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  • Elizabeth Barton’s ClaimFeminist Defiance in Wolf Hall
  • Robinson Murphy (bio)


In her Booker Prize–winning novel Wolf Hall (2009), Hilary Mantel stages a conflict between the historical figures King Henry VIII (1491–1547) and Catholic prophetess Elizabeth Barton (ca. 1506–34). His unbending desire for a male heir compelled Henry to break from Rome, and so effectively to assume proprietorship over the spiritual fate of a nation. Barton sought to prevent Henry’s church reform measures, prophesying with particular vehemence against his proposed divorce of Catherine of Aragon (1485–1536) and subsequent marriage of Anne Boleyn (ca. 1501–36). In this essay I will trace the historical Barton’s rise to power—from dispossessed orphan to her face-to-face encounters with the king himself—as well as her subsequent imprisonment and eventual execution, and I will augment the history proper with Mantel’s imaginative recasting of Henry’s court to show just how Mantel’s depiction of Barton’s influence is so welcome a contribution to an otherwise familiar history. I will go on to consider Barton through Judith Butler’s theoretical model for state-defying feminist agency, as outlined in Antigone’s Claim: Kinship between Life and Death (2000), and conclude that Barton’s ultimate seeming failure tells more about Butler’s model than it does about Barton, whose incursion on patriarchal sexuality cannot be adequately accounted for by the interpretive scheme outlined in Antigone’s Claim.

Moreover, as a scholar of contemporary anglophone narrative, when I consider the galaxy of literature on the other multiple Booker Prize winners to date, J. M. Coetzee and Peter Carey (and posthumously, in 2010, as part of the “Lost Man Booker Prize,” J. G. Farrell), I find myself wondering: Why the comparative dearth of critical attention to Mantel? It is my hope that this essay plays a small part in redressing that critical lacuna. [End Page 152]

Elizabeth Barton was born in 1506 and spent her early working life as a servant until an illness in 1525 brought about a series of visions; Barton’s spasmic, barely conscious trances seemed to lend credence to her claims of prophecy. When she correctly predicted the death of her master’s child, in addition to other accurate acts of clairvoyance, witnesses were compelled to verify Barton’s ability. News spread quickly of her visions. Her semiconscious command of a Catholic vocabulary, the likes of which one of low birth was not wont to possess, propelled her into the nunnery upon recovery from illness. Though many criticized her, just as many were seduced by her ostensible authenticity (she enjoyed celebrity as a destination site for pilgrims, in fact), when Barton made the transition from religious to political prophecy, she could rely on an established body of followers.1 Ethan H. Shagan has sketched the import of Barton’s initial reputation as a spiritual authority:

Once Barton’s fame was secure, and once her hagiographical apparatus was in place, that apparatus could be used to spread whatever message she chose to promulgate. And from late 1528 onwards, the Church’s saint-making machinery was deftly redeployed against Henry VIII’s divorce and England’s break with Rome.2

Barbara Newman has written of visionary scripts, the ready-made formulas availing would-be prophets; by 1525 a female tradition dating back to the Bible would have been well established. Claims like Barton’s might thus seem rehearsed, or scripted. Writes Newman: “We see one version of the tendency in saints’ lives, where the subject’s visions often conform so closely to conventional types, reported in nearly identical form from one vita to another, that their authenticity is impossible to gauge.”3 Sharon L. Jansen, similarly, reads Barton as knowingly operating within an inherited discourse of political prophecy dating back to the twelfth century; as Jansen sees it, Barton drew and received inspiration from a preexisting model of political agency.4 Self-fashioning of this sort is, according to Stephen Greenblatt, “that complex, self-conscious, theatrical accommodation to the world which we recognize as a characteristic mode of modern individuality.”5 (For one historical register of Barton-as-performer, see Thomas Cranmer, archbishop of Canterbury, who...


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