Posted on: July 16, 2015

King Henry VIII may have been our most memorable monarch, but living under his regime must have been a decidedly tense experience at times.  The wrong word out of place, a little slip of the tongue, and you could find yourself banged up in the Tower of London, awaiting death by beheading / hanging, drawing and quartering / burning at the stake / or even being boiled to death in an oversized kettle.  But some people really didn’t seem to help themselves, and Elizabeth Barton was one of them.

Elizabeth was a maidservant, engaged in a household at Aldington, Kent, who claimed to have the gift of prophecy.  At the age of 18 she became ill, and claimed to have received divine intuition, a bit like Joan of Arc.  Some of her predictions, such as that of the death of a child in the household where she worked, became true.  People became so convinced by her special powers that William Fisher, the Bishop of Rochester, made arrangements for her to be accepted into the Benedictine Nunnery at Canterbury.  After all, she had already earned the nickname of the “Holy Maid Of Kent”.  All this would have been fine if Elizabeth had stayed as a harmless eccentric, (and at first that was how the King regarded her), but she made the grave mistake of interfering in the politics of the day, and committing one of the most fatal mistakes of the Tudor era … telling the King what he didn’t want to hear.

Feelings were running high in England in the 1520s.  It was the time of The King’s Secret Matter, and his plans to put aside his longstanding wife, Queen Katherine of Aragon, and replace her with the dark-eyed temptress, Anne Boleyn.  Henry was desperate to get his wish of a divorce from Katherine, and many people would come to meet their martyrdom when they disagreed with him on a point of faith.  The Nun of Kent was to be one of them.  To put it bluntly, Elizabeth took to shouting her mouth off about Henry’s plans, and even predicted that he would “die a villain’s death” within a month, if he married Anne.

To even mention – let alone predict – the death of the King was a matter of High Treason in those days.  It didn’t help that Elizabeth’s detractors spread scurrilous rumours about her, such as that she was insane, and that she had sexual relationships with priests.  So in June 1533, when a newly-crowned Anne Boleyn was pregnant with the future Queen Elizabeth I, the Nun of Kent was arrested and carted off to the Tower of London.  Although she did public penance by renouncing her predictions, there was a lot of public feeling on her side, from people who wanted to see the Catholic faith remain unchallenged as the primary religion in England.

Over the course of the next couple of years, many people would die for refusing to accept Henry as the Head of the Church in England, including Elizabeth’s old supporter, Bishop Fisher.  On 20 April 1534, Elizabeth was taken (without trial) to Tyburn, and hanged in front of a huge crowd.  Probably in order that no one else should get any bright ideas about taking to prophecy, she was also decapitated, and her head stuck on London Bridge, the only woman to meet such a grim fate.  There, it was said, her long dark hair hung over her pale face, to serve as a dreadful warning to all.

As for her prediction about Henry dying a month after marrying Anne, well of course she was way out on that one.  Henry had married Anne in secret in January 1533.  Anne met her untimely end on the scaffold in May 1536, and Henry went on to marry another 4 times.  He himself died in his bed in January 1547, a full 14 years after his wedding to Anne.  BUT there is one prophecy where Elizabeth may have been correct.  She was said to have made the macabre prophecy that, on his death, dogs would lick the King’s blood.  As the obese corpse of Henry was lying, waiting for burial, his wooden coffin burst open, and a dog licked the blood that seeped out.



The thought of King Henry’s putrefacting body “exploding” from the coffin is not something that you would want to remember.

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