Christopher Dale, under mayor of London, and then later Bishop Edmund Bonner and other religious conservatives. The charges of her heresy laid within her Protestant opinions of the sacrament of the Holy Eucharist, which Roman Catholics view as celebration of the Eucharist liturgy, the bread and wine which after the consecration are “transubstantiated” into the body and blood of Jesus Christ. Any disbelief of the Eucharist liturgy was considered gross heresy, punishable without recantation by burning.

On June 13, 1545, Anne Askew was arraigned for violation of the “Act of Sacramentaries”, but no witnesses appeared to testify against her, so she was released. A few months later, Anne Askew’s petition to divorce was denied, and she was ordered to return to her husband. In some accounts, she is said to have been forced back to her husband, soon after escaping and returning to London. In others, she flat out refused to go altogether. In either case, Askew’s stance on the court order was highly disobedient and provocative, giving ammunition to her detractors.

Bishop Stephen Gardiner summoned her under the guise of ordering she return to her husband. Upon questioning of her husband, Askew refused to answer. Gardiner then turned his attention to her religious views. Askew honestly and pointedly denied the existence of “transubstatiation”, and in doing so sealed her fate. On June 18, 1546, Anne Askew was arraigned at Guildhall, along with Dr. Nicholas Shaxton and two others. They all confessed and were convicted of heresy, condemned to die at the stake. Although the others recanted the next day, Anne Askew held firm to her convictions. Before burning Askew, however, the traditionalist conservative faction was eager to know who her “like-minded” supporters were, and they suspected, perhaps correctly, that those close to her included Queen Catherine Parr, along with the Queen’s high ranking friends and ladies-in-waiting.


Anne Askew tortured, as portrayed on The Tudors, Showtime

Video Credit: screendamsels YouTube


In the most grotesque of cruelty even condemnable for the era, Anne Askew became the first and only woman tortured in the Tower of London.  On June 19, 1546, she was imprisoned in the Tower. Askew was aggressively interrogated by Bishop Stephen Gardiner, Lord Chancellor Thomas Wriothesley and Sir William Paget for two long days. Continually threatened with execution, Askew refused steadfastly to name other Protestants or recant her beliefs. Unsuccessful in securing the damning information they sought from her, most importantly an admission that she was associated with Queen Catherine Parr, the order was given to exercise torture. Askew was brought to a lower torture room in the White Tower and was shown the rack.  Still refusing to name other Protestants and recant her beliefs, she was unmercifully racked by Lord Chancellor Thomas Wriothesley and Solicitor General Richard Rich.

Sir William Kingston, Constable of the Tower and witness to much torture in the context of his job responsibilities, was appalled by the torture of a woman. He refused to participate beyond one turn of the handle, and left for court to find King Henry VIII to secure command that Wriothesley and Rich discontinue. By the time Sir Kingston was able to meet with the King and secure his command, Wriothesley and Rich had turned the handles so hard after Askew’s continued refusals to name other Protestants that she was drawn apart, her arms and legs ripped out of their sockets and her elbows and knees dislocated. By some reports, even after she was returned to her cell, Wriothesley continued questioning Askew hours thereafter, as she lay on the floor writhing in pain. Still, Anne Askew held firm to her convictions, refusing to recant or name other Protestants.

On July 16, 1546, the 26 year old uncommon commoner Anne Askew, who maintained her maiden name despite convention, who sought her freedom from a loveless marriage through attempting to obtain a divorce, who provocatively “gospelled” scripture to people prevented from reading the Bible by Parliamentary Law, who refused to return to her “husband” after court order, and who refused to recant her beliefs or name other Protestants to protect them from harm’s way, was burnt at the stake. Unable to move her body in any way and obviously still in excruciating pain, she was brought to and tied to the stake in a wooden chair. Still defiant, Anne Askew refused a last chance at recantation and chimed in her disagreement with points made ironically by Dr. Nicolas Saxton in his sermon before the fags were lit. Though burned alive as a heretic, Anne Askew through her courage, conviction, and martyrdom became one of English history’s most cherished national heroes and earliest feminist change agents.


Anne Vaux, portrayed by Liv Tyler, Gunpowder, BBC

“The Badass Sisters of English History”, Anne Vaux and Eleanor Brooksby 

Forget the mistresses, ladies-in-waiting, noble women, queen consorts and England’s first female monarchs to rule in their own right. Sisters Anne Vaux and Eleanor Brooksby, with the heroic Anne Askew a close second, are my favorite Tudor Era female historical figures. Why? These ladies can be described in one word, BADASS.

Anne Vaux and Eleanor Brooksby, daughters of William Vaux, 3rd Baron Vaux of Harrowden, were wealthy Roman Catholic recusants during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I. Anne, a single woman, and Eleanor, a widow, safeguarded and sheltered Roman Catholic priests. Known by their most “precious cargo” Society of Jesus Jesuit priest Henry Garnet as “the widow and the virgin”, they accomplished their goal in fostering the worship of Roman Catholics by renting a variety of houses and estates where priests could meet, lay their head and celebrate mass secretly. Through ingenuity, creativity, boldness and downright sneaky daring-do, the Vaux sisters sheltered not only Father Henry Garnet and several other priests illegally practicing their faith in the realm, but fenced the Society’s finances, safeguarded treasures of the church and relics, and assisted in other “illicit activities” in gross violation of Elizabethan law. The dangers incalculable, for over twenty years, they ventured forward for the glory of God and the papacy.

Just what were these two ladies up to? Eleanor Brooksby, the widow of staunch recusant Edward Brooksby, was like her deceased husband a strong follower of the Elizabethan regime’s “enemies of The Imperial Crown”, the Jesuits. Left to raise two small children on her own, Eleanor graciously adopted the young daughter of a deceased aunt. Although she certainly lived an exciting life, Eleanor was modest in dress, and for the remainder of her life remained chaste. Reportedly anxious by nature, Eleanor sometimes panicked when Elizabethan authorities ventured to her door in search of outlaw priests and religious relics. Consequently, her remarkably brave and innovative sister, Anne Vaux, often impersonated Eleanor, chastising those there to search her home for “lack of propriety” or “frightening the children”, any tactic she could think of to delay searches long enough for their “guests” and “religious relics and mass alters” to be safely stashed away. As a single and wealthy woman with “connections”, Anne Vaux could afford to take risks. She did so in abundance.

Father Henry Garnet, Superior of the Jesuit Mission in England

Using aliases to cover their trails, Eleanor Brooksby and Anne Vaux worked in partnership together and with other recusants, such as Saint Nicholas Owen, to ensure Roman Catholicism’s survival in England and Wales. While Eleanor or “Mrs. Edwards” often “held down the fort”, Anne Vaux or “Mistress Perkins” traveled throughout the country with young priests in disguise. In fact, Anne traveled along with Father Henry Garnet so frequently that even other recusants and Jesuit leaders believed their close relationship went far beyond “priest and parishioner”, though no impropriety was known to exist. In short, once Father Henry Garnet was named Jesuit superior, his harboring and safety became her life’s passion – and for over 20 years, Anne and Eleanor “pulled off” the seemingly impossible.

How did they accomplish their remarkable work? Well, with money sheltered so effectively that the Elizabethan authorities could not sort out how it was safeguarded or even how much there was, Mrs. Edwards and Mistress Perkins rented multiple properties to provide cover for priests and the sacraments celebrated within them. Boldly the women hosted bi-annual Jesuit conferences; visited, supplied and when possible, bailed out imprisoned priests; and fenced the Jesuits’ finances. In every way imaginable, these two heroic women supported the worship of Roman Catholicism, remaining sometimes just “one step ahead” of those pursuing them, leaving their homes in the dead of night to travel on to the next rented abode in another county. Correspondences that looked innocent enough contained secret messages written with orange juice, which served as invisible ink. In short, historian Jessie Childs sums up the obvious: “… they made a formidable pair.”

Beyond all the daring-do both Anne Vaux and Eleanor Brooksby engaged in to protect priests so they and others could worship secretly within the realm, they also contributed to the Roman Catholic cause in other meaningful ways. Eleanor, obviously the ideal mentor for her daughters, aided her ward Frances Burroughs in taking her vows as a nun, sneaking her and other young women out of England to do so. Evidently, Eleanor, despite the risks, was highly regarded for ensuring children were raised in the Roman Catholic faith. Her grandson Edward Thimelby teaches us that Eleanor “took care that I should be instructed in the Catholic faith”. Both women welcomed guests within their home, Garnet’s presence ensuring a continual stream of laypeople and clergy. Sacraments were given. Confessions were heard. Exorcisms were conducted. Mass was celebrated. Throughout Queen Elizabeth, Regina’s reign, the sisters carried forward, though often suspected, undetected.

Sadly, the story of Anne Vaux and Eleanor Brooksby, along with their “charge from God” Father Henry Garnet, took a tragic turn with the ascension of King James VI/I. In 1605, Father Henry Garnet met with Robert Catesby. Unknown to the priest, Catesby planned to assassinate the king and other high ranking nobility by blowing up Parliament. The plans of the plot were later revealed to Garnet through the confession of Father Oswald Tesimond. Despite the enormity of the confession, Garnet remained faithful to Canon Law and spoke nothing of it. Upon the failure of the plot, Garnet went into hiding under the protection of Anne Vaux and Eleanor Brooksby. After hiding with Father Edward Oldcorne in a cramped “priest hole” for over a week while Jamesian authorities searched Hidlip Hall, finally, the men came out, both arrested.

Throughout Father Henry Garnet’s imprisonment, Anne Vaux was never far away. Following him to London, Anne corresponded via veiled letters, hidden messages passed along with invisible ink made from orange juice. Ultimately the letters were intercepted, all contained known by authorities before being passed on one to the other. After attempting to catch a glimpse of her spiritual mentor and friend, Anne Vaux herself was arrested. Heavily questioned, she gave away remarkably little. She was finally released three months after Father Henry Garnet’s execution for treason, which took place May 3, 1606.

Though Henry Garnet was now dead, their greatest life mission over, Anne Vaux and Eleanor Brooksby continued their staunch Roman Catholicism through education of youth. Founding a secret Roman Catholic school, the women fostered the survival of Roman Catholicism in England and Wales, often cited for their recusancy. Shortly after Eleanor’s death around 1625, Anne moved their original school to Stanley Grange, where it thrived for over ten years until given up by a former student. Upon seizure by authorities, nothing was found there. Tipped off, Anne Vaux, ever resourceful, ingeniously moved the school once more. By then in her 70’s, the date and details of Anne Vaux’s death are lost to history.




Anne Askew:

Claire Ridgway, Anne Askew Sentenced to Death, The Anne Boleyn Files (

James Gairdner, Anne Askew 1521-1546, Luminarium: Encyclopedia Project (

Wikipedia, Anne Askew

Elizabeth Barton:

Ackroyd, Peter, The Life of Thomas More.

New Advent Catholic Encyclopedia, Elizabeth Barton,

Cranmer, Thomas, Letter of Archbishop Cranmer to Archdeacon Hawkyns Regarding the Nun of Kent,  Luminarium: Anthology of English Literature,

MacCulloch, Diarmaid, Thomas Cranmer.

Monti, James, The King’s Good Servant but God’s First: The Life and Writings of Saint Thomas More.

Margarete Cranmer:

Author Unidentified, Thomas Cranmer (1489 – 1556), Luminarium: Anthology of English Literature

Author Unidentified, Thomas Cranmer (Archbishop of Canterbury),

Foxe, John, “The Life, State, and Story of the Reverend Pastor and Prelate, Thomas Cranmer, Archbishop of Canterbury”, Foxe’s Book of Martyrs

MacCulloch, Diarmaid, Thomas Cranmer, A Life, Yale University Press, 1996.

Anne Vaux and Eleanor Brooksby:

Caraman, Philip, John Gerard: Autobiography of an Elizabethan, London, 1951. (Latin to English translation of original prose composed by Father John Gerard, SJ.)

Childs, Jessie, God’s Traitors, Terror & Faith in Elizabethan England, The Bodley Head, 2014.

Beth von Staats

is the owner and administrator of Blogger of "The Tudor Thomases", Beth specializes in writing magazine articles, online historical articles, short stories, and flash fiction.

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