Sister Elizabeth Barton (1506? – 20 April 1534), known as “The Nun of Kent”, “The Holy Maid of London”, “The Holy Maid of Kent” and later “The Mad Maid of Kent”, was an English Catholic nun. She was executed as a result of her prophecies against the marriage of King Henry VIII of England to Anne Boleyn.
Little is known of Elizabeth Barton’s early life. She was born in 1506 in the parish of Aldington, about twelve miles from Canterbury, and appears to have come from a poor background. She was working as a servant when her visions began in 1525. At the age of 18, while working as a domestic servant in the household of Thomas Cobb, a farmer of Aldington, she suffered from a severe illness and claimed to have received divine revelations. These predicted future events, such as the death of a child living in her household, or more frequently took the form of pleas for people to remain in the Roman Catholic Church. She also urged people to pray to the Blessed Virgin Mary and to undertake pilgrimages. Thousands believed in her prophecies and both Archbishop William Warham and Bishop John Fisher attested to her pious life.
When certain events she foretold apparently came to pass, her reputation spread. The parish priest Richard Masters referred the matter to Archbishop Warham, who appointed a commission to ensure that none of her prophecies were at variance with Catholic teaching. When the commission decided favourably, Warham arranged for Barton to be received in the Benedictine St Sepulchre’s Priory, Canterbury.
In 1528 she held a private meeting with Cardinal Thomas Wolsey, the second most powerful man in England after Henry VIII, and soon thereafter met twice with the king himself. King Henry accepted Barton because her prophecies did not at that time challenge the existing order. Her prophecies warned against heresy and condemned rebellion at a time when the King was attempting to stamp out Lutheranism and was afraid of possible uprising or even assassination by his enemies.
However, when the King began the process of obtaining an annulment of his marriage to Catherine of Aragon and seizing control of the Church in England from Rome, he turned against her. Barton strongly opposed the English Reformation and, in around 1532, began prophesying that if Henry remarried, he would die shortly after. She said she had seen the place in Hell where he would go. (Henry actually lived for another 15 years.) Remarkably, Barton went unpunished for nearly a year – largely, it appears, because of her popularity. The King’s agents spread rumours that she was engaged in sexual relationships with priests and that she suffered from mental illness. Many prophecies, as Thomas More thought, were fictitiously attributed to her.
Arrest and Execution
With her reputation undermined, the Crown arrested Barton in 1533 and forced her to confess that she had fabricated her revelations. However, all that is known regarding her confession comes from Thomas Cromwell, his agents, and other sources on the side of the Crown.
Friar John Laurence of the Observant Friars of Greenwich gave evidence against the Maid and against fellow Observants, Friars Hugh Rich and Richard Risby. Laurence then requested to be named to one of the posts left vacant by their imprisonment. She was condemned by an attainder (25 Henry VIII, c. 12); an act of Parliament authorising punishment without trial. She, along with five of her chief supporters, four of whom were priests, including Risby and Edward Bocking were hanged for treason at Tyburn. She was buried at Greyfriars Church in Newgate Street but her head was put on a spike on London Bridge, the only woman in history accorded that dishonour.
Churches such as the Anglican Catholic Church of St Augustine of Canterbury and the Nephite Church of Christ continue to venerate Sister Barton.
The case of Elizabeth Barton is dealt with extensively in the 2009 historical novel Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel, and in its TV adaptation, where she is played by Aimee-Ffion Edwards.