Historical Novelist writing from a woman's perspective in the Tudor and Medieval period. Her Tudor novels include The Winchester Goose, The Kiss of the Concubine, Intractable Heart and A Song of Sixpence. Medieval novels are Peaceweaver, The Song of Heledd, and The Forest Dwellers. All In paperback and on Kindle. Judith also writes historical blogs and articles.
journey that Henry VIII made with Anne Boleyn to Calais in the autumn of 1532
is well known. This was when Henry presented his beloved Anne, newly elevated
as Marquess of Pembroke, to the king of France, when the couple may have begun
to sleep together, when by all accounts he was most deeply in love with her.
just before leaving England, King Henry had a distinctly unromantic encounter
with another woman. He met face-to-face with a female who was roughly Anne Boleyn’s
age but was not a courtier’s daughter possessing style and Continental polish.
Elizabeth Barton, humbly born, was a Benedictine nun of the Priory of St.
Sepulchre, in Canterbury.
Elizabeth was, like many people, loyal to the king’s estranged wife, Queen
Katherine of Aragon
Catherine of Aragon, and did not want him to marry Anne Boleyn. But unlike the
vast majority of English men and women, she was determined to do something
to a statement taken later, Sister Barton told Henry VIII “she had knowledge by
revelation from God that God was highly displeased with our said Sovereign
Lord…and in case he desisted not from his proceedings in the said divorce and
separation but pursued the same and married again, that then within one month
after such marriage he should no longer be king of this realm, and in the
reputation of Almighty God should not be king one day nor one hour, and that he
should die a villain’s death…”
VIII’s response to Sister Elizabeth’s threat in 1532 is unknown. But less than
two years later, she would be dead, the only nun executed in the reign of the
king. She had no trial. The methods that the king and his ministers used to
persecute and condemn her for treason set the pattern to be used on others that
Henry VIII wanted to destroy. She was the first of the retaliation deaths.
she presented a serious obstacle to Henry VIII’s marriage to Anne Boleyn, and
was later used as an instrument to bring down the highest-ranking of the king’s
critics, Cardinal John Fisher, Sister Elizabeth Barton does not appear in hardly
any historical fiction (or TV series or films) taking place in the 1530s. She is
described dismissively in most works of nonfiction. Tudor historian Geoffrey Elton called her
“that deluded prophetess” and, more recently, Geoffrey Moorhouse described her
as “the somewhat deranged and visionary serving maid.”
has undoubtedly diminished the legacy of Sister Elizabeth is the Tudor
government’s propaganda machine. A long manuscript was written by Barton’s confessor;
a printed tract of her life widely circulated throughout England; an
illuminated letter was produced by a monk – all of these documents were
destroyed. We cannot read them today. The accepted chroniclers of the 16th
century, all of them Protestant, are our sources of her life story, along with
a few references made by foreign ambassadors. It is hard to glimpse a view of
the human being through the distortions.
Elizabeth’s saga bears some resemblance to Joan of Arc’s, a century earlier.
Joan was a peasant who experienced visions. Elizabeth was a servant who fell
seriously ill in 1525, lost consciousness, and when she came to, made
references to the health of a boy also ill whose fate she could not have had
knowledge of. She shared visions that
called for veneration of God. Word spread, and those living in Kent began to
make pilgrimages. She is supposed to have proclaimed prophecies and performed
miracles but we don’t know the details. “She told plainly of divers things done
at the church and other places where she was not present, which nevertheless
she seemed most likely to behold as if it were with her own eye.”
authorities interviewed Elizabeth early on and proclaimed her a genuine mystic.
They were not eager to anoint seers; quite the opposite. She was examined
rigorously by a series of priests, monks and bishops, all of them on the
outlook for “trickery.” The Archbishop of Canterbury William Warham personally
saw her and said her visions were genuine. In a letter he described her as a
“well -disposed and virtuous woman.” Elizabeth entered the nunnery of St.
Sepulchre to be either protected or controlled, depending on how you look at
it. “The Holy Maid of Kent” made appearances at a church in Canterbury, and at
one point up to 2,000 people jostled to surround her.
is beyond question is that Elizabeth Barton had some sort of chronic illness
for the rest of her life, whether it was physical, neurological or psychiatric.
Her visions often came to her while she appeared to be suffering painful fits,
writhing on the floor, or in a trance.
later, the next archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Cranmer, known for his
skepticism and dislike of superstition, wrote this eyewitness account of
Elizabeth’s fit: “Then there was a voice heard speaking within her belly, as if
it had been in a tun, her lips not greatly moving, she all that while
continuing in a trance. The which voice, when it told everything of the joys of
heaven, it spake so sweetly and heavenly that every man was ravished with the hearing
thereof. And contrary, when it told anything of hell, it spake so horribly and
terribly that it put the hearers in great fear.” In our modern minds, these bizarre
breakdowns in health would hurt her credibility. But in the medieval era, holy
women were often traumatically ill at the time of experiencing visions.
Barton became famous before Henry
VIII launched his famous quest for a divorce from Catherine of Aragon. She
already had enemies, though. Elizabeth called for obedience to pious works and
traditional worship, tenets that were under attack in a Germany transformed by
Martin Luther. All of Europe was in turmoil over the spreading religious
VIII derided Luther in writing and was rewarded by the pope’s proclaiming him
“Defender of the Faith.” What’s hard for
us to grasp is that, before 1527, it was unthinkable to the world that the king
of England would discard his longtime queen or that he would break with Rome.
He was an orthodox ruler, an obedient son of the church. Reformer and scholar William Tyndale, living
in exile, called Elizabeth a “false, dissembling harlot.” (Protestant opponents
often accused Barton of sexual misconduct, without any foundation whatsoever.)
Since Henry VIII opposed, hunted down, persecuted and finally killed Tyndale--who
died in the flames crying, “Lord, open the king of England’s eyes”—Henry Tudor
and Sister Elizabeth Barton were on the same side.
"Holy Maid” did not publicly prophesy
against the king. She repeatedly tried to warn him against his course of
action, first to his ministers and finally to him in person. In 1528, Barton
told Cardinal Wolsey that God commanded her to tell him that if he furthered
the king’s marriage to Anne Boleyn he would be “utterly destroyed.” (Wolsey was
disgraced after he failed to get the king his divorce and died on way to
trial.) John Fisher, the churchman who supported Catherine of Aragon, wept with
joy when he heard Sister Elizabeth’s visions. Sir Thomas More was more
cautious, telling her that her words were “reckless.” Catherine of Aragon
herself was careful to never meet or corresponded with Elizabeth, her champion.
The embattled queen could see the danger that Elizabeth and her many followers
seemed oblivious to.
he knew of her activities, Henry VIII did not move against the nun for a long
time. During one stage he tried to pacify her, even to bribe her. He offered to
make her an abbess of her own priory. She refused the offer.
fame and influence continued to grow. She met with foreign ambassadors and the
papal representative in England. She wrote letters to the pope, urging him to
stop the king from divorcing. She had secret meetings with English nobility,
including Gertrude Courtenay, the marchioness of Exeter, wife to the king’s
first cousin. Collections of Sister Elizabeth’s prophecies were printed and
herself said that she prevented Henry VIII from marrying Anne Boleyn in Calais,
as he was rumored to be planning to do. When they did marry, it was in great
was widely known that Sister Elizabeth predicted if Henry VIII wed Anne, he
would soon lose his kingdom and die. After several months had passed and he was
very much alive, the king moved against her. Barton and her most devoted
followers were arrested and harshly questioned in late 1533. There is no proof of
torture, although another woman, Anne Askew, would be racked nearly to death
for her religious “crimes” a decade later.
the means of persuasion, Elizabeth Barton supposedly told her captors what they
wanted to hear. She recanted her visions and said, Cranmer wrote, “all was
feigned of her own imagination, only to satisfy the minds of them which
resorted unto her, and to obtain worldly praise.” This did not save her. Henry
VIII directed Parliament to pass a special act condemning her for treason
without a hearing. The punishment was death.
Barton, around 30 years of age, was hanged and then beheaded on April 20, 1534,
her head fixed on Tower Bridge, the only woman known to be so displayed after
death. The head of Cardinal Fisher was later mounted as a warning to others
when he was executed for treason, in part because he was charged with
conspiring with Elizabeth Barton. Five men were executed with her the same day,
all of them priests, monks or parsons who had believed in her prophecies.
same spring of 1534 was when Henry VIII demanded that the church and the people
follow him into schism with Rome. The terms of the Act of Succession were
proclaimed everywhere. People were warned that if they said or wrote anything
against the king’s marriage to Anne Boleyn or his lawful heirs by her, they
would be guilty of treason, punishable by death.
the records of Sister Elizabeth’s confession come from the crown. In 1536,
Queen Anne Boleyn would also be turned into a nonperson after execution:
letters, documents, portraits destroyed. Because her daughter grew up to be a
great queen, Anne’s reputation was restored. This never happened with Elizabeth
Barton. She is usually dismissed as a tool of religious plotters, or mentally
ill. The possibility that this was a young woman who felt compelled to have a
say in the affairs of the kingdom, and possessed the courage to try to
interfere, is rarely acknowledged.
Bilyeau is the author of The Crown and The Chalice, thrillers that take place
in England in the 1530s. Sister Elizabeth Barton is a character in The Chalice.
To learn more, go to www.nancybilyeau.com