CHAPTER IX. HENRY VIII (v), 1533-40 - MALLEUS MONACHORUM

The prevailing superstitions of the day and their reality as factors even in public life are curiously illustrated by the story of the "Nun of Kent" - a story concluded by her execution about this time. The "Nun" was a young woman named Elizabeth Barton of humble birth, who was subject to fits or trances, presumably epileptic in character, in which trances she gave vent to utterances which were supposed to be inspired, being generally religious in their bearing. Having acquired some notoriety and a reputation for sanctity, her prophesyings before long took the form of denunciation of the divorce, at that time in its earlier stages. She was exploited by sundry fanatical persons honest or otherwise - in such cases it is seldom possible to fathom the extent to which mania, intentional deception, conscious or unconscious suggestion, and mere credulity, are mingled. In those days, there were few people who would venture to attribute such phenomena to purely natural causes. Such a man as Thomas More, who was eminently rational as well as deeply religious, was not easily beguiled; but the more credulous and equally honest bishop of Rochester was unable to regard the prophesyings as mere imposture, as was also the case with Warham; and being thus countenanced, when the Nun's utterances reached the point of denouncing the wrath of Heaven upon those who consented to the Divorce, she became really dangerous. She and her associates were charged with treason and executed, while Fisher was necessarily to some degree implicated. Before her death the Nun made a confession of elaborate imposture, but too much weight should not be attached to confessions made under such conditions. Given a certain degree of mental aberration, the case is not without parallels pointing to an absence of conscious fraud. But whether in her case it was fraud or mania, the important fact remains that there were numbers of people who attributed her utterances neither to the one nor the other but to inspiration; numbers more who were in doubt on the point; and that those utterances were to some extent utilised in a seditious propaganda; for to declare as a message from on high that the King and his advisers had brought upon themselves the curse of the Almighty must be recognised as effectively, even if not intentionally, preaching sedition.

[Sidenote 1: The Act of Succession] [Sidenote 2: The oath refused]

The proceedings against Elizabeth Barton had been accompanied by revelations of more or less suspicious conduct on the part of the Countess of Salisbury and of Poles, [Footnote: The Countess of Salisbury's children. The de la Poles were now extinct. The Nevilles were the Countess's kinsfolk, her mother having been a daughter of the Kingmaker. See Front.] Courtenays and Nevilles, while the Princess Mary declined to regard herself as illegitimate. This was made the pretext for adopting a very irregular course in connexion with the Act of Succession. The Act not only established the order of Succession to the throne, but in the preamble asserted the invalidity of Katharine's marriage, it was accompanied by an authority to exact an oath of obedience to the Statute, the form of the oath not being laid down. Commissioners were appointed to exact the oath, which was drawn up in a form accepting the entire terms of the Act, not merely promising adhesion to its provisions. Presented to them in this form, both More and Fisher refused to take the oath. Both were prepared to swear to maintain the succession as laid down; neither would avow a belief that the marriage with Katharine was void ab initio. More laid down definitely the doctrine that it was in the power of the State to determine the succession, and the duty of the citizen to accept its decision; but that obviously does not involve an opinion that the reasons for its decision are sound. Cranmer would fain have persuaded the King to accept the oath thus modified as sufficient - not realising that the primary object of Henry and Cromwell was to drive the opponents of the divorce into a public recantation of their opinion. More and Fisher were resolute, and were sent to the Tower, though in form an indictment ought first to have been brought against them in the courts. Cromwell expressed and no doubt felt a very genuine regret at the failure of the plan; but it was ever Cromwell's method to strike at the most influential opponents of his policy. If they would bend, well: if not, they must break. The device of the oath would force the surrender or else the destruction of the best members of the high Catholic party. Three of the most zealous and most irreproachable monastic establishments - the London Carthusians, the Richmond Observants, and the Brentford Brigittines - were inveigled or cowed into temporary submission, but later reverted to the position of More and Fisher, and suffered accordingly. The Greenwich Observants refused submission altogether, and were dissolved.

["The Bishop of Rome"]

Before the administration of the oath, the news of Clement's decision had come from Rome, with a Bull of Excommunication to follow. It was well for Henry that Francis could be relied on to keep Charles in check; for the foreign ambassadors, whether well-informed or mainly because the wish was father to the thought, were reporting serious disaffection in the country, which otherwise might have led to armed intervention by the Emperor. The answer to Rome however took the emphatic form of a declaration by Convocation and the Universities that "the Bishop of Rome has no more authority in England than any other foreign Bishop"; in addition to the Acts of Parliament already recorded.

[Sidenote 1: Parliament (Nov.)] [Sidenote 2: Treasons Act]