Sister Barton did not know when to leave well enough alone and in 1532, she vocally started opposing the King’s plans to annul his marriage to Catherine. Whether she truly believed she was relaying the Virgin Marys opinion or whether it was her own opinion, or that of Bocking, her statements concerning Henrys breaking with the church proved to be her downfall. And as Joan of Arc believed she was an emissary from G*d to save France, so Elizabeth Barton believed she was going to save England from the heretics and heathens
She made a peculiar statement that while Henry was in France attending mass with King Francis in 1532, she was there in spirit to receive the communion host from the Virgin Mary who would not give it to Henry because “he was in a state of sin.” She continued by declaring to all and sundry that if Henry divorces his legal wife, Catherine, then he would lose his kingdom and immediately die a villain’s death and that Mary, his Catholic daughter by Catherine of Aragon would rule England. Elizabeth Barton even claimed that she had “seen the very place in hell” where Henry would go.
“Abominable heresies, impious innovations!… King of England, beware that you touch not the power of the Holy Father… Root out the new doctrines… Burn all over your kingdom the New Testament in the vulgar tongue. Henry, forsake Anne Boleyn and take back your wife Catherine… If you neglect these things, you shall not be King longer than a month, and in God’s eyes you will not be so even for an hour. You shall die the death of a villain, and Mary, the daughter of Catherine, shall wear your crown’
Now Henry at the best of times was a spectacularly suspicious man so this must have hit home.
Not only was he in the process of being excommunicate by the Catholic Church, which meant that if he died, his immortal soul would be in jeopardy but in addition, these utterances were affecting his popularity. Here was Henry, being accused by a popular Catholic nun, who was clearly opposing the English Reformation while he was trying to convince England to forego the Catholic Church, while at the same time forsaking his godly Catholic wife in favour of a Reformist Usurper, Anne Boleyn. Moreover, she was pointing fingers claiming that if this divorce was to proceed, then he would die and a Catholic Queen would rule in his stead and that would be over his dead body (which did come to pass but that’s another story)
In addition, the mere fact that Elizabeth was prophesising his death was tantamount to treason as promulgated by the Treason Act of 1351
[On a side note: The Treason act, which is still in force today, consists of,
- Levying war against the sovereign in the realm
- Adhering to the sovereign’s enemies, giving them aid and comfort
- Killing the king”s chancellor, treasurer or justices
- Do maliciously wish, will or desire by words or writing, or by craft imagine, invent, practise, or attempt any bodily harm to be done or committed to the king’s most royal person, the queen’s or the heirs apparent, or to deprive them of any of their dignity, title or name of their royal estates, or slanderously and maliciously publish and pronounce, by express writing or words, that the king should be heretic, schismatic, tyrant, infidel or usurper of the crown
- Compassing (scheming or plotting) or imagining the death of the sovereign, or of the sovereign’s wife or eldest child and heir
- Violating the sovereign’s wife, or the sovereign’s eldest unmarried daughter, or the sovereign’s eldest son’s wife (only if the eldest son is also heir to the throne) *
* Apparently and according to this Act, it was ok to violate all the other kids in the family]
Thomas More wrote to Elizabeth in 1533 warning her about the danger she faced if she continued discussing “princes’ affairs” or the “state of the realm” with anybody but she took no head and she was finally arrested a year later and this was due to a calculating plot on Henry’s part. Henry was biding his time and waiting for an opportune moment.
If the King’s men just arrested this nun for speaking her mind (which most of the populace were thinking at the time), they might have recoiled against the idea of leaving the Catholic Church and would definitely turn against Henry. The only way to resolve this problem was to turn the tables on her so the King’s agents started spreading rumours that Elizabeth, the pious nun was engaging in sexual relations with the Priests and Monks at the Priory. The more men implicated in the plot, the merrier; and naturally, it makes sense that the King, the defender of the faith, should put a stop to such shenanigans. When she was finally arrested on these trumped up charges in November 1533, two monks, two friars and a priest were dragged into the sorry tale with her and all imprisoned in the Tower of London
When Elizabeth Barton realised the serious trouble they were all in; she tried to get the others acquitted by claiming that she alone caused all the mischief and that she was merely “feigning her trances” and that all her revelations were fabricated and “that she never had vision in all her life, but all that ever she said was feigned of her own imagination, only to satisfy the minds of them the which resorted unto her, and to obtain worldly praise”
She even tried to absolve the monk, Edward Bocking, who had craftily coached her regarding politics and world affairs, although his role was somewhat more politically significant. He had previously published 700 copies of a book he put together detailing her revelations including those pertaining to the King but when Thomas Cromwell got wind of this, all the copies were confiscated and destroyed so he was already on their watch list. In all fairness, Bocking was probably just trying to preserve the Catholic faith through his coaching of Elizabeth and publication of her prophesise but his zealous behaviour cannot be excused because it led to the death of (the misguided) Elizabeth Barton and numerous other innocent victims
For a while, it was thought that all that would be required was for the individuals involved in the “treason conspiracy” to do public penance, but it did not satisfy the King to see them humiliated. No, they all had to die, as an example had to be set and it was the beginning of many such examples
So without further ado, they were all condemned to die under the Attainder Act
A Bill or Act of attainder is a devious piece of legislature declaring that a person or group of persons found guilty of a crime, such as treason, could be punished without a trial. The effect of this bill is to nullify the accused’s civil rights, including the right to life itself but most notably, the person would lose the right to own property, which would then pass onto the Crown and not to the remaining family members.
This resulted in the execution of a number of distinguished historical figures and was a great way to get rid of influential or political stirrers and take their property at the same time, leaving the remaining family destitute and without title or means to contest the king. Unsurprisingly, this was open to all sorts of abuse including the violation of the accused’s legal rights
This Act may have directly contributed to Friar William Peto making the famous Ahab sermon during a Church Service Henry attended earlier in 1532 (See part 3)
Other historical figures who died under the Attainder Act during Henry’s reign was his close friend, Thomas Cromwell (whose death Henry would regret for the rest of his life), Margaret Pole, Countess of Salisbury, who had royal Plantagenet blood and who was a real contender for the throne, as well as being Godmother to his daughter Mary. And finally another notable, Henry’s fifth wife, Catherine Howard for her alleged infidelity
[On a side note: More than a century later, in 1688, when King James II went to Ireland to reclaim his throne, the Irish Parliament issued a Bill of Attainder against approximately 2500 people “reportedly disloyal” to King James. It was open season on everybody who was disliked by anybody else climbing the social ladder. These, mostly innocent folk were put to death with no trial and their lands confiscated. No problem with that so far. However, one man on this list was a William Stewart, (Lord Mountjoy) currently holed up in the Bastille in Paris. Louis XIV had converted this fortress into a prison for upper-class members of French society who had opposed, annoyed or angered him. However, upon hearing of Lord Mountjoy’s interment and his inability to travel back to Ireland for execution, the Irish Parliament instructed him to break out of jail and make his way back to Ireland post haste to face the treason charges or he would face the gruesome process of being drawn and quartered for disobeying the Kings orders. Wisely, he declined]
On the 20th of April 1534, after making full confessions in public in and around England erroneously thinking it was spare them, Elizabeth Barton and her co-accused were transported from the Tower of London to Tyburn, where they were hanged by the neck and then beheaded. Their severed heads were boiled to preserve them and then set on spikes placed along London Bridge as a warning to others for daring to offend the King. A great and uncontested way of getting rid of political or religious agitators
Elizabeth Barton was the only woman in history to have her head removed from her body and mounted on a spike
End of Part 2