Thursday, January 2, 2014

Elizabeth Barton: More Questions than Answers?

Beth von Staats posts on Elizabeth Barton, the Holy Maid of Kent for the English Historical Fiction Authors blog, and she uses an icon with the words "Blessed Elizabeth Barton" among her illustrations. Elizabeth Barton has not been beatified by the Catholic Church--she and her confessors were included in the second "cause" for the Reformation martyrs held at Westminster from September, 1888 to August, 1889, but she and her five companions (John Dering, O.S.B., Edward Bocking, O.S.B., Hugh Rich, O.S.F., Richard Masters, priest, Henry Gold, priest) have not moved forward in the process of canonization. Since they were not included in the first cause submitted to Rome, they are among the prætermissi (the passed over). The author and I corresponded on the post to clarify the point.

Nevertheless, von Staats' post is interesting, as she narrates the story of Barton's rise and fall:

Born in obscurity, Elizabeth Barton's life as a celebrated English woman began with what at the time was considered by all Roman Catholics an awe-inspiring trance and God sent miracle. While working as a servant in a Kent household, Barton became seriously ill -- some today might surmise epilepsy, while others might assume delirium or psychosis. Incredibly, she began to speak in rhyming prophecies.

After sharing her vision of a nearby chapel, Elizabeth Barton was taken there and lain before a statue of the Blessed Virgin Mary. As astounding as this sounds, the woman remained there in a trance for a week. Upon awakening, Elizabeth Barton began prophesying again, predicting the death of a child living in her household, and as detailed by Archbishop Thomas Cranmer in a letter to Archdeacon Hawkins, "speaking of many high and godly things, telling also wondrously, by the power of the Holy Ghost as it was thought, things done and said in other places, whereas neither she was herself, nor yet heard no report thereof."

Soon afterward, she was questioned by a special commission established by then Archbishop William Warham. They determined her trances, visions and prophecies genuine, and a "star was born". At least a thousand people took to the road, processing to the little chapel, and like Jim Morrison's grave, the Ford Theater, the town of Bethlehem, and the shrine of St. Thomas Beckett, it became a place of pilgrimage.

Elizabeth Barton's illustrious or infamous career, depending on one's point of you, then began in earnest. Admitted to St. Sepulcre's nunnery in Canterbury, she professed her vows, and her trances, prophecies and clairvoyance continued and increased unabated.

Sister Elizabeth’s messages of warning and predictions of the future were reported to the world outside her cloistered community by a group of priests close to the convent, and her fame and celebrity rose to the highest zenith of Tudor society. Legitimized as filled with the Holy Spirit by the likes of Archbishop William Warham and Bishop John Fisher, who both met with the "Holy Maid of Kent", Sister Elizabeth Barton became exceptionally acclaimed throughout the realm, respected for her piety and marveled for her Godly giftedness.

One of her cited sources is the old Catholic Encyclopedia entry on Elizabeth Barton, which notes that Protestants and Catholics have taken sides on how to interpret her story:

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.

And "difficulty of arriving at any satisfactory and final decision" about Barton's guilt or innocence, pretense or authenticity as a mystic--and her confessors' roles in her activities--probably means that her cause will not move forward. Barton, Bocking, Dering, et al, may have suffered and died because of their opposition to Henry VIII's religious revolution, but if they were using religious prophecy to manipulate and deceive, they won't be declared blessed or canonized by the Church.

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