Wednesday, 5 June 2013

The Nun of Kent

The Nun of Kent was known otherwise by her christening name of Elizabeth Barton. Her story is very unusual and it is easy to imagine why she drew so much attention to herself. She is believed to have been epileptic but the really strange thing about the servant girl was that she had been cured of some unknown - and therefore mysterious - condition. After her cure Elizabeth had periods of trances and visions during which she would predict the future - not the best qualities in a time that believed in witches!

Depiction of the hanging of the "Nun of Kent"
Such abilities were enough to make her famous in Kent where she lived; at first she would be known merely as the "Holy Maid of Kent" but when she entered a convent, her "title" was changed to "the Nun of Kent". Every single account of her describes her as being very well-liked and living a life that no one could find wrong in any way. Even when the King sent out clergymen to report on her were struck by her totally guiltless way of life. But then it all went wrong.
Elizabeth Barton was against the King's wish to divorce Catherine of Aragon and she made no attempt at hiding it. She even warned him that bad things would happen to him if he did not give up his great matter. She went so far as to write not to the King but to the Pope himself, telling him that his Holiness would be just as "cursed" as the King if he gave into Henry VIII's demands.

Attention had already been drawn to her earlier and now she was visited by several of the most powerful men in the country: King Henry VIII himself, Cardinal Wolsey, Archbishop Warham, Chancellor More and Bishop Fisher. None of them had found any flaws with her - that is, until she was asked about the divorce. In July 1533 Elizabeth Barton was arrested (on the order of Thomas Cromwell) and questioned by Cromwell himself as well as Thomas Cranmer. She was then put in a cell in the Tower. By November that same years a little show was put on to discourage her: she had to listen to a sermon in which she was publicly ridiculed and was ordered to confess that her entire career as a nun had been a fraud. Elizabeth herself did not confess but a confession was written in her name; however, it is far too sophisticated for a woman who had never had any real education.

At first it seemed that Elizabeth Barton was lucky: the King's judges refused to charge her with high treason because the case was simply too weak. Cromwell responded by drawing up a bill of attainder claiming that she was guilty, period. Thomas More and Bishop Fisher had also been arrested but both refused that the "Nun of Kent" had ever done anything to discredit herself. It did not matter in the end. Elizabeth Barton was hanged at Tyburn on April 20, 1534.

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