1534: Elizabeth Barton, the Holy Maid of Kent

2 comments April 20th, 2011 Headsman

On this date in 1534, Elizabeth Barton was hanged at Tyburn with her “conspirators” for having prophesied the death of Henry VIII and (in the words of the parliamentary attainder against them) “traterously attempted many notable actes intendyng therbye the disturbaunce of the pease and tranquyllytie of this Realm.”

A country servant-girl, this Elizabeth Barton had begun having divine visions around Easter 1525, and developed a popular following for her gift of prophecy, generally delivered during spooky (perhaps epileptic) fits and trances.

This was all just fine with everyone, since King Henry was still a good Catholic at the time; Barton took orders in the St. Sepulchre Nunnery and continued her career in the seer business.

Elizabeth Barton wasn’t going to leave her place in Henrician England … but to paraphrase Ronald Reagan, Henrician England was about to leave her.

And like so many entries that age has given this site, it all went back to Henry’s leaving his first queen, Catherine of Aragon.

If one likes to see in the prophetic tradition a refracted expression of popular sentiment, speaking a religious rather than a political language, Elizabeth Barton’s divine gift set her up to be the mystical exponent of the English populace’s visceral reaction against Henry’s ascending paramour, Anne Boleyn.

Rather rashly, Barton began publicly warning her sovereign against his bedchamber gambit, threatening that if the proposed Boleyn union should come to pass, he “should no longer be King of this realm…and should die a villain’s death.”

That would be compassing the death of the king — which is treason.

Barton articulated a fear of Henry’s policies which was shared by many of his subjects. The anticipated breach with Rome made the citizens of England insecure about the future stability of the realm, and prognostications concerning the state of the country abounded. Barton was not alone in foretelling that wars and plagues would soon rack the country; or in prophesying that the King would be overthrown, that his death was imminent, that he would die as a villain. Many people were discussing such prophecies, by means of which they could “objectify their fears and hopes” in an age of change and disruption.

-Diane Watt, “Reconstructing the Word: the Political Prophecies of Elizabeth Barton (1506-1534)”, Renaissance Quarterly, Spring 1997

So it’s probably only fitting that this creature of her times would be devoured by the Tudor state which made its Reformation from the top.

Devoured, not only bodily.

As the Tudor king breaks with Rome, Barton becomes almost totally obscure to us, the real person who dared to stand openly against her king subsumed entirely by the edifice of state propaganda. As Watt observes, “as a result of her fate … almost all the first-hand evidence concerning Barton’s life and revelations has been destroyed” and “the surviving image of her has therefore been shaped by those who suppressed her visions and prophecies.”

We have her mystical utterances mostly indirectly, through the interlocutors charged with refuting her, and we have the expedient charges against her of fraud, contumacy, and (of course) sexual indiscretion leveled by her foes.


“The Imposture of the Holy Maid of Kent”

Arrested with a circle of supporters, Barton was forced into a public recantation in November 1533 by her persecutors. One supposes such a recantation was in any event obtained under some duress; undoubtedly it was, as the disgusted Spanish ambassador recorded, staged “to blot out from people’s minds the impression they have that the Nun is a saint and a prophet.” (Cited by Watt)

If said duress included an easing of the charges against herself or her associates, Barton was to be disappointed.

She was attainted for treason* in January (the evidence against her being insufficient for a judicial verdict of treason); the bill of attainder also required the public to hand over any writings about her alleged prophecies or revelations, like the popular pamphlets that had circulated with official approval in the 1520’s: there would be nothing to nurture a people’s cult for this exponent of resistance. Over the decades to come, the early writings sympathetic (and proximate) to Barton would be almost completely annihilated, supplanted by Protestant works that rendered Barton a trickster, a puppet, a sham — magnified her retraction into the definitive statement. It was a propaganda victory almost as chilling as Barton’s corporeal fate: even her potentially sympathetic Catholic audiences can latterly make no reliable judgment about her.

And so Barton moulders.

In April 1534, the usurping consort once more apparently pregnant with Henry’s long-sought heir, the once-popular, now-deflated prophetess of the old queen and the old faith was emblematically put to death with her former adherents on a most significant day in the city of London.

[T]his day the Nun of Kent, with two Friars Observant, two monks and one secular priest, were drawn from the Tower to Tyburn, and there hanged and headed. God, if it be his pleasure, have mercy on their souls. Also this day the most part of this City are sworn to the king and his legitimate issue by the Queen’s Grace now had and hereafter to come, and so shall all the realm over be sworn in like manner.

-Letter from John Husee to Lord Lisle, April 20, 1534 (Source)

We trust everybody got the message.

But in case anyone missed the point, there would be plentiful reminders still to come.

* Chancellor Thomas More had some traffic with Barton — very cautious, as befits a skeptical elite’s approach to a loose cannon commoner — and was briefly in some danger of being named in the indictment against her. When his loyal daughter Meg joyously reported to him that he’d been cleared, he’s supposed to have replied, “In faith, Meg, ‘quod differtur non aufertur’, what is put off is not put away.” But it probably didn’t require heavenly foresight for More to perceive the wheel of fortune about to turn on him, too. By the time of Barton’s actual execution, More had already been clapped in the Tower himself.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 16th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Diminished Capacity,England,Execution,God,Hanged,History,Martyrs,Mass Executions,Notable for their Victims,Power,Public Executions,Religious Figures,Treason,Women

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1534: Barthélemi Milon, for the Affair of the Placards

3 comments November 13th, 2009 Headsman

On this date* in 1534, a crippled shoemaker’s son went to the stake … the harbinger of many a pyre that would swallow many a French soul in the internecine struggle over religion that lay ahead.

A relatively chilled-out start to the Protestant Reformation under the tolerant King Francis I had the moderate reformers thinking go-along, get-along.

But churchbound Frenchmen and -women on Sunday, Oct. 18 in Paris and a number of towns around France found that someone had engineered the simultaneous posting of incendiary anti-Catholic placards denouncing the “idolatrous rite” of mass. In an ominous breach of security, one was even left outside the monarch’s own bedchamber.

The Affaire des Placards was a public relations master stroke by any standard … and it got Catholic France up in arms against the heretics in its midst. Overnight, every evangelical had become a terrorist.

[R]umors spread like wildfire throughout the city. Some said that the heretics were going to burn down the churches and massacre the faithful during mass; others that the Louvre would be sacked. Foreigners, especially those who spoke German, were targeted by frightened Parisians, and a Flemish merchant was lynched by a mob.

Many with the means and the prudence fled; it was this event drove John Calvin from Paris to Switzerland, there to root out heresies of his own.

Those that stayed saw several of their number burn.

Milon (didactic French link), paralyzed from the waist down, was the first. He had been found with the treasonable poster in his possession.

As the martyrology filled in the years ahead and France hurtled towards the Wars of Religion that would shape the 16th century, the Affair of the Placards in retrospect came to mark** a decisive turning point for the House of Valois towards an ultimately self-defeating violent repression of Protestantism.

This affair in the context of its time is treated in the free (and Protestant) History of the rise of the Huguenots of France.

* Some sources (this one French) give November 12 as Milon’s execution date.

** Perhaps somewhat glibly; the state’s wavering policies on the day’s religious conflict tracked the everyday vicissitudes of statecraft — competing factions in the court; competing geopolitical priorities abroad.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 16th Century,Burned,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,France,God,Heresy,History,Innocent Bystanders,Public Executions

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