The Holy Maid of Kent

 Compiled by Steven Connor as part of The Dumbstruck Archive, a continuing, online supplement to Dumbstruck: A Cultural History of Ventriloquism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000).
In Easter 1525, a servant girl named Elizabeth Barton fell ill in the house of her master in the Kent village of Aldington. After suffering for seven months with pains, swelling of the throat and trance-like fits of immobility, she began to have clairvoyant visions of events occurring far distant, along with visions of souls in the afterlife. She also gave voice to oracular revelations concerning the mass and confession. Her celebrity reached the ears of Archbishop Warham in Canterbury, who sent an episcopal commission to investigate her. After this commission concluded that she was neither unorthodox, nor a dissembler, she was carried in triumph to the chapel of Court-le-Street, where she had a convulsive prophetic fit and was miraculously cured of her condition. The only description we have of the events in the chapel is that of Thomas Cranmer, who, as the successor to Warham as Archbishop of Canterbury, was in charge of the much more serious legal investigations which were to be undertaken in 1532-3 of the woman who had by then became known as the Holy Maid of Kent. It is contained in a letter written by Cranmer on December 20th 1533 to Archdeacon Hawkins: 
    When she was brought thither and laid before the image of our Lady, her face was wonderfully disfigured, her tongue hanging out and her eyes being in a manner plucked out and laid upon her cheeks: and so, greatly disordered. 

    Then there was a voice heard speaking within her belly, as it had been in a tun, her lips not greatly moving; she all that while continuing by the space of three hours in a trance. 

    The which voice, when it told anything of the joys of heaven, it spake so sweetly and heavenly that every man was ravished with the hearing thereof. And contrary, when it told anything of hell, it spake so horribly and terribly that it put the hearers in a great fear. [H. Jenkyns, Remains of Thomas Cranmer (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1833), letter lxxxiv.]

Thomas Cranmer's description may draw upon a pamphlet about the case known to have been written by one Edward Thwaites. But this pamphlet does not survive in its entirety, being known to us only in the portions which are preserved in William Lambard's Perambulation of Kent of 1576, which do not contain the descriptions given by Cranmer. Although Thwaites refers some of Elizabeth Barton's utterances to `the voice that spake in her', there is no hint of ventriloquial speech in the way in which Lambard, following Thwaites, reports the scene in the chapel described by Cranmer: he reports only that `there fell she eftsones into a marueilous passion before the Image of our Lady, muche like a body diseased of the falling Euill, in the whiche she uttered, sundrye metricall and ryming speaches'. [William Lambard, A Perambulation of Kent, containing the description, Hystorie, and Customes of the Shyre... (London: H. Middleton, for R. Newberie, 1576), pp. 151, 152.] 

After her miraculous cure, Elizabeth Barton became a nun in the nearby Benedictine convent of St. Sepulchre's. There, her trances and revelations intensified. Although her revelations were theologically quite orthodox, her emphasis upon the sacraments of the mass and of confession irritated those associated with the growing movements of reformist thinking in the English Church. She might nevertheless have continued with her prophecies in relative peace and security until her death had she not chosen to turn her attention to political matters. Early in 1527, Henry VIII announced his intention of divorcing his first wife, Catherine of Aragon, who had failed to provide him with a male heir, and of marrying Anne Boleyn. Extraordinarily, Elizabeth Barton managed to secure an audience with the King in 1528, at which she delivered to him a warning received from an angel of the terrible consequences of putting aside his wife. She continued to issue these warnings during the four years of negotiations between the King's agents and the Pope regarding the divorce and remarriage. Perhaps most damagingly for her case, she gathered around her a circle of friends and supporters, which, in the highly charged political atmosphere of the early 1530s, began to make her utterances seem more like conspiracy than excess of piety. After the King had married Anne Boleyn in 1533, and the Protestant Thomas Cranmer had been appointed successor to Archbishop Warham, Elizabeth Barton was arrested along with a number of her associates. She confessed almost straight away to counterfeiting her visions and revelations and was condemned, after the case against her had been elaborately prepared and publicised, to be hanged, along with a number of her supporters. The sentence was carried out in 1534. 

Further Reading
J.R. McKee, Dame Elizabeth Barton, O.S.B., the Holy Maid of Kent (London: Burns, Oates & Co., 1925)
Alan Neame, The Holy Maid of Kent: The Life of Elizabeth Barton, 1506-1534 (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1971)
Steven Connor, Dumbstruck: A Cultural History of Ventriloquism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000), pp. 116-19, 121