Barton, Elizabeth (DNB00)

BARTON, ELIZABETH (1506?–1534), commonly called the Nun or Maid of Kent, was, according to her own account, born in 1506. About 1525 she was domestic servant at Aldington, Kent, in the household of Thomas Cobb, steward of a neighbouring estate owned by Warham, archbishop of Canterbury. In that year she was attacked by some internal disease, and in the course of her recovery suffered from a violent nervous derangement, which developed into a religious mania. For days together she often lay in a trance, and while apparently unconscious 'told wondrously things done in other places, whilst she was neither herself present nor yet heard no report thereof.' Her hysterical cries were at times 'of marvellous holiness in rebuke of sin and vice' or concerned 'the seven deadly sins and the ten commandments.'

Superstitious neighbours, easily misled by a doubtful consistency in her ravings, concluded that either the Holy Ghost or the Devil possessed her. Cobb, her master, summoned Richard Masters, the parish priest, to aid him in watching her, and they were soon convinced that Elizabeth was inspired by the Holy Ghost. Masters straightway reported the matter to Archbishop Warham at Lambeth, and Warham, then in his dotage, sent the girl a message that she was not 'to hide the goodness and the works of God.' In a few months the girl's illness left her, but Cobb and Masters, together with the villagers of Aldington, continued to treat her with pious respect, and Cobb, removing her from his kitchen, invited her to live on terms of equality with his family. She was unwilling to hastily forfeit the regard of her neighbours, and perceived it easy, as she subsequently confessed, to feign her former trances and the alleged prophetic utterances. About 1526 Archbishop Warham found her reputation still growing, and directed the prior of Christ Church, Canterbury, to send two of his monks, Edward Bocking [q. v.] and William Hadley, to observe the girl more closely. The prior obeyed the order unwillingly; but Bocking on his arrival perceived that Elizabeth might prove a useful agent in restoring popular esteem to certain practices of the mediaeval church then widely discredited. He educated her in the catholic legends of the saints and induced her to insist in her utterances that she was in direct communication with the Virgin Mary. He taught her to anathematise in her ravings all the opponents of the catholic church, and to dispose of the protestant arguments with much coherency. The exhibition of theological knowledge by an uneducated village girl naturally confirmed the popular belief that Elizabeth was divinely inspired. To extend her fame, Bocking announced that on a certain day she would perform a miracle. In the presence of 2,000 persons she was laid before the image of the Virgin in the famous chapel of Our Lady in the neighbouring village of Court-at-Strete. There she fell into a trance lasting for three hours, during which her face underwent much distortion. 'A voice speaking within her belly' spoke 'sweetly and heavenly' of the joys of heaven, and 'horribly and terribly' of the torments of hell. 'It spake also many things for the confirmation of pilgrimages and trentals, hearing of masses and confessions, and many other such things.' An account of the so-called miracle was written under Bocking's direction by a gentleman of the district, named Edward Thwaytes, and was circulated far and wide. The tract is entitled 'A miraculous work of late done at Court-of-Strete in Kent, published to the deuoute people of this tyme for their spiritual consolation, by Edward Thwaytes, Gent,' 1527. Immediately afterwards Elizabeth left Aldington, at the alleged command of the Virgin, for the priory of St. Sepulchre at Canterbury, where a cell was assigned her, with Bocking as her confessor and attendant. There her prophetic powers quickly developed, and she assumed the title of the Nun of Kent. She prophesied throughout 1527 and 1528, not only on all questions of national interest, but on the private circumstances of visitors who flocked to her cell and offered her fees for her services. 'Divers and many as well great men of the realm as mean men and many learned men, but specially many religious men, had great confidence in her, and often resorted to her.' Friendly monks of Christ Church supplied her secretly with sufficient information to enable her to escape serious error in her prophecies, and she maintained her reputation by long fastings, by self-inflicted wounds which she attributed to her combats with the devil, and by stories of her ascents to heaven by way of the priory chapel. From time to time her oracles were collected, and in 1528 Archbishop Warham showed one collection to Henry VIII, who refused to attach any weight to them, and Sir Thomas More, who also examined them at the king's request, spoke of them at this time as 'such as any simple woman might speak of her own wit.' But More had already done much indirectly to give permanence to Elizabeth's fame. He published (in ch. xvi. of his Dialogue on catholic practices, 1528) a categorical statement of his belief in the divine inspiration of Anne Wentworth, 'the maid of Ipswich,' a daughter of Sir Roger Wentworth of Ipswich, who, although only twelve years old, had in 1527 imitated most of Elizabeth's early experiences, and had then retired to the abbey of the Minories (Cranmer's Works, Parker Soc. p. 65). Anne afterwards withdrew her pretensions to the gift of prophecy. William Tindal repeatedly denounced both Elizabeth of Kent and Anne of Ipswich as impostors from 1528 onwards (cf. his Obedience of a Christen Man, 1528, p. 327, and his Answer to Sir Thomas More's Dialogue (1530), p. 91, in Parker Soc. edition of Tyndale's Works). But only a few of the bolder reformers appear to have wholly discredited Elizabeth's claims to divine inspiration at this date.

As soon as the king's intention of procuring a divorce from Queen Catherine was known at Canterbury, Elizabeth largely increased her influence by passionately inveighing against it, 'in the name and by the authority of God.' She publicly forbade the divorce, and prophesied that if any wrong were offered Queen Catherine, Henry 'should no longer be king of this realm .... and should die a villain's death.' Archbishop Warham was easily convinced by her; and her bold words led him to revoke his promise to marry the king to Anne Boleyn. On 1 Oct. 1528 he wrote at the nun's request to Wolsey, begging him to grant her an interview. Wolsey assented, and, it is said, was confirmed by the girl in his repugnance to the divorce. After the cardinal's death in 1531, Elizabeth declared that by her intercession he was ultimately admitted to heaven. Between 1528 and 1532 the nun was recognised throughout England as the chief champion both of Queen Catherine and of the catholic church in England. Bishop Fisher held repeated consultations with her, and wept with joy over her revelations. The monks of Sion often invited her to their house; there Sir Thomas More met her more than once, and treated her with suspicious reverence. The monks of the Charterhouse, both at London and Sheen, and the Friar Observants of Richmond, Greenwich, and Canterbury, publicly avowed their belief in her power of prophecy. The Marchioness of Exeter and the Countess of Salisbury, with many other peeresses, regularly consulted her at their own houses, and her prophecies were frequently forwarded to Queen Catherine and the Princess Mary. The pope's agents in England (Silvester Darius and Antonio Pollio) and the pope himself (Clement Vl) she threatened with certain destruction unless they worked boldly in behalf of Queen Catherine. According to her own account, Henry VIII and the relatives of Anne Boleyn sought in vain to bribe her into silence. In October 1532 Henry, accompanied by Anne Boleyn, met Francis I at Calais, and the girl asserted that her utterances alone had prevented the celebration there of the marriage of Anne with the king. When on his return from France Henry passed through Canterbury on his way to London, Elizabeth thrust herself into his presence, and made fruitless attempts to terrify him into a change of policy. She tried hard, at the same time, to obtain an audience of Queen Catherine, but the queen . prudently declined to hold any communication with her, and there appears no ground for the common assumption that both Catherine and the Princess Mary at any time compromised themselves by their relations with the nun (cf. P. Friedmann's Anne Boleyn, i. 245).

After Henry's marriage with Anne Boleyn (28 May 1533) the nun's adherents looked in vain for the fulfilment of her prophecy that he would die in the succeeding month. To maintain her influence she shifted her position, and declared that, like Saul, Henry was no longer king in the sight of God. The mendicant friars spread report of her new revelation throughout the country,and Cromwell, then at the height of his power, viewed it as a treasonable incitement to rebellion. Her friend Warham had died on 23 Aug. 1532, und on 30 March 1533 Cranmer was consecrated to the primacy. The new archbishop was directed to subject the nun in the summer of 1533 to rigorous examination, and on 19 July the prioress of St. Sepulchre's was ordered by Cranmer to bring her before him and Dr. Gwent, the dean of arches. The girl at first maintained her prophetic rôle. Cromwell had sent down a set of interrogatories, but Cranmer declined to use them, deeming them to be too direct to obtain the nun's conviction out of her own mouth, and one of Cromwell's agents wrote (11 Aug.) that 'my Lord [of Canterbury] doth but dally with her.' But Cranmer had no intention of treating the nun leniently, and repeated examinations drew a full confession from her in September. 'She never had visions in all her life, but all that she ever said was feigned of her own imagination, only to satisfy the minds of those which resorted to her and to obtain worldly praise' (Strype's Cranmer, ii. 272). On 25 Sept. Bocking and Hadley, her chief counsellors, who had long been watched, were arrested, and in the course of the following October Bocking confessed his share in the imposture. In November, besides the nun and the two monks of Christ Church, Masters, the parish priest of Aldington, Richard Dering, another monk of Canterbury, Hugh Rich and Richard Risby, Friars Observant of Canterbury, Henry Gold, parish priest of Aldermary, London, and Edward Thwaytes, the author of the pamphlet on the Court-at-Strete miracle, were committed to the Tower. Brought before the Star Chamber, they all threw themselves upon the mercy of the court. A conference was held at Westminster by the judges, bishops, and peers as to the fate of the nun. In a public assembly (20 Nov.), to which persons from all parts of the country were summoned, Lord Chancellor Audley made a declaration that Elizabeth had aimed at the king's dethronement, and cries of 'To the stake' were raised by those present. In accordance with an order issued by the Star Chamber, a scaffold was erected a day or two later by St. Paul's Cross; the nun with her chief accomplices were placed upon it, and all read their confessions aloud there, while Capon, bishop of Bangor, preached a sermon in denunciation of the fraud. The ceremony was repeated in the same month at Canterbury, when the culprits were exhibited on a scaffold erected in the churchyard of the monastery of the Holy Trinity (Chronicle of St. Augustine's, Canterbury, in Narratives of Reformation (Camden Soc.), p. 280). To destroy the effect of the nun's influence it was deemed necessary to thus degrade her in the sight of her followers. It was also Cromwell's desire to implicate in the conspiracy, by repeated examinations of the prisoners, Gardiner, bishop of Winchester, and other adherents of Queen Catherine, and probably the queen herself. Many of Elizabeth's former disciples (including the Marchioness of Exeter and Thomas Goldwell, prior of Christ Church, Canterbury) were aware of Cromwell's aim, and, panic-stricken by the nun's confession, wrote direct to Henry VIII begging him to pardon their former intimacy with her. There was no hurry on the part of the government in determining the punishment due to the offenders, and after their public exposure they were taken back to the Tower. But before the close of 1533 every detail in the imposture was known to Cromwell. When parliament met in the middle of January 1533—4, a bill of attainder was drawn up against the nun, Bocking, Dering, Rich, Risby, Gold, and Masters, the parish priest of Aldington, as the concoctors of a treasonable conspiracy, and against Sir Thomas More, Bishop Fisher, Adeson, Fisher's chaplain, Abel, Queen Catherine's chaplain, Thwaytes, and two others, as abettors of it. To More and Fisher the bill was privately communicated before its introduction into the House of Lords (21 Feb. 1533–4). More frankly avowed his error in conferring with the nun; produced a letter in which he had warned her to avoid politics; and denied that he had admitted her prophetic powers (W. Roper's Life of Sir T. More, ed. Singer, 1817, pp. 125–133). The explanation was deemed satisfactory by Cromwell, and More's name was withdrawn from the bill in obedience to the wish of the House of Lords. Fisher in letters to the king and to the House of Lords declared that he had only tested the nun's revelations, and had committed no offence whatever; but the evidence as to his support of the nun was so powerful, and his defence was deemed so ineffectual, that proceedings against him were allowed to take their course. On 6 March the bill was read for the third time House of Lords, and on 21 March it received the royal assent. According to its terms Elizabeth, Bocking, Bering, Rich, Risby, Gold, and Masters, were condemned to death, while Fisher, Adeson, Abel, Thwaytes, and two others were sentenced to a forfeiture of goods and a term of imprisonment, which was afterwards remitted. Elizabeth with the priests and friars was executed at Tyburn on 20 April following. Rich did not suffer the final punishment, but whether he died between the drafting of the bill of attainder and the execution of the sentence, or was pardoned in the interval, is uncertain. The nun in a pathetic speech from the scaffold completed her former confessions by affirming that she was responsible for her own death and that of her companions, but she complained that she, 'a poor wench without learning,' had been puffed up by the praises of learned men, who made her feigned revelations a source of profit to themselves.

[A full history of the conspiracy appears in the published Act of Attainder, 25 Henry VIII, cap. 12, which is given almost verbatim in Hall's Chronicle (1548), fol. 218 b et seq., but so far as it implicates Queen Catherine, its statements must be received with caution. See also Froude's History, i. and ii.; Paul Friedmann's Anne Boleyn (1884); Wright's Suppression of the Monasteries (Camden Soc.), pp. 13–34, where a number of documents relating to the nun are printed from the Cottonian MS. (Cleopatra E. iv.); Gairdner's Letters and Papers of Henry VIII for 1533–4; Gayangos's Calendar of State Papers, Spain, for 1533-4, where Chappuys's letters to the Emperor Charles give an apparently impartial account of the nun's conspiracy; Strype's Cranmer; Strype's Memorials, I. i. 271, where many examples of the nun's oracles are printed; Burnet's Hist. Reformation (ed. Pocock), i. 246; Fuller's Church History (ed. Brewer), iii. 74–5.]

S. L. L.