Elizabeth Barton

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Reposing woman with three men, only one of whom is looking at her.
A posthumus engraving of Elizabeth Barton is probably by Thomas Holloway based on a painting by Henry Tresham, and comes from David Hume's The History of England (1793–1806). It represents the holy nun through the lens of the Protestant propaganda levied against her in later life and after her death, rather than offering a realistic depiction.[1]

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.[2]

Early life[edit]

Little is known about Barton's early life. She was born in 1506 in the parish of Aldington, about 12 miles from Canterbury,[3] and appears to have come from a poor background. She was working as a servant in 1525 when she said her visions began. This followed her suffering for some months from 'an impostume in her stomach, which divers times redounded upwards to her throat and was like to stop her breath' during which time she could not eat or drink, as well as seizures and periods of paralysis.[1]


On Easter of 1525,[4] at the age of 19, while working as a domestic servant in the household of Thomas Cobb, a farmer of Aldington, who worked for Archbishop William Warham. Barton claimed to have had very vivid visions and to have received divine revelations that predicted events. This included the death of a child living in her household or, more frequently, pleas for people to remain in the Catholic Church. Her revelations followed a similar pattern of Catholic orthodoxy seen in previous 'holy maids' in the later medieval period.[1] She urged people to pray to the 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.[5]

When some events that Barton foretold apparently occurred, her reputation spread. Barton's revelations became publicly known and matters were brought up by Archbishop William Warham.[6] The parish priest, Richard Masters, duly referred the matter to Warham, who appointed a commission to ensure that none of her prophecies was at variance with Catholic teaching. This commission was led by the Benedictine monk, Edward Bocking, Barton's spiritual advisor.[4] When the commission decided favourably, Warham arranged for Barton to be received in the Benedictine St Sepulchre's Priory, Canterbury, under Bocking’s spiritual direction.[3]

Barton's life became very public; nothing unorthodox was found in her case; her alleged public healing from the Virgin Mary at Court-at-Street (a hamlet near Lympne, Kent) increased attention and gave fame to her and to the Marian Shrine.

In 1527 Robert Redman published A marueilous woorke of late done at Court of Streete in Kent which discussed all of Barton's "miracles, revelations, and prophecies" and the controversies leading up to the arrests and executions.[6]

In 1528, Barton held a private meeting with Cardinal Thomas Wolsey, the second most powerful man in England after Henry VIII, and she soon thereafter met twice with Henry himself. Henry accepted Barton because her prophecies then still supported the existing order. She also consulted with Richard Reynolds, a Bridgettine monk of Syon Abbey. He arranged a meeting between Barton and Thomas More, who was impressed by her fervour.[7] Her prophecies warned against heresy and condemned rebellion at a time when Henry was attempting to stamp out Lutheranism and was afraid of possible uprising or even assassination by his enemies.[citation needed]

By 1534 Barton's prophecies were less in tune with that of Henry VIII, becoming more about political affairs of both state and religion.[1] 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, Barton opposed him. Barton strongly opposed the English Reformation and, in around 1532, began prophesying that if Henry remarried, he would die within a few months. She said that she had even seen the place in Hell to which he would go. Thomas More thought many prophesies were fictitiously attributed to her,[3] and King Henry actually lived for a further 15 years. Remarkably, probably because of her popularity, Barton went unpunished for nearly a year. More, Reynolds & Fisher all warned her against ‘political’ statements and distanced themselves from her. The King's agents spread false rumours about mental illness and sexual relationships with priests.[1]

Arrest and execution[edit]

With her reputation undermined, Barton was arrested by the Crown in 1533 and forced to confess that she had fabricated her revelations.[2] What is known regarding her confession comes from Thomas Cromwell, his agents and other sources affiliated with the Crown.

Treason of Elizabeth Barton (Pretended Revelations) Act 1533
Act of Parliament
Long titleAn Act concerning the Attainder of Elizabeth Barton and others.
Citation25 Hen. 8. c. 12
Royal assent30 March 1534
Other legislation
Repealed byStatute Law Revision Act 1948
Status: Repealed

Friar John Laurence of the Observant Friars of Greenwich gave evidence against Barton 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.[8] She was condemned by a bill of attainder (25 Hen. 8. c. 12); an act of Parliament authorizing punishment without trial.

Barton was attainted for treason by act of Parliament, on the basis that she had maliciously opposed Henry VIII's divorce from Catherine of Aragon, and had prophesied that the king would lose his kingdom. Although Barton claimed God had revealed to her that he no longer recognized Henry VIII's monarchy, the act of attainder argued that Barton was at the centre of a conspiracy against the King. Barton was viewed as a false prophet who was encouraged to profess fake revelations to persuade others to go against the monarchy.[9]

On 20 April 1534 Elizabeth Barton was hanged at Tyburn for treason.[7] She was 28 years old. Five of her chief supporters were executed alongside her:

Barton was buried at Greyfriars Church in Newgate, but her head was put on a spike on London Bridge. She is the only woman in history to receive that dishonour.[citation needed]


Churches such as the Anglican Catholic Church of St Augustine of Canterbury[12] continue to venerate Barton.

Popular culture[edit]

Barton's case is dealt with in the 2009 historical novel Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel, and in its television adaptation, where she is played by Aimee-Ffion Edwards. Barton and her prophecies are also mentioned in Philippa Gregory’s 2014 novel The King's Curse; the sixth and final book in The Cousins' War series.

Barton is personally interrogated by Thomas Cromwell, Thomas Cranmer and Nicòla Frescobaldi in Shaking the Throne by author Caroline Angus.

In the play A Man for All Seasons by Robert Bolt, Barton is referenced during the interrogation of Thomas More as having been executed (she was executed about 15 months before More).[2][13]


  1. ^ a b c d e "Barton, Elizabeth [called the Holy Maid of Kent, the Nun of Kent] (c. 1506–1534), Benedictine nun and visionary". Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (online ed.). Oxford University Press. 2004. doi:10.1093/ref:odnb/1598. Retrieved 2 December 2023. (Subscription or UK public library membership required.)
  2. ^ a b c  Burton, Edwin Hubert (1907). "Elizabeth Barton". In Herbermann, Charles (ed.). Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 2. New York: Robert Appleton Company.
  3. ^ a b c Hamilton, Adam (1905). The Angel of Syon, The Life and Martyrdom of Blessed Richard Reynolds. London: Sands & Co. p. 26.
  4. ^ a b Warren, Nancy Bradley (2005). Women of God and Arms. University of Pennsylvania Press. p. 2.
  5. ^ A Popular History of the Reformation, p. 177, Philip Hughes, 1957
  6. ^ a b Warren, Nancy Bradley (2005). Women of God and Arms. University of Pennsylvania Press. p. 3.
  7. ^ a b Watt, Diane (1997). "Reconstructing the Word: the Political Prophecies of Elizabeth Barton (1506–1534)". Renaissance Quarterly. 50 (1): 136–163. doi:10.2307/3039331. ISSN 0034-4338. JSTOR 3039331. S2CID 155400178.
  8. ^ Camm, Bede (1914). "Blessed John Forest". Lives of the English Martyrs Declared Blessed by Pope Leo XIII, Vol. I. London: Longmans, Green and Co. p. 280 – via archive.org.
  9. ^ Watt, Diane (1997). "Reconstructing the Word: the Political Prophecies of Elizabeth Barton (1506-1534)". Renaissance Quarterly. 50 (1): 136–163. doi:10.2307/3039331. JSTOR 3039331. S2CID 155400178.
  10. ^ Gasquet, Cardinal Francis Aidan (1906). Henry VIII and the English Monasteries. G. Bell. p. 36 – via Google Books.
  11. ^ a b c "Richard Risby". Catholic Encyclopedia. 1 February 1912. Retrieved 5 November 2016 – via newadvent.org.
  12. ^ Church of St Augustine of Canterbury, Anglican Catholic, 2009–2010, retrieved 22 June 2010
  13. ^ "Thomas More". The Catholic Encyclopedia – via newadvent.org.


  • McKee, John (1925), Dame Elizabeth Barton OSB, the Holy Maid of Kent, London: Burns, Oates and Washbourne.
  • Neame, Alan (1971), The Holy Maid of Kent: The Life of Elizabeth Barton: 1506–1534, London: Hodder and Stoughton, ISBN 978-0-340-02574-1.
  • Shagan, Ethan H (2003), "Chapter 2: The Anatomy of opposition in early Reformation England; the case of Elizabeth Barton, the holy maid of Kent", Popular Politics in the English Reformation, Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, pp. 61–88.
  • Watt, Diane (1997), Secretaries of God, Cambridge, UK: DS Brewer.

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