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Excerpts, Part 15: The Nun of Kent

Henry decided to curb Fisher once and for all by bringing up his dealings with a servant maid named Elizabeth Barton, the so-called Nun of Kent. She was born in 1506 and was under thirty years old at her execution. The poor young woman was subject to fits and frequently gave utterance to incoherent outbursts which were ignorantly attributed to a preternatural agency. By an alleged command of the Blessed Virgin, she became a nun at the age of sixteen in the Benedictine house of St. Sepulchre, in Canterbury, but was allowed to leave her convent from time to time when she would visit prominent people to tell them of the revelations that she had received. Elizabeth became known as the Nun or the Holy Maid of Kent. She had made pronouncements unfavourable to the King's Great Matter while purporting to be in a state of ecstasy, one of them being that if the king divorced Catherine he would die within a month and be succeeded by his daughter Mary. In September 1533 Elizabeth Barton was imprisoned in London, together with her confessor and another priest. Cranmer interrogated them several times. Confessions of treason were extracted from them by torture, and a list of those allegedly implicated with her was drawn up. Barton was executed at Tyburn on 21 April 1534 together with six of her alleged accomplices, two Benedictines, two Franciscans, and two secular priests.
Cranmer claimed that certain important and well-known people were implicated during his interrogations. By an interesting coincidence they included prominent defenders of Queen Catherine, with Fisher first upon the list. An attempt was made to implicate the queen herself: but as Catherine had consistently refused to see Barton and had not exchanged so much as a single word with her this attempt proved to be a complete fiasco. The Bishop of Rochester had interrogated Barton, but had not reported the proceedings to the king, a fact which Henry claimed constituted treason. In January 1534 a special bill of attainder against the Bishop of Rochester and others for complicity in the matter of the Nun of Kent was drafted. 60 It was introduced in Parliament on 21 February. Sir Thomas More was included, but he quickly stripped the case against him of any credibility, and with great reluctance the king allowed his name to be removed from the indictment. The text of John Fisher's indictment reads:

And the said John Fisher, Bishop of Rochester . . . having knowledge of the said false and feigned and dissembled revelations, traitorously conspired against our said sovereign lord, did nevertheless make concealment thereof; and uttered not the same to our said sovereign, nor any of his honourable council, against their duties and allegiance in that behalf.

Thomas Cromwell summoned Fisher to London to answer the charges. 61 The bishop replied to Cromwell asking to have his appearance postponed due to the appalling state of his health.

Master Cromwell,
After my right humble commendations, I beseech you to have some pity of me, considering the case and condition that I am in; and I doubt not if ye might see in what plight that I am, ye would have some pity upon me. For in goodsooth, now almost six weeks I have had a grievous cough, with a fever in the beginning thereof; as divers others here in this country hath had, and divers have died thereof. And now the matter is fallen down into my legs and feet with such swelling and ache that I may neither ride nor go, for the which I beseech you eftsoons to have some pity upon me and to spare me for a season, to the end the swelling and aches of my legs and feet may assuage and abate; and then by grace of Our Lord, I shall with all speed obey your commandment Thus fare ye well.

At Rochester the 28 day of January,
By your faithful beadman, 62

Henry must certainly have seen the letter, and realized the extent of Fisher's infirmity, to which the bishop referred once more in a letter to Henry dated 27 February 1534. The king was certainly aware that the remaining life of the saintly prelate was more likely to be measured in months than in years, but, unlike Wolsey, Fisher had not disregarded his godly duty in order to satisfy the vain pleasures of his king, and where Henry was concerned this was an offence for which no suffering and no punishment could adequately compensate. How anyone with a vestige of Christian compassion could have treated Fisher as Henry did would have defied belief had not the king shown similar malice to all those who called into question his merest whim. Fisher began by apologizing once more for the fact that his poor health precluded a journey to London at that time, and stated in his defence that although the nun has visited him three times, but not at his invitation, she assured him that everything she said in his presence she had already communicated to Henry when he had received her, and so he did not deem it necessary to communicate to the king what he already knew. There is some wry humour in the bishop's remark that he was sure that Henry would not wish him to endanger his life by making the journey to London.

To the King's Most Gracious Highness,
Please it your gracious highness, benignly to hear this my most humble suit, which I have to make unto your grace this time,. and to pardon me that I come not myself unto your grace for the same. For, in good faith, I have had so many perilous diseases, one after another, which began with me before Advent and so by long continuance hath now brought my body into that weak- ness, that without peril of the destruction of the same (which I dare say your grace for your sovereign goodness would not), I may not as yet take any travelling upon me. And so I wrote to Master Cromwell, your most trusty counsellor, beseeching him to obtain your gracious licence for me to be absent from this Parliament, for that same cause, and he put me in comfort so to do.

Now, thus it is (most gracious sovereign lord), that in your most high court of Parliament is put in a bill against me, concerning the nun of Canterbury; and intending my condemnation for not revealing of such words as she said unto me touching your highness. Wherein I most humbly beseech your grace, that without displeasure I may show unto you the consideration that moved me so to do, which, when your most excellent wisdom hath deeply considered, I trust assuredly that your charitable goodness will not impute any blame to me therefore.

A truth it is, this nun was with me thrice in coming from London by Rochester, as I wrote to Master Cromwell, and showed unto him the occasions of her coming, and of my sendings until her again. The first time she came unto my house, unsent for of my part, and then she told me that she had been with your grace, and that she had shown unto you a revelation which she had from Almighty God (your grace, I hope, will not be displeased with this my rehearsal thereof); she said that if your grace went forth with the purpose that ye intended, ye should not be King of England seven months after. I conceived not by these words, I take it upon my soul, that any malice or evil was intended or meant unto your highness, by any mortal man, but only that they were the threats of God, as she did then affirm. And though they were feigned, that (as I would be saved) was to me unknown. I never counselled her unto that feigning, nor was privy thereunto, nor to any such purposes, as it is now said they went about.
Nevertheless, if she had told me this revelation, and had not also told me that she had reported the same unto your grace, I had been verily far to blame, and worthy extreme punishment. for not disclosing the same unto your highness, or else to some of your council. But since she did assure me therewith, that she had plainly told unto your grace the same thing, I thought doubtless that your grace would have suspected me that I had come in to renew her tale again unto you, rather for the confirming of my opinion than for any other cause . . .

I trust now that your excellent wisdom and learning seeth there is in me no default for not revealing of her words unto your grace, when she herself did affirm unto me that she had so done, and my Lord of Canterbury, that then was, confirmed also the same.

Wherefore, most gracious sovereign lord, in my most humble wise, I beseech your highness to dismiss me of this trouble, whereby I shall the more quietly serve God, and the more effectually pray for your grace. This, if there were a right great offence in me, should be to your merit to pardon, but much rather, taking the case as it is, I trust verily you will do so.

Now, my body is much weakened with many diseases and infirmities, and my soul is much inquieted by this trouble, so that my heart is more withdrawn from God, and from the devotion of prayer that I would. And verily, I think that my life may not long continue. Wherefore, eftsoons, I beseech your most gracious highness, that by your charitable goodness I may be delivered of this business, and only to prepare my soul to God, and to make it ready against the coming of death, and no more to come abroad in the world. This, most gracious sovereign lord, I beseech your highness, by all the singular and excellent endowments of your most noble body and soul, and for the love of Christ Jesus, that so dearly with His most precious Blood redeemed your soul and mine. And during my life I shall not cease (as I am bound), and yet now the more entirely, to make my prayer to God for the preservation of your most royal majesty.

At Rochester, the 27th day of February.
Your most humble beadman and subject JO. ROFFS.

There was obviously no treason involved, but nonetheless the bill was passed in the House of Commons and the House of Lords, and received the royal assent on 30 March, the last day of that session of Parliament. Fisher and four others were condemned for misprision of treason. 63 The terms of the Act included the following:

In consideration of which premises . . . be it enacted . . . that John Bishop of Rochester (and others). shall be convict and attainted of misprision and concealment of treason, as persons that have given such credit, counsel, and constant belief to the said principal offenders (those attainted of treason) whereby they have taken courage and boldness to commit their said detestable treasons and offences. And that the said Bishop of Rochester (and others) shall suffer imprisonment of their bodies at the king's will, and forfeit to the king's highness all their goods, chattels, and debts (due to them) which they had on 16th January or at any time since the said day.

It must be more than a coincidence that the royal assent to an act which condemned Fisher for an offence of which he was manifestly innocent came only one week after the pope had published his final decree affirming that the marriage between Henry and Catherine was valid. In a consistory held on 23 March 1534 nineteen of twenty-two cardinals has decided for the validity of the marriage with Catherine. Clement accepted, with no little reluctance, that he could prevaricate no longer. A definitive sentence was pronounced declaring that the marriage between Henry and Catherine was lawful and valid, condemning the proceedings against the queen as unjust, and ordering Henry to take her back as his legitimate wife. In a letter to the Emperor Charles V, Chapuys, the imperial ambassador, had no doubt that it was the bishop's support for Catherine that lay behind his condemnation:

The good Bishop of Rochester, who is the paragon of Christian prelates, both for learning and holiness, has been condemned to confiscation of body and goods. All this injustice is in consequence of his support of the queen.

In the case of Fisher, Henry commuted the sentence to a fine of £300, an entire year's income from his see of Rochester. The king knew that, as was proved to be the case, Fisher's goods would be of little value, and in any case it was the bishop's life that Henry sought .

60. An act of attainder was a parliamentary declaration that a named individual (or individuals) was guilty of treason without having to go through the normal legal processes. The word is derived from the Anglo-Norman attaindre, to convict. Those convicted lost all civil rights and their property was forfeited to the crown. The avoidance of public trials made these acts useful in destroying politically embarrassing figures. The king could, of course, commute the sentence.
61. In 1533 Henry had appointed Cromwell, a layman, the son of a blacksmith, who had not graduated at any university, as the Secretary of State. Cromwell had entered the service of Wolsey in 1514 and that of the king in 1530, soon becoming his principal adviser. In 1535 Henry appointed him "the royal viceregerent, vicar-general, and principal commissary, with all the spiritual authority belonging to the king as head of the church, for the due administration of justice in all cases touching the ecclesiastical jurisdiction, and godly reformation and redress of all errors, heresies, and abuses in the said Church." Cromwell promised that he would make Henry the richest prince in Christendom. He did this by pillaging the Church, but the richest prince had not the least compunction about sending his Vicar-General to the scaffold in 1540 when he felt that Cromwell had failed him.
62. Beadman, a man who accepted a duty of praying for another. "Bead" is derived from the Middle English "bede", a prayer. A "bede-roll" was a list of persons to be prayed for. The word "bead", as applied to the the small spherical objects making up the rosary, is derived from it as a "bede" was said while holding or "telling" each of them. The word later came to be used with reference to an ordinary necklace.
63. Misprision (from the French mepris [contempt]) is the failure of one who, although not an accessory to an act of treason, fails to inform the government or the monarch of treason when it comes to his knowledge.


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