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April 20, 1534 – Execution of the Holy Maid of Kent

Elizabeth Barton, engraving from The History of England based on a painting by Henry Tresham (public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

The Holy Maid of Kent was Sister Elizabeth Barton, an English Catholic nun who claimed to have received divine revelations that predicted future events. Thousands believed in her prophecies – even Henry VIII met with her (back in 1528 when her prophecies were not a threat to him).

Barton’s troubles started when Henry moved towards his break with Rome. She strongly opposed the English Reformation…and her visions reflected that. Basically she claimed that if Henry married Anne, he would die in a few months and go straight to Hell. But because this happened around 1532, she was insulated from the speedy retribution for which Henry came to be known later in his reign.

Interestingly, just about a month ago I published a very similar post with a very similar story: about Friar Peto’s Easter Sermon, in which he compared Henry to Ahab. That, too, happened in 1532. There, too, the perpetrator got away with it…but there the stories diverge. After Peto was released from prison, he left the country to avoid further trouble. Barton, who was never imprisoned, actually continued to preach for a full year.

Henry’s initial reaction was to spread rumors that she was mentally ill and engaged in sexual relations with priests. But finally that was not enough for him. You can really start to feel the ground shifting in England right around 1534, after the Church of England had been established as the only religious authority in the land, after Henry had married Anne (and hadn’t died!), after Elizabeth had been born. This was the time when Henry started to get frustrated that things were not going the way he expected, the time when he needed to make up for the fact that the expected son and heir had not arrived…and the time when he simply felt entitled to lash out (you can apply all sorts of modern psychological theories…I know I do!).

Elizabeth Barton was arrested, confessed, and condemned by bill of attainder (meaning that she didn’t get a trial…they didn’t want to risk that). She was hanged and then beheaded (but not drawn and quartered, sweet mercy). Rest in peace.

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