A nun up against a king

The Persecution of Sister Elizabeth Barton
Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Beheaded by King Henry VIII

Her crime was treason

Sister Elizabeth Barton was the only woman in the history of Britain to have her head displayed on London Bridge. This was done to warn others against speaking out about King Henry VIII and his decision to divorce his wife, Catherine of Aragon, in order to marry Anne Boleyn.

Granted, much of England was aghast at this plan. The country was still Catholic. The Pope was also against Henry's desire to seek an annulment for his 20-year marriage.

But no one was more outspoken about this matter than Sister Elizabeth, a Benedictine nun.

She was widely known as a prophetess, having foretold a number of events that came to pass. One of these was the death of a child. He was the son of the family that employed her as a domestic servant, before she entered the convent.

Sister Elizabeth had a large following, according to published historical reports. Catholic Archbishop William Warham, who presided over Canterbury in the early 1500's, was a supporter. He believed her visions came from Heaven, as did Bishop John Fisher, now a canonized saint.

Under canon law, the local ordinary is the one who determines whether a visionary is the real deal, or a fraud. He is also called upon to rule out any satanic influences.

The Early Life of Elizabeth Barton

Elizabeth Barton was probably born around 1506, in a village called Aldington, a short carriage ride from Canterbury. Her family was impoverished. With few other opportunities, she became a domestic servant. Her wealthy employers treated her kindly, even though she was sickly and prone to seizures.

The young servant also, apparently, had the gift of prophecy. She was able to correctly predict various events. She also was said to communicate with Saint Michael the Archangel, which Catholics believe protects the Church. Angels also have another function as messengers.

During one of her epileptic fits, she had a prolonged spell of being unconscious. When she awakened, she accurately foretold the impending death of a child named Thomas Cobb, the son of her employers. This soon came to pass, and news of her prophecy spread throughout the region.

Soon, Elizabeth had a big following. She soon had more visions. These were followed by prophetic warnings, imploring people to strengthen their Catholic convictions and to not neglect attending Mass. She told them to pray against Satan and to turn to Mary, the Mother of God for help. All of this was very much in accordance with traditional Catholic belief.

Elizabeth is Called to Religious Life

As Elizabeth's fame spread, some began to question whether her messages came from Heaven, or from the priests who advised her. She had the support of her pastor, a man named Richard Masters. However, Father Masters took a very prudent approach. With an alleged visionary under his care, he turned the matter over to Archbishop Warham.

After an investigation, and establishing a commission of religious and secular priests, the archbishop concluded that young Elizabeth wasn't faking this for attention, nor was she under the influence of the devil.

Elizabeth continued to warn people against straying for the Catholic faith. During one of her visions she told people she had been instructed to enter the convent. She then became a Benedictine nun.

Elizabeth Barton Enters a Cloister

Elizabeth Barton Enters a Cloister
Credit: Flickr photo by SteveCadman

Opposition to King Henry's Marriage Continues

Sister Elizabeth continued to speak out against King Henry's plans to divorce his wife. She boldly appeared before him, imploring the headstrong monarch to please reconsider. She even warned him of suffering eternal damnation if he continued to proceed with his plans for an annulment.

It's been reported that she also told him he'd die soon afterward, if he went through with his plan to divorce Catherine. However, he lived more than a dozen years after this message was delivered. There does remain the possibility that this prophecy was later added, by her detractors, in an attempt to discredit Sister Elizabeth.

Elizabeth tried to warn King Henry about his behavior on two different occasions. The first time, he seemed a bit bemused.

However, when she repeated her warning, he became violently angry. That's because he had already made up his mind to marry Ann Boleyn. The last thing he would have wanted was his subjects rising up against him. Even though she was confined to a cloister, Sister Elizabeth had become very popular.

Henry VIII Plots her Downfall

Infuriated with Sister Elizabeth's reproach, King Henry VIII took action. His cohorts began an all-out attack to smear her reputation. Rumors were spread that she was romantically involved with several priests. (Catholic religious take a vow of celibacy.)

King Henry's cronies also began to convince people she was mentally deranged. Another tactic was inventing false prophecies and attributing them to her.

Killing her reputation was the first step in a campaign that led to her arrest for treason. Some people in high places turned against her, allowing a law to be passed that made it illegal for anyone to predict or to speak about the king's impending death.

King Henry was able to pull a legal maneuver that allowed her and some of her supporters to be executed without a public trial.

In 1533, Sister Elizabeth Barton was arrested. In what was most likely a forced confession, she supposedly said that all of her prophecies were false.

On April 20, 1534, Sister Elizabeth Barton, along with four priests she knew, and whom had supported her, as well as one other person, were executed.

Her head was severed from her body and then it was boiled before it was displayed on London Bridge, as a deterrent to speaking out against the king.

Sister Elizabeth Barton is sometimes referred to as "The Nun of Kent" or "The Holy Maid of Kent."

London Bridge

London Bridge
Credit: Flickr photo by jimmyharris