The religious changes that occurred in the early 1530’s were undoubtedly of major importance but it was not true that everyone accepted them. Groups of opponents to these changes developed and one of these revolved around Elizabeth Barton – the Holy Maid of Kent. Barton, a nun at St. Sepulchre’s Convent in Canterbury, claimed that she had a series of visions of the Virgin Mary and that she had been spoken to. The ‘Holy Maid of Kent’, as Barton was known as, was widely respected in the southeast of Kent by both rich and poor. Many feared her powers as she would go into religious trances for days at a time. From the start Barton rejected Henry’s demand for an annulment and she told him this to his face in 1532 claiming that he would be punished by God and die a “villain’s death" if he went ahead with his planned divorce from Catherine of Aragon.
When the divorce was announced in May 1533, Barton made public her views. These were that Henry would be overthrown in one month, either by God or by the people acting on behalf of God. The real fear among Henry’s advisors was that she would spark off some form of public discontent in Kent and that the government would find it difficult to contain as it had the dangerous element of religion ‘attached’ to it. The government acted to tarnish her name and Barton was accused of having sexual relations with priests and monks based in Canterbury.
The Holy Maid of Kent was swiftly arrested along with some of her supporters. They were brought to London and Barton was forced to declare that her visions were a hoax and her proclamations false. Barton and five of her associates were put in the Tower of London. The Reformation Parliament, supported by Henry, who was not prepared to show mercy, passed an act of attainder against all of them in 1534 and they were executed in April of that year at Tyburn in front of a very large crowd. The government’s swift action ended what could have developed into a difficult situation.
However, a different approach was tried with the Carthusians. Some in the London Charterhouse were openly critical of those who took a more hard line approach against the king. The same was true in the houses run by the Carthusians in the provinces. Thomas Cromwell hoped to harvest this lack of support as evidence that the majority of Carthusians supported the stance taken by Henry. However, by arresting those who were vocal in their attacks on the king, Cromwell only succeeded in uniting the rest in support of the arrested – some of whom were executed. The Carthusians took a stand and over three years eighteen were arrested and either executed or starved to death. They were eventually forced into swearing an oath of allegiance to Henry and they were allowed to continue as an order for a short while. However, their treatment proved to be valuable propaganda to Catholics abroad and many viewed their treatment as a king and his government simply acting as bullies against a group that could do very little if anything to physically defend themselves against the state. The historian Keith Randall describes the whole episode as Henry’s “least defensible action".