Nun and visionary, whose prophecies led to her execution under Henry VIII
Barton, ELIZABETH, b. probably in 1506; executed at Tyburn, April 20, 1534; called the “Nun of Kent”. The career of this visionary, whose prophecies led to her execution under Henry VIII, has been the source of a historical controversy which resolves itself into the question: Was she gifted with supernatural knowledge or was she an impostor? In 1525, when nineteen years of age, being then employed as a domestic servant at Aldington, Kent, she had an illness, during which she fell into frequent trances and told “wondrously things done in other places whilst she was neither herself present nor yet heard no report thereof”. From the first her utterances assumed a religious character and were “of marvellous holiness in rebuke of sin and vice”. Her parish priest, Richard Masters, convinced of her sincerity, reported the matter to the Archbishop of Canterbury, who sent a commission of three Canterbury Benedictines, Bocking, Hadleigh, and Barnes, two Franciscans, Hugh Rich and Richard Risby, a diocesan official, and the parish priest to examine her again. Shortly after this commission pronounced in her favor, her prediction that the Blessed Virgin would cure her at a certain chapel was fulfilled, when in presence of a large crowd she was restored to health. She then became a Benedictine nun, living near Canterbury, with a great reputation for holiness. Her fame gradually spread until she came into wide public notice. She protested “in the name and by the authority of God” against the king’s projected divorce. To further her opposition, besides writing to the pope she had interviews with Fisher, Wolsey, and the king himself. Owing to her reputation for sanctity she proved one of the most formidable opponents of the royal divorce, so that in 1533 Cromwell took steps against her, and after examination by Cranmer she was in November, with Dr. Bocking, her confessor, and others, committed to the Tower. Subsequently all the prisoners were made to do public penance at St. Paul’s and at Canterbury and to publish confessions of deception and fraud.
In January, 1534, a bill of attainder was framed against her and thirteen of her sympathizers, among whom were Fisher and More. Except the latter, whose name was withdrawn, all were condemned under this bill; seven including Bocking, Masters, Rich Risby, and Elizabeth herself being sentenced to death, while Fisher and five others were condemned to imprisonment and forfeiture of goods. Elizabeth and her companions were executed at Tyburn on April 20, 1534, when she is said to have repeated her confession. Protestant authors allege that these confessions alone are conclusive of her imposture, but Catholic writers, though they have felt free to hold divergent opinions about the nun, have pointed out the suggestive fact that all that is known as to these confessions emanates from Cromwell or his agents; that all available documents are on his side; that the confession issued as hers is on the face of it not her own composition; that she and her companions were never brought to trial, but were condemned and executed unheard; that there is contemporary evidence that the alleged confession was even then believed to be a forgery. For these reasons the matter cannot be considered as settled, and unfortunately the difficulty of arriving at any satisfactory and final decision now seems insuperable.