BARTON, ELIZABETH (c. 1506–1534), “the maid of Kent,” was, according to her own statement, born in 1506 at Aldington, Kent. She appears to have been a neurotic girl, subject to epilepsy, and an illness in her nineteenth year resulted in hysteria and religious mania. She was at the time a servant in the house of Thomas Cobb, steward of an estate near Aldington owned by William Warham, archbishop of Canterbury. During her convalescence she passed into trances lasting for days at a time, and in this state her ravings were of such “marvellous holiness in rebuke of sin and vice” that the country folk believed her to be inspired. Cobb reported the matter to Richard Masters, the parish priest, who in turn acquainted Archbishop Warham. The girl having recovered, and finding herself the object of local admiration, was cunning enough, as she confessed at her trial, to feign trances, during which she continued her prophecies. Her fame steadily growing, the archbishop in 1526 instructed the prior of Christ Church, Canterbury, to send two of his monks to hold an inquiry into the case. One of these latter, Edward Bocking, obtained her admission as a nun to St Sepulchre’s convent, Canterbury. Under Bocking’s instruction Barton’s prophecies became still more remarkable, and attracted many pilgrims, who believed her to be, as she asserted, in direct communication with the Virgin Mary. Her utterances were cunningly directed towards political matters, and a profound and widespread sensation was caused by her declaration that should Henry persist in his intention of divorcing Catherine he “should no longer be king of this realm . . . and should die a villain’s death.” Even such men as Fisher, bishop of Rochester, and Sir Thomas More, corresponded with Barton. On his return from France in 1532 Henry passed through Canterbury and is said to have allowed the nun to force herself into his presence, when she made an attempt to terrify him into abandoning his marriage. After its solemnization in May 1533. her utterances becoming still more treasonable, she was examined before Cranmer (who had in March succeeded to the archbishopric on Warham’s death) and confessed. On the 25th of September Bocking and another monk, Hadley, were arrested, and in November, Masters and others were implicated. The maid and her fellow prisoners were examined before the Star Chamber, and were by its order publicly exposed at St Paul’s Cross, where they each read a confession. In January 1534 by a bill of attainder the maid and her chief accomplices were condemned to death, and were executed at Tyburn on the 20th of April. It has been held that her confession was extracted by force, and therefore valueless, but the evidence of her imposture seems conclusive.
See Froude, History of England; Burnet, History of the Reformation; Lingard, History of England; F. A. Gasquet, Henry VIII. and the English Monasteries (ch. iii. 1899 ed.); T. E. Bridgett, Life of Blessed John Fisher (1888); vols. vi. and vii. of Letters and Papers of Henry VIII.; James Gairdner, The English Church in the 16th Century (1899); Strype, Memorials, I. i. 271, and Cranmer; a detailed account of the case is contained in the published Act of Attainder 25 Henry VIII. c. 12.