I’m afraid I’ve made a big mistake. I started reading about Elizabeth Barton under the vague impression that she was one of the Forty Martyrs of England and Wales, and the more definite impression that at minimum she had been beatified before the 1970 canonization of the Forty. I find that the first impression is definitely wrong, and can find no evidence of her beatification other than an icon which refers to her that way. Moreover, it is not even entirely agreed upon even by Catholic sources that she was not a fraud. However, I had promised Janet a post for this week, and it’s too late for me to research anyone else. So I’m proceeding with more or less what I had intended to say, which is fundamentally not dependent on Barton’s status as Saint or Blessed.
When I hear someone congratulating himself for “speaking truth to power,” I figure the chances are pretty good that what he has in fact done is to speak his purported truth to someone who has no ability or will whatsoever to do him any harm. And usually that he expects to be congratulated by other powerful people who agree with him, so that on balance he has gained something without taking any risk, though he may have to put up with some abuse from people whose opinion doesn’t matter to him anyway.
It was not so for Elizabeth Barton, otherwise known by titles including “The Maid of Kent,” “The Holy Maid of Kent,” and even “The Mad Maid of Kent,” or many other Catholics in 16th century England. I was just looking over my contributions to this series and I see that with this one three of six will have been of that period. It interests me greatly in part because of my ancestral and cultural connection with Great Britain, and in part because our time has something in common with theirs. Not that we are at anything like the same risk from our government that, for instance, St. Thomas More was from his: it is an imprudent exaggeration to say that we are being persecuted. Nevertheless, the trend now has a similar shape, in that Christians—not only Catholics now—who only recently constituted the mainstream of society are finding themselves rather abruptly and startlingly cast in the role of outsider, subversive, and possibly traitor. And this has happened without any change on the part of the Christians, but rather in the world around them.
Some of the facts in the case of Elizabeth Barton are disputed, and, as will be noted shortly, perhaps deliberately suppressed. This much is clear:
Elizabeth Barton was born in 1506 and was a domestic servant in the household of a farmer near Aldington, which is near Canterbury. In 1525, when she was nineteen years old, she began to have a series of visions and to utter prophecies. She attracted a great deal of attention. Apparently at least one of her prophecies, having to do with the impending death of a child, was more or less accurate, so that of course gave her credibility. She claimed many revelations, including accounts of visions of heaven and hell and even visits there, and these involved some claims which are certainly suspicious to put it mildly: for instance, a handkerchief which she claimed had been spat upon by the devil.
The religious authorities naturally wanted to figure out what was going on, so a group of clergy under the leadership of the Archbishop (of Canterbury), William Warham, investigated her. They found nothing heretical in her utterances. Her following grew, and Warham arranged for her to be admitted to the Benedictine convent of St. Sepulchre.
Prominent people, including Catholics like More and Fisher, took an interest in her. In 1528 she had an audience with Cardinal Wolsey, and soon thereafter with the King himself. At that point she was no threat to them. But as the matter of the King’s wish to have his marriage to Catherine of Aragorn annulled so that he could marry Anne Boleyn came to a head, Elizabeth, instead of flattering Henry as she might have, vigorously denounced him—to his face, according to some accounts—asserting that he would “die a villain’s death” if he persisted in marrying Boleyn.
Henry, obviously, was not going to let this stand. But it was not yet legally an act of treason to prophesy a bad future about the king, so Henry had no law at hand which would justify moving against her, and Archbishop Warham was well-disposed toward her. The marriage of course proceeded in 1532, and Henry did not die immediately as Barton had said he would. And when Archbishop Warham died in the same year he was succeeded by Cranmer, who was much more eager to do the King’s bidding.
Barton refused to be silent (despite having been urged to do so by no less than Thomas More). In 1533 she was arrested. What happened during her interrogation by Cranmer and others is not known, although they said she was not subjected to torture. In any case a confession in which she admitted to having been a fraud all along was soon forthcoming. And on the basis of it, she and five supporters who were said to be complicit in her fraud , including her parish priest and a monk who had been her spiritual adviser in the convent, were condemned to death, not by a trial, but by a “bill of attainder,” a legislative decree of capital punishment, and a term which Americans of a certain age may recognize as being prohibited by the Constitution, for very good reason. On April 20th, 1534, the five were executed. Barton was merely hanged. The others, all men, were butchered in the horrendous manner suffered by many other martyrs in this period.
If her confession was voluntary, was it made in the hope of obtaining clemency? And if it wasn’t for that reason, and she knew that she was going to die either way, why would she have confessed? If she was dishonest enough to have made up her revelations all along, why abjure them and go to death disgraced, unless by coercion? I suppose it might have been fear of hell suddenly catching up with her. But then if she had been all along the mere liar and opportunist which Cranmer said she was, why would she have not given up her attacks on the King long before, when it was obvious that they would eventually lead to her death? It would have been simple enough to have another revelation in which God forgave Henry.
There seems reasonable ground to suspect that the confession was coerced. As the 1911 Catholic Encyclopedia summarizes:
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.
Perhaps she was honest, and a genuine martyr. Perhaps she was something of a lunatic and no consistency in her statements and actions can be expected. Or perhaps she was the out-and-out deliberate liar that Cromwell said she was. Unless some new and indisputable evidence is discovered, the world will never know.
We tend to think that the truth will eventually win out, historically speaking: that, for instance, a More or a Fisher will in time be recognized as having been in the right, and his accusers disgraced. But that isn’t necessarily true. As with the conviction of innocent persons in criminal trials, we only know about the cases in which the truth was eventually discovered, but there is no reason to think there aren’t others in which it was not. It would be terrible to go to one’s death tainted by the guilt for some atrocious crime which one had in fact not committed. And of course even the judgments of “history,” which is to say historians, are changeable. I noticed in reading about Elizabeth Barton that she plays a role in Hilary Mantel’s novel Wolf Hall, which everyone seems to agree is very anti-Catholic. Mantel and one of her admirers, the late Christopher Hitchens, have put some effort into revising the favorable picture of Thomas More left with the public by Robert Bolt’s A Man for All Seasons, and I imagine they have found a receptive audience. A few months ago I read reviews of a book by an historian claiming to show that the persecution of the early Church by the Roman empire is essentially a Christian myth. It would not surprise me, given the direction of our culture, if in a century or two that were the generally accepted truth.
This is worth considering in an age where many people in power seem to have no regard at all for truth. One facing a penalty for speaking the truth is greatly encouraged and strengthened if he believes that others know what he is doing, or will learn of it later. And sometimes it happens that way. But it can’t be counted on. One who is about to speak the actual truth to actual power can’t count on any sort of vindication in this world, and must be prepared not only to face trouble in this life but to be permanently and irrevocably slandered and disgraced. So perhaps the Maid of Kent, holy or mad, can serve, if not as a patron, as an example for those who suffer for doing the right thing but whose courage and sacrifice are never recognized.
The fullest accounts of Elizabeth Barton’s life that I found in my not very exhaustive search can be read here and here. Both are blogs, and I can’t vouch for their accuracy, but they don’t contradict any other sources I found.
If you want to see all of the posts in this series, click HERE.
Maclin Horton is the proprietor of his own blog Light on Dark Water from which sprang this series. You might want to check out the current series there, 52 Movies or last year's 52 Authors. In this series he has written about St Henrik, St. John Fisher, St Ansgar, St. Mary of Egypt and St. John Kemble.