Extraordinary Women of the Medieval and Renaissance World: A Biographical Dictionary

By Carole Levin; Debra Barrett-Graves et al. | Go to book overview

ELIZABETH BARTON
(ca. 1506-1534)

Britain
Visionary and Martyr

Elizabeth Barton was a servant in the household of Thomas Cobb, steward of estates near the village of Aldington owned by William Warham, Archbishop of Canterbury. When she was about sixteen years old, Elizabeth claimed to have experienced visions during an illness in which she communicated with the Virgin. Her pastor, Father Richard Masters, supported her claims and reported the events to the Archbishop. Warham established a commission of inquiry into the matter, and Benedictine monk Dr. Edward Bocking headed the commission and reported back favorably. As a result, Elizabeth entered the Benedictine convent at Saint Sepulchre convent near Canterbury. All of this occurred before the end of 1526, and Elizabeth spent the next eight years at the nunnery, experiencing mystical trances and special revelations. She was highly and respectfully regarded by eminent Renaissance figures such as Sir Thomas More, Bishop John Fisher of Rochester, and Warham.

England before the Reformation was a society where the popularity of religious cults, shrines, and holy men and women cannot be overestimated. As a nun at Saint Sepulchre's, Elizabeth Barton exercised what amounted to a female ministry, preaching and calling sinners to penance and, in some cases, recalling in detail the particular sins of those who approached her. Such visionary figures were not altogether unusual in sixteenth-century Europe, and their importance was not diminished during the early stages of the Protestant Reformation.

Elizabeth is recalled today because of her utterances on the subject of King Henry VIII's marital affairs; had her prophecies not turned to politics, there is little doubt that she would have been left in peace. When Henry first indicated doubts about the validity of his marriage to Catherine of Aragon in 1527, Elizabeth voiced her opposition to Henry's position. She was by no means alone in this respect; indeed, the king had consulted a number of public authorities and professed

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