Elizabeth Barton, the Nun of Kent

Posted By on April 20, 2010

On this day in history, the 20th of April 1534, Elizabeth Barton, known as “the Nun of Kent” or “the Holy Maid of Kent”, was hanged for treason at the gallows at Tyburn, but who was she and what did she do to deserve such a death?

The Nun of Kent

Elizabeth Barton went from being an ordinary servant girl to a religious visionary in 1525, at around the age of nineteen. She was working in a household in Aldington, Kent, when she was taken ill and fell into trances where she had visions which were “of marvellous holiness  in rebuke of sin  and vice”.

Richard Master, the local parish priest, was convinced that her visions were genuine and so reported the matter to William Warham, the Archbishop of Canterbury who sent a commission consisting of her parish priest, a diocesan official, two Franciscans (Richard Risby and Hugh Rich) and three Canterbury Benedictines (Bocking, Hadleigh and Barnes). This commission as also convinced of Barton’s sincerity and pronounced in her favour. Shortly after Barton was examined, one of her predictions came true – in front of a large crowd, Barton was cured of her illness by the Blessed Virgin. At this time, her visions and prophecies seemed harmless as they were simply encouraging people to live a good Catholic life.

After being cured of her illness, Elizabeth Barton left her job as a servant to become a Benedictine nun near Canterbury. She carried on having visions and became a bit of a celebrity, becoming known as the “Nun of Kent” or the “Holy Maid of Kent”. People would undertake pilgrimages to see this nun who was thought to communicate directly with the Virgin Mary. She was humoured by the English government, and even corresponded with people like Sir Thomas More and Bishop John Fisher, and actually met with Cardinal Wolsey, but then she started opposing Henry VIII’s plans to annul his marriage to Catherine of Aragon and marry Anne Boleyn. No longer was she a harmless nun, she was a threat to Henry VIII’s popularity and what she was saying could be classed as treason.

The Nun of Kent versus Henry VIII

According to Nancy Bradley Warren, author of Women of God and Arms: Female Spirituality and Political Conflict, 1380–1600, in 1532 Elizabeth Barton claimed to have been miraculously and invisibly present when Henry VIII attended Mass in Calais during his visit to see the French King. She reported that an angel denied Henry the consecrated host, removed it from the priest’s hands and, instead, offered it to Elizabeth Barton. She said that this was a clear sign that God was displeased with Henry. Barton also prophesied that if Henry proceeded with his divorce and married Anne Boleyn, then he would lose his kingdom within a month and “should die a villain’s death”. Nancy Bradley Warren writes of how Elizabeth Barton and her prophecies “struck at the heart of Henry VIII’s foreign policy and, perhaps even more significantly, at the heart of his representation of the English monarchy”.

It was clear that she was now a threat to Henry and his plans and this threat had to be dealt with. In 1533 Elizabeth Barton was examined by the new Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Cranmer. Having had her reputation damaged by rumours of sexual misconduct with priests, it is said that Elizabeth Barton confessed to fabricating her prophesies. Barton. She was then imprisoned in the Tower of London, along with her supporters like Bocking and Hadleigh, and forced to do public penance and make a public confession at St Paul’s Cross.

Bishop John Fisher by Hans Holbein the Younger

In January 1534, Elizabeth Barton and thirteen of her supporters were accused of treason by a bill of attainder. Those accused included Sir Thomas More and Bishop John Fisher, but More escaped when he produced a letter he had written to Barton in the past, telling her that she should not meddle in state affairs. Bishop Fisher and five of the other sympathisers were condemned to imprisonment and Barton and seven others, including Risby, Rich, Bocking and Masters, were condemned to death. Fisher was later pardoned. Here is what is recorded in the Letters and Papers from Henry VIII’s reign from the 15th January 1534:-

“Names of those implicated with Eliz. Barton:-”
Eliz. Berton, nun, Edw. Bokkyng, John Deryng, Ric. Master, Harry Gold, Hugh Ryche and Ric. Rysby. These by the Act shall be attainted of high treason and suffer death.
John bishop of Rochester, Adyson, clerk, his chaplain, Thomas Gold, Thomas Laurens. Edw. Thwaytes, gent., Thomas Abell. To be attainted of misprision. suffer imprisonment at the King’s will and lose all their goods.” (L&P vii 70)

On the 20th April 1534, Elizabeth Barton and her accomplices were executed at Tyburn gallows.

Prophecies or Falsehoods

It is not known whether Elizabeth Barton confessed of her own volition or whether she was tortured, either physically or psychologically. It is impossible to judge whether Elizabeth was a fraudster, mentally ill or medically ill. She may have suffered from fits, she could have been delusional or perhaps she did have visions or what she believed to be visions, we just can’t say. She did manage to convince a lot of people though, didn’t she?!

At the end of the day, Elizabeth Barton may well have been a tragic victim of a society where mental illness or medical conditions, such as epilepsy, were completely misunderstood. She challenged a king and that king won.


17 thoughts on “Elizabeth Barton, the Nun of Kent”

  1. HannahL says:

    Thanks for another interesting article! You make a good point about her possibly suffering from epilepsy. I personally believe that she suffered from a delusional mental illness, but there are so many possibilities.

  2. Eliza says:

    Her story reminds me of Jeanne d’Arc! Thanks for the article!

  3. We have in our family a history of our branch of the Bartons, written in the 1930’s. The author claims that we are descended from the Nun of Kent, but I don’t know whether to believe her or not, given that her scholarship is dubious in several instances in her book. She also claims that Elizabeth Barton was hanged, drawn and quartered–is this true?

    Poor woman!

  4. Claire says:

    Hi Serena,
    Sources suggest that Elizabeth Barton was hanged, rather than being hanged, drawn and quartered. It is interesting that you have such a book in your family, I’d love to trace my family back to Tudor times but it’s a rather big undertaking!

  5. Amanda says:

    Kent’s an interesting place in Tudor times – a hotbed of protestant-leaning revolt. In Wyatt’s rebellion, an astonishing number of Kentish men and Men of Kent rose up – 63 from one small village, Smarden, which even now has a population of only 2,000 or so in the parish.

  6. Amanda says:

    Elizabeth Barton was a nun, with no known marriage or children, so I doubt there are descendants?

  7. Claire says:

    I think Serena probably meant through the family, through brothers and sisters, rather than Elizabeth herself, but I know what you mean as people often claim to be descended from Anne Boleyn and I think “how?”.

  8. HollyDolly says:

    I think she was just hanged. As far as i am aware, women were not hanged drawn and quartered.It’s hard to say what was really going on with her. It could have been epilepsy, or something else.Don’t know if there are any records of her medical history if any.
    Something must have convinced those men who examined her as to what may have
    been the nature of the visions. I assume they had some knowledge of the bible or read the early church fathers, and may have thought that what she told them was consistant with Catholic teachings of the time period.Don’t know how well she read or wrote.
    Somewhere along the line she got off track so to speak. He visions condeming Henry no doubt could have been influenced by visitors to the monastery she lived in,and amongst the sisters themselves there may have been mention of the King’s Great Matter. After all, England was a buzz with the business of Henry,Anne and Catherine.
    There is some thought,forgot where i read it, that she might have been manipulated by others more powerful,thinking that Henry would heed her words and dump Anne, the nun being a mouthpiece,saying what they felt, but afraid to say openly for fear of having their lands and such confiscated and or thrown in the Tower.
    If there is any undercurrent of truth to that, Henry proved them wrong by executing her, since being a nun and a supposed reputation as a holy person,was no guarentee of safety where Henry was concerned. St.Thomas More was no dummy, and rightly had the sense to stay as far from her as possible.

  9. BanditQueen says:

    I have been fascinated by Elizabeth Barton for a number of years ever since finding a large, bright yellow book about her in Oxfam. I was intrigued to read that she at first was not regarded as a fraud, or a heretic, or a lunatic, or a traitor, but was regarded as holy by even Henry VIII, who actually met and spoke with her. Sir Thomas More found her to be harmless and I think that even Thomas Cramner did not find her to be a threat, at first. It was when things started to go a little wrong for Henry and Anne in 1534 that I believe this changed and that she was examined again and matched to other so called traitors. Her fellows were also suspected because they were preaching stuff that made the government shaky and it is no wonder that they then went back and accused Elizabeth of treason. I am a little surprised however, that they did not execute her the correct method for treason for a woman, or did they think that there was something in what she said? May-be the Tudor dynasty was doomed and may-be Anne was doomed. (Sentence for female traitors is the even worse punishment of burning at the stake) In England we hang witches, so did Anne think that she had put a curse on her?
    Who knows what Anne was thinking? There is some suggestion from hostile sources that Anne was losing her mind and her grip at this time and that she was afraid from the moment she married Henry.

  10. Mary the Quene says:

    I just can’t help but to facepalm every time I read about those who challenged Henry VIII on religion or on his authority over them. It never ended well, and the endings were so exquisitely pain-filled and brutal.

  11. midnight says:

    there was no good info at like all i need to no what would make a good artifact for her for a project. i already know all this stuff

  12. Shoshana says:

    A funny note on researching family history. I believed all my life my fathers family were strict Catholics going back many generations; imagine my surprise to find out my grandfather was the first! He converted from a little known cult in Czechoslovakia in the early 1900’s to marry my Catholic Grandmother and became a stricter adherent than she ever was! Then to my surprise I found out on my mothers side I am a direct descendant of the brother of a famous Native American Warrior who attacked and murdered many settlers in Texas, both brothers married and raised a family with white women captives and mine ancestor had ancestors who were indentured servants from England! Talk about a mod podge of DNA! So to any who claim they are related to Queen Anne, she did have relatives and they could be distantly related!

    1. Annie says:

      “Related” is one thing, “descended from” is another, and “having a common ancestor further back” is possibly what is meant.

  13. Anne says:

    Yes it’s my real name. Weird how someone can go from being holy to being crazy depending on their opinion of a politician and his actions.

  14. Paul says:

    We are entranced in the UK watching Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall broadcast by BBC and the remarkable Mark Rylance as Thomas Cromwell. Cromwell tracks and then engages with Elizabeth Barton once his power is at its peak on screen. A fantastic series to watch and book to read if you are interested in the fate of Barton. You can visit the Tyburn site in Hyde Park London and track the River Tyburn to it’s Thames egress. Just down the road by Albert Bridge, Chelsea, is a statue to Thomas Moore. Bringing history up to date, look up what Mantel says about Kate Middleton and read her full talk about a “Plastic Princess”

  15. Eugene says:

    As far as I know it was only men who were hanged, drawn and quartered. Women never suffered this torment

  16. Joan Patrick says:

    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.

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