Wednesday, August 15, 2018

Defying Henry VIII: Elizabeth Barton

Elizabeth Barton became a nun at St Sepulchre at approximately age 19. What did a holy servant of the Catholic Church do to defy the Tudor king? She shared the visions sent to her by God.

Elizabeth Barton prophesying
19th century woodcut
by Edward Bocking
An average country girl working as a servant, Elizabeth would have likely lived and died in obscurity had it not been for an illness that occurred during Lent 1526. After surviving this fateful illness, Barton began falling into trances and seeing visions that she and others were convinced were direct communications from God Himself. Her first prophecy predicted the death of the ill child sharing her sickroom. Was she an epileptic or a fraud? We have no way of knowing, but her contemporaries began calling her the Holy Maid of Kent. (Even if she did suffer from epilepsy, it was believed at this time that such disabilities could help one have heavenly visions. The stories of medieval prophetesses Margery Kempe and Juilian of Norwich both also begin with illness.)

For years, Sister Elizabeth prophesied and shared her visions without incident. She lived an exemplary life and, with the help of her visions, rebuked those who had failed to repent of their sin and change their ways. She became well-known and popular. The chapel where she had made one of her first prophesies, the Chapel of Our Lady in the Kent village of Court-at-Street, became a pilgrimage site. A printed compilation of her miracles and prophesies was published in 1527 as A Marueilous Woorke. She even had the opportunity to share her visions with Cardinal Wolsey, Thomas More, and King Henry VIII.

Then (you probably already guessed it), Henry decided to set aside his pious Catholic queen, Katherine of Aragon.

Chapel of Our Lady, Court-at-Street
courtesy of
Barton unhesitatingly wrote letters to Wolsey and Pope Clement VII informing them that they risked divine retribution if he continued to support Henry in his plan to divorce Katherine. She also cautioned Henry, in person, that his soul and his realm were at risk if he stayed the course. Sister Elizabeth believed that Wolsey's fall and death were the consequences of ignoring her warnings. She claimed to have been given visions of Wolsey in purgatory and the place saved in hell for Henry.

As you can imagine, this did not set well with the King. And Sister Elizabeth did not stop there.

Henry was in Calais in 1532 for peace talks with King Francis. Barton claimed that she was spiritually present as the two kings took communion at the Church of Our Lady. She went on to insist that an angel had held back the sacrament from Henry and given it to Sister Elizabeth instead. In a singularly correct prophesy, Barton stated that Princess Mary would not be denied her birthright. In another, more provocative but less accurate, she insisted that Henry's reign would end within a month should he insist on marrying Anne Boleyn.

For the crime of predicting the death of the king, charges of treason were brought up against Elizabeth Barton. Traditionally, female traitors were burned at the stake, but in an effort to further humiliate and discredit Barton, she was ordered hanged. Sister Elizabeth Barton was executed on April 20, 1534. That same day, Henry's Oath of Succession was required of every London citizen.


  1. Great story, Samantha! I've never heard of this! Poor woman :) But I thought women in general were not executed for treason until Tudor Times? Or is that just royal women?

    1. It was uncommon for women to be executed, very unusual for them to be hanged.

  2. Well I wonder if she was told of Anne Boleyn's death and Henry's rotten future? Poor sweet little Princess Mary!

  3. Samantha, thanks for the post. She is an inspiration for a fictional character in my Katharine of Aragon AU.

    After THe Most Happy, it was suggested I do a series where Henry dies during the lives of all his wives. The Katharine of Aragon one is turning out to go well and I can't wait for publication day!

    1. Would Mary Tudor have ever thought Jesus didnt go to the cross for Anne Boleyn?

    2. I'm only guessing, of course. But I do not believe Mary would have thought that.

    3. This comment has been removed by the author.