Sister Elizabeth Barton (1506? – 20 April 1534), known as "The Nun of Kent", "The Holy Maid of London", "The Holy Maid of Kent" and later "The Mad Maid of Kent", was an English Catholic nun. She was executed as a result of her prophecies against the marriage of King Henry VIII of England to Anne Boleyn.
Little is known about her early life. She was born in 1506 in the parish of Aldington, about twelve miles from Canterbury, and she appears to have come from a poor background. She was working as a servant when her visions began in 1525.
At the age of 19, while working as a domestic servant in the household of Thomas Cobb, a farmer of Aldington, she suffered from a severe illness and claimed to have received divine revelations that predicted future events, such as the death of a child living in her household or, more frequently, pleas for people to remain in the Roman Catholic Church. She also urged people to pray to the Blessed Virgin Mary and to undertake pilgrimages. Thousands believed in her prophecies and both Archbishop William Warham and Bishop John Fisher attested to her pious life.
When some events that she foretold apparently happened, her reputation spread. The parish priest, Richard Masters, referred the matter to Warham, who appointed a commission to ensure that none of her prophecies were at variance with Catholic teaching. When the commission decided favourably, Warham arranged for Barton to be received in the Benedictine St Sepulchre's Priory, Canterbury.
In 1528, she held a private meeting with Cardinal Thomas Wolsey, the second most powerful man in England after Henry VIII, and she soon thereafter met twice with Henry himself. Henry accepted Barton because her prophecies then still supported the existing order. Her prophecies warned against heresy and condemned rebellion at a time when Henry was attempting to stamp out Lutheranism and was afraid of possible uprising or even assassination by his enemies.
However, when the King began the process of obtaining an annulment of his marriage to Catherine of Aragon and seizing control of the Church in England from Rome, he turned against her. Barton strongly opposed the English Reformation and, in around 1532, began prophesying that if Henry remarried, he would die within a months. She said that she had even seen the place in Hell to whch he would go. (Henry would actually live for another 15 years afterward.)
Remarkably, probably because of her popularity, Barton went unpunished for nearly a year. The King's agents spread rumours that she was engaged in sexual relationships with priests and that she suffered from mental illness. Many prophecies, as Thomas More thought, were fictitiously attributed to her.
Arrest and execution
With her reputation undermined, the Crown arrested Barton in 1533 and forced her to confess that she had fabricated her revelations. However, all that is known regarding her confession comes from Thomas Cromwell, his agents and other sources on the side of the Crown.
Friar John Laurence of the Observant Friars of Greenwich gave evidence against the Maid and against fellow Observants, Friars Hugh Rich and Richard Risby. Laurence then requested to be named to one of the posts left vacant by their imprisonment. She was condemned by an bill of attainder (25 Henry VIII, c. 12); an Act of Parliament authorising punishment without trial.
She, along with five of her chief supporters, four of whom were priests, including Risby and Edward Bocking were hanged and beheaded for treason at Tyburn. She was buried at Greyfriars Church in Newgate, but her head was put on a spike on London Bridge, the only woman in history accorded that dishonour.
Churches such as the Anglican Catholic Church of St Augustine of Canterbury continue to venerate her.
Her case is dealt with extensively in the 2009 historical novel Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel, and in its TV adaptation, where she is played by Aimee-Ffion Edwards.
In A Man for all Seasons, she is referred to, in an interrogation of Thomas More, as having been executed. In fact, Barton was executed about 15 months before More.