April 20 is quite a day for executions during the reigns of Henry VIII and Elizabeth I. Every ten minutes this morning, I will have a new post on those executed that day in different years. Elizabeth Barton and her companions have not been canonized or beatified, but their deaths began the bloodletting of the English Reformation:
On April 20, 1534, Elizabeth Barton, the Nun of Kent, was executed at Tyburn, London, along with monks and priests named as her co-conspirators.
Born in 1506, Elizabeth Barton had been regarded as a visionary; as a Benedictine in Canterbury, she had been visited by both Henry VIII and his Chancellor, Thomas Wolsey, Cardinal Archbishop of York. Before Henry VIII broke away from Rome and arranged the annulment of his marriage to Catherine of Aragon, Barton's visions and prophecies had pleased him and he thought her Godly.
Barton's visions changed, however, and she even said that Henry would "no longer be king of this realm . . . and should die a villian's death" if he proceeded along his chosen path. Those are dangerous words, even if you say they are inspired by God. As Henry and Thomas Cromwell proceeded against Bishop John Fisher and Sir Thomas More, they investigated how much credence Fisher and More placed in the Nun of Kent's words. Those who were opposed to Henry's "Reformation" believed in Barton's prophesies, and she was still very popular--delaying Henry's actions against her.
In 1553, Barton, her parish priest, Richard Masters and monks from the Benedictine Abbey at Canterbury including Edward Bocking were arrested and brought before the Star Chamber. Henry's new Archbishop of Canterbury Thomas Cranmer examined Barton and she confessed that she had fabricated the visions and prophecies. John Fisher was also charged in connection with this conspiracy against the King of England's religious and marital policies. Thomas More was not implicated. Without any trial, Elizabeth Barton, her parish priest and the monks were attainted traitors by Parliament and sentenced to death (including Richard Risby, warden of the Observant friary at Canterbury, Edward Bocking, Benedictine of Christ Church, Canterbury, Hugh Rich, warden of the Observant friary at Richmond, John Dering, B.D. (Oxon.), Benedictine of Christ Church, Canterbury, Henry Gold, M.A. (Oxon.), parson of St. Mary; Aldermanbury, London, and vicar of Hayes, Middlesex).
I was browsing through Father Philip Hughes' A Popular History of the Reformation, in the old Doubleday Image paperback edition (95 cents). [There were several pages of book descriptions at the back of the book, including everything from Summa Contra Gentiles to Marie de Chapdelaine.] I read the two chapters he dedicated to the English Reformation.
Father Hughes provides an excellent chronological narrative of events, describing the influence of the Lutheran Reformation in England before Henry VIII's Break from Rome. He then traces the events leading up to the Break, the Reformation Parliament and "the deed of blood" that was a turning point:
The deed of blood was the condemnation by attainder (i.e., by an act of Parliament, without any trial) and the execution at Tyburn of "the Nun of Kent" and four priests condemned as her accomplices. "We now enter on a period which is happily unique in the annals of England, a period of terror. It lasts from [1534 to 1540]. --quoting H.A.L. Fisher's History of England from the Accession of Henry VII to the Death of Henry VIII (1918).
I was impressed by the quotation Father Hughes selected and the use of the term "period of terror" like the Reign of Terror of the French Revolution. As Father Hughes goes on to comment by April 20, 1534 Sir Thomas More and John Fisher, Bishop of Rochester are imprisoned--even though they escaped being included in the attainder because of their contact with Elizabeth Barton.
Between 1534 and 1540, the king's terror did rage and the list of victims is long: The Carthusians of the Charterhouse of London, executed and starved to death; the Observant Franciscan Friars of Greenwich; More and Fisher; the rebels from the Pilgrimage of Grace, the abbots of Colchester, Reading, and Glastonbury, Anne Boleyn, the Knights of Malta, Catholic "traitors" and Protestant "heretics"--even Thomas Cromwell, Vice-Regent and Earl of Essex! I might extend the period of terror to 1541 or 1542 to include Margaret Pole, her family and Catherine Howard. Henry VIII had certainly terrorized the bishops in Convocation to get his way and his actions were definitely intimidating to many at his Court and in his family (his wife and daughter certainly experienced the threats and intimidation!).
So what changed after 1540? Henry had his male heir, of course, and diplomatic events turned his attention away from asserting his will over his subjects in religious matters. The opposition was gone and he might have regretted Cromwell's death since it removed such a loyal head from his service. The bishops and Parliament had done all he wanted . . . perhaps Henry had just won. On the other hand, he continued to enforce his supremacy and control for the sake of his son and heir--just think of the Howard family!