In November 1534 Henry VIII insisted on Parliament passing a new Treason Act. One of the objectives of this new legislation was to bring an end to the criticism of Anne Boleyn that had been expressed by people such as Elizabeth Barton. The act specified that all those were guilty of high treason who: “do maliciously wish, will or desire by words or writing, or by craft imagine, invent, practise, or attempt any bodily harm to be done or committed to the king's most royal person, the queen's or the heirs apparent, or to deprive them of any of their dignity, title or name of their royal estates, or slanderously and maliciously publish and pronounce, by express writing or words, that the king should be heretic, schismatic, tyrant, infidel or usurper of the crown." (1)
Margery Cowpland of Henley-on-Thames was arrested in June, 1535, for describing King Henry as an "extortioner and knave" and Queen Anne as a "strong harlot" and a "strong whore". Richard Heath, warned her that he was the king's servant, to which she had replied, "The king's servant" was "the devil's turd". Cowpland was interviewed by Sir Walter Stoner who later reported to Thomas Cromwell that she was a "drunken woman, and as I perceive her she is somewhat straight out of her wits and her husband is out of his mind and hath been this twelve months and more."
Cowpland was sent to the jail at Wallingford. It is not known what happened to her but it is possible that she was released and not charged with treason. In the postscript in the letter to Cromwell his agent said: "I beseech you that I may know your pleasure for the said Margery Cowpland, for she is very aged and lacking wit, and also there is nobody to tend to her husband, which is mad as all her answers hath testified with her." (2)
In 1536 a proclamation was issued in support of the Treason Act. It attacked "devilish and slanderous persons" who were spreading "slanderous, false, and detestable rumours, tales, and lies". It called on all loyal subjects to "apprehend all and every such person and persons that they can prove to have bruited or set forth any forged false rumours, tales, and lies". The proclamation made it clear that punishment for those found guilty of the offence would be severe: "They shall not only bring upon themselves the vengeance and indignation of God, to the peril and damnation of their souls, but also give us just cause to proceed against such rebels with our most royal power and force, to the utter destruction of them, their wives, and children." (3)
Edward Hall has argued that women were especially responsible for these "slanderous, false, and detestable rumours, tales, and lies". According to Hall it was "the common people" who were "ignorant of the truth". He recorded that it was mainly women who favoured Catherine of Aragon and "spoke largely" against the king's marriage to Anne Boleyn. (4) Eustace Chapuys, reported to King Charles V in January, 1536, that Gertrude Courtenay, Countess of Devon, that Anne Boleyn had used witchcraft to "ensnare" the king. (5)
In August 1536 the mayor of York called on the "king's justices of peace" to investigate "diverse misdemeanors lately committed" in the city at night. These people had broken the 1534 Treason Act as they had posted a series of "bills" that encouraged "debate, dissension and variance". These posters criticized the king's marriage to Anne Boleyn. Eventually a woman named Elizabeth Abney was arrested. Her husband, Thomas Abney, confessed that he had been involved in this venture but his wife's "malicious mind devised the several slanders contained in the bills".
Elizabeth and Thomas Abney were both found guilty of publishing material "whereof murder, variance, strife, and debate was very likely to ensue among all the commonalty of the said city". They were treated much more leniently than most people found guilty of this offence. Elizabeth and Thomas were sentenced to sitting backward on a horse, with a paper set on her head and another in her hands that read, "For setting up of slanderous bills and willful perjury, thus to be punished deserved have I." They would be led from the prison and paraded throughout the city and then banished. (6)
A group of people based in Norfolk were convicted on 25th May, 1537, of treason and sentenced to be hanging, drawing, beheading, and quartering. It was claimed that they were active in and around Walsingham. Their crimes included spreading rumours about Anne Boleyn. Over the next few days Nigel Mileham, the sub-prior of Walsingham Priory, John Semble, a mason, Ralph Rogerson, a farmer, William Guisborough, a merchant, George Guisborough, a yeoman peasant, Thomas Howse, a husbandman, Thomas Manne, a carpenter, Andrew Pax, a parish clerk, John Pecock, a friar, John Sellers, a tailor and Richard Henley, a plumber, were executed. (7) Richard Southwell reported to Thomas Cromwell that all the men confessed to the crime. "So lying on the hurdles, both by the way and at the place of execution, they exhorted the people, who by reason of Trinity Fair that day, were very numerous to take example by them." (8)
Southwell continued with his investigation and on 28th May he was given evidence that a woman named Elizabeth Wood of Aylsham, was involved in this conspiracy. John Bettes and Thomas Oakes claimed that "Elizabeth Wood, the wife of Robert Wood of Aylsham" had said "certain traitorous words". They told Southwell that Wood had visited a shop owned by John Dix and had expressed support for the men found guilty of treason in Walsingham. She was, they said, "resting upon the shop windows of John Dix" when she spoke about these matters. Apparently she said "it was a pity that these Walsingham men were discovered, for we shall have never good world till" Henry VIII is removed "for we had never good world since this king reigned". Wood was found guilty of treason on 26th July, 1537, and executed soon afterwards. (9)
Margaret Tyrell was also opposed to Henry's marriage to Jane Seymour and on 24th November 1537, was heard to say that she "denied Prince Edward to be prince of England and next inheritable to the Crown". She was arrested and sent to the Tower of London and was examined by Thomas Cromwell. She remained in captivity for the next two years and was eventually hanged, drawn, and quartered for her words denying the future Edward VI. (10)
In February, 1538, Mabel Brigge, a thirty-two-year-old widow living in Holderness, was investigated for treason. She was accused of undertaking a "black fast", which, they claimed, had been "directed against" the king. It was claimed that the intention of the fast was to "shorten" the reign of Henry VIII.
Sharon L. Jansen, the author of Dangerous Talk and Strange Behaviour: Women and Popular Resistance to the Reforms of Henry VIII (1996) has pointed out: "Although the fasting of a poor and obscure female servant does not now seem to offer much of a real threat to royal power and authority, Mabel Brigge and her fast were taken quite seriously by Henry VIII's Council of the North. The action against her was swift and decisive." On 7th April 1538 it was reported to Henry VIII that Brigge had been convicted of treason for her "black fast to an abominable intent" against the king and had been executed. (11)
The career of the Nun of Kent (Elizabeth Barton) was only the most spectacular of cases that led to the passage of a new Treason Act in 1534. Drafts of a new law had been written as early as 1530; the revised act was finally introduced in the November 1534 session of Parliament. After the passage of this bill there was danger in all kinds of words, even the kind we might typically ignore as harmless gossip, wild rumors, or foolish boasting. Such "dangerous talk" was not overlooked, however, as the story of Elizabeth Wood makes clear. Elizabeth Wood's case is not nearly so complicated as Elizabeth Barton's. The evidence against her is, in many ways, very slight.