Friday, April 20, 2018

April 20, Part One: The Nun of Kent

April 20 is quite a day for executions during the reigns of Henry VIII and Elizabeth I. Every thirty 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. According to Wikipedia Commons, this illustration of Elizabeth Barton and three of her counselors is "probably by Thomas Holloway based on a painting by Henry Tresham, and comes from David Hume's History of England (1793–1806)" and that would explain the emphasis on her hysteria and their subterfuge. As he tells her story:

But several monks were detected in a conspiracy, which, as it might have proved more dangerous to the king, was on its discovery attended with more fatal consequences to themselves. Elizabeth Barton of Aldington in Kent, commonly called the holy Maid of Kent, had been subject to hysterical fits, which threw her body into unusual convulsions; and having produced an equal disorder in her mind, made her utter strange sayings, which, as she was scarcely conscious of them during the time, had soon after entirely escaped her memory. The silly people in the neighbourhood were struck with these appearances, which they imagined to be supernatural; and Richard Masters, vicar of the parish, a designing fellow, founded on them a project, from which he hoped to acquire both profit and consideration. He went to Warham, archbishop of Canterbury, then alive; and having given him an account of Elizabeth’s revelations, he so far wrought on that prudent, but superstitious prelate, as to receive orders from him to watch her in her trances, and carefully to note down all her future sayings. The regard, paid her by a person of so high a rank, soon rendered her still more the object of attention to the neighbourhood; and it was easy for Masters to persuade them, as well as the maid herself, that her ravings were inspirations of the Holy Ghost. Knavery, as is usual, soon after succeeding to delusion, she learned to counterfeit trances; and she then uttered, in an extraordinary tone, such speeches as were dictated to her by her spiritual director. Masters associated with him Dr. Bocking, a canon of Canterbury; and their design was to raise the credit of an image of the virgin, which stood in a chapel belonging to Masters, and to draw to it such pilgrimages as usually frequented the more famous images and reliques.

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).

In his A Popular History of the Reformation, Father Hughes refers to the execution of Barton and her companions as "the deed of blood" that was a turning point in the history of the English Reformation: 

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). 

Even Hume has misgivings about Henry VIII's actions:

The detection of this imposture, attended with so many odious circumstances, both hurt the credit of the ecclesiastics, particularly the monks, and instigated the king to take vengeance on them. He suppressed three monasteries of the Observantine friars; and finding that little clamour was excited by this act of power, he was the more encouraged to lay his rapacious hands on the remainder. Meanwhile, he exercised punishment on individuals, who were obnoxious to him. The parliament had made it treason to endeavour depriving the king of his dignity or titles: They had lately added to his other titles, that of supreme head of the church: It was inferred, that to deny his supremacy was treason; and many priors and ecclesiastics lost their lives for this new species of guilt. It was certainly a high instance of tyranny to punish the mere delivery of a political opinion, especially one that nowise affected the king’s temporal right, as a capital offence, though attended with no overt act; and the parliament, in passing this law, had overlooked all the principles, by which a civilized, much more a free people, should be governed: But the violence of changing so suddenly the whole system of government, and making it treason to deny what, during many ages, it had been heresy to assert, is an event which may appear somewhat extraordinary. Even the stern unrelenting mind of Henry was, at first, shocked with these sanguinary measures; and he went so far as to change his garb and dress; pretending sorrow for the necessity by which he was pushed to such extremities. Still impelled, however, by his violent temper, and desirous of striking a terror into the whole nation, he proceeded, by making examples of Fisher and More, to consummate his lawless tyranny.

Next: Blesseds James Bell and John Finch.

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