Figuring out what you believe is difficult in the best of times, but it was a hundred times worse at the court of Henry VIII. The king’s beliefs swung with the wind and whoever was standing next to him at the time. Like most kings, Henry did not take to disagreement, and in Henry’s case this was doubly true. In the 16th century, reformation was sweeping the continent and many thinkers were coming to question the Catholic Church. They either wanted to reform the Church or break completely from it, depending on who you talked to. Henry was staunchly against this, until it fit with his own plans. The gentry and common folk of England were caught in this crossfire. An example of this was Elizabeth Barton, who is known as the Holy Maid of Kent or the Mad Maid of Kent depending on who you ask.
Elizabeth Barton was born sometime in 1506 in Aldington near Canterbury, and like most women of that age her early childhood is a mystery. We know she came from a poor family and got work as a servant for Thomas Cobb, who was the steward of an estate owned by William Warham, Archbishop of Canterbury. In 1525 Elizabeth fell seriously ill and upon recovering, she began receiving visions. These visions predicted the future accurately enough to call attention to herself in the household. She urged people to go on pilgrimage and pray to the Blessed Virgin Mother. Rather convenient since the Archbishop would profit handily from that since Canterbury was a popular pilgrimage spot.
Warham sent Priors to examine young Elizabeth, and they determined she was doing nothing against the doctrine of the Catholic Church. This led to her becoming a nun at St. Sepulcher’s Priory in Canterbury, where she met her confessor Edward Bocking. Bocking was one of the priors that was sent by Warham to investigate her. He was either a true believer or saw an opportunity because he definitely hitched himself to her coat tails. Her fame grew and Elizabeth met and corresponded with many important churchmen of the age – Archbishop Warham, Bishop John Fisher and Sir Thomas Moore. In 1528, she met with Cardinal Thomas Wolsey and twice with the King himself. At this time, Henry was very much on the side of stamping out Lutheranism and had been named “Defender of the Faith” by the Pope for his efforts. Elizabeth’s teachings and prophecies fell in step with his aims.
Then it all went wrong. In 1527, Henry began proceedings to divorce his wife Katherine of Aragon saying the marriage was not valid in the eyes of God because she had been married to his brother, Arthur. It didn’t hurt that her attractive maid of honor, Anne Boleyn, was waiting in the wings to give Henry the sons he longed for. But Henry swore this was God’s doing. His tender conscience was hurt. The Pope played for time and Henry began to get impatient and cast about for some way to get his way. Breaking from the Church started to look very attractive.
As can be expected, all of this divided the people. Elizabeth Barton fell on the side of the Church and prophesied that if he ended his marriage with Katherine of Aragon he would die with in a year. She claimed to see the place in hell where he would be roasted. This did not go over well at all.
In 1533, Elizabeth Barton and “other conspirators” were arrested and tried in the Star Chamber. Such a thing must have been terrifying to a simple country girl as she was. She was exposed at St. Paul’s Cross and read a confession she was a fraud, however, this wasn’t enough. A bill of attainder was passed in 1534 so Elizabeth could be executed without trial. She was hanged at Tyburn with four of her supporters, Boking among them, and her head was put on a spike on London Bridge. She was the only woman awarded that dubious honor.
To this day there is debate as to whether she was a saint or a fraud. She is venerated by the Anglican Catholic Church of St Augustine of Canterbury and the Nephite Church of Christ. She is also described as having religious mania not much different than the girls of the Spiritualist movement of the 1800s, and coached by ambitious men like Boking. No one can know. What we do know a is a poor girl from Aldington was just one casualty in the nasty wars of religion in England.