Wolf Hall and Ashford’s Heritage

Wolf Hall, the miniseries, was the brilliant adaptation of two of Hilary Mantel’s novels on Henry VIII’s reign as King.  Some of it was filmed in Kent: at Penshurst Place near Tonbridge, and Dover Castle, near Ashford, in East Kent.  But there are even more direct links between the BBC2 series and Ashford’s heritage.

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Mark Rylance as Cromwell in Wolf Hall

First, the actor who played Cromwell, the principal protagonist in Mantel’s drama, was Mark Rylance, who recently played the BFG, and who was born in Ashford.

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Aimee-Ffion Edwards as Elizabeth Barton in Wolf Hall

And secondly, the woman who stood defiantly in the way of Henry VIII’s wish to divorce his first wife, Katherine of Aragon, and marry his second, Anne Boleyn – a pivotal moment in this country’s split with Rome – yep, you’re ahead of me: she was from Ashford, born in the village of Aldington.

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At Easter, 1525, Elizabeth Barton fell sick.  During her illness, Elizabeth believed that the Virgin Mary had come to her, telling her that she would be cured at the tiny chapel of Bellerica in Aldington, Ashford. She was carried there and astonishingly suddenly recovered on the Feast of the Assumption.  This miracle brought crowds of pilgrims to the chapel.  The Archbishop of Canterbury was alerted and, after some investigation, he decided Mary was a “well-disposed and virtuous woman” and appointed her as a nun of St Sepulchre’s Priory in Canterbury.

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Holbein’s portrait of Archbishop Warham, Archbishop of Canterbury

She was called the Nun, or Holy Maid, of Kent, renowned for her kindness and power of prayer; and gave counsel to both the Archbishop of Canterbury, and to Sir Thomas More: the best lawyer of the age and the King’s Chancellor.

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Holbein’s portrait of Sir Thomas More

As fate would have it, it was at this point that Henry wanted a divorce.  Elizabeth spoke vehemently against it – and people listened.  She managed to confront the King in public and told him that his soul would burn in hell if he continued with his plan.  It was an act of extraordinary confidence and bravery: she was just 18 years old.

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Elizabeth Barton confronting Henry VIII

By this time, her friend, the Archbishop of Canterbury had died, and More’s influence with the King was waning.  The divorce went through; England broke with Rome; and Henry married Anne Boleyn.  But Henry had not forgotten the Holy Maid of Kent.  In the summer of 1533, she was taken to the Tower of London and charged with treason.

What happened within the Tower is not known; probably, she was tortured.  She confessed her visions were a fraud; then she denied her confession.  She, along with some of her supporters, were executed.

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The hanging of Elizabeth Barton at Tyburn

The break with Rome was followed by a long legal battle over the King’s claim to be Supreme Head of the Church in England.  Bishop Fisher of Rochester in East Kent, and Sir Thomas More, the King’s old friend and Chancellor, were also executed for their opposition to him.  More’s daughter, Margaret, retrieved his head from a spike at Tower Hill, and took it back to her house in Canterbury, not far from Ashford.

Holbein the younger, Hans, c.1497-1543; Margaret More (1505-1544), Mrs William Roper
Holbein portrait of Margaret More

It’s very satisfying to have written about some strong women from this part of Kent.  And that is yet another link from Ashford’s Tudor heritage, to the present day!


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