Published: 06:00, 05 December 2020
| Updated: 06:55, 05 December 2020
Surrounded by sheep and looking out across one of the best views in Kent, a little-known clump of ruined ragstone holds the key to a gruesome tale etched in history.
For the remnants of a former chapel in the countryside outside Aldington, near Ashford, were the beginning of the end for a servant-turned-prophet executed aged just 28.
So grave were the supposed crimes of Elizabeth Barton that she remains the only woman in history to be dealt the dishonour of having her severed head put on a spike at London Bridge for all of the capital to see.
But what was it the so-called 'Holy Maid of Kent' did to result in her barbaric death at the orders of Henry VIII? And what part does an abandoned chapel overlooking the Romney Marsh play?
As a young servant girl in the house of Thomas Cobb, a bailiff of the Archbishop's estates in Aldington, Barton was suffering from a severe illness in 1526 when she began to have strange visions.
Lengthy seizures - potentially a form of epilepsy - resulted in her face contorting and periods of paralysis.
She correctly predicted the death of a child in her household and claimed the Virgin Mary communicated to her directly in dreams.
Allegedly guiding her towards an ancient chapel south of the former hamlet of Court-at-Street, Mary told Barton she would be cured if she visited the place of worship.
Having gained notoriety for her religious visionary, she drew the attention of the Archbishop William Warham who gave her permission for the visit.
Barton visited the hillside chapel and was miraculously cured. She is thought to have stayed on at the 12th century site - living at the chapel set high on the old cliff line.
But despite being free of illness, her visions continued, and with it her notoriety soared.
She sparked an ever-increasing following as hordes of pilgrims began trudging to the secluded spot looking out over the sea.
The servant girl became something of a celebrity as thousands believed in her prophecies, pleas to pray for the Virgin Mary and divine revelations.
The Church investigated her private life and a commission delved into what should be done with Barton.
The Archbishop arranged for her to be received in the Benedictine St Sepulchre's Priory in Canterbury, located in the Oaten Hill area off what is now Old Dover Road.
Having become known as The Nun of Kent or The Holy Maid of Kent, talk of Barton's visions continued to spread - even reaching the Pope himself.
She travelled across the country speaking about the importance of prayer, mass and pilgrimage.
But her perception as a harmless nun soon took a sharp turn as she began to risk the deadly wrath of King Henry VIII.
She had previously met with Cardinal Wolsey - the realm's second most powerful figure - and the King.
They were on good terms as she spoke out against heresy and condemned rebellion against the monarch.
But after claiming to have been invisibly present when Henry attended Mass in Calais, Barton - who is thought to have been influenced to speak out against the King - made the fatal error of preaching against his marriage annulment to Catherine of Aragon in 1532.
She prophesied that if he remarried lover Anne Boleyn, he would die within a year and his kingdom would crash and burn.
She is even thought to have claimed she saw a place in hell destined for King Henry.
Barton had now become a threat and needed to be dealt with. All 700 copies of a book detailing her visions and prophecies were destroyed under the orders of Thomas Cromwell.
Fabricated rumours of sexual misconduct with priests spread as her reputation began to fall.
Thomas Cramner, now the Archbishop, examined her and through one way or another Barton confessed to Cromwell and his agents that she had been feigning her prophesies.
Whether this was a true confession it is not known - but it sadly spelled the end for the harmless nun.
Viewed as a false prophet at the centre of a conspiracy against the King, Barton was arrested and imprisoned at the Tower of London.
Having public confessed in front of a crowd of 2,000 at St Paul’s Cross, an open-air pulpit in the grounds of St Paul's Cathedral, she was ferried across the country to repeat the confession.
The supposed charlatan was sentenced to death along with five of her chief supporters - Edward Bocking, John Dering, Henry Gold, Hugh Rich and Richard Risby.
They were dragged through the streets from the Tower to Tyburn and hanged, with Barton's head then impaled on a spike for all to see at London Bridge.
The 28-year-old, whose case is dealt with in Hilary Mantel's popular Wolf Hall novel, was laid to rest at Greyfriars Church in Newgate.
As with many unfortunate individuals during Henry VIII's reign, Barton's story is one of intrigue and certainly tragedy.
Whether she was manipulated and exploited as a mouthpiece of those wanting to damage Henry, it is not known but either way, she left her mark.
The worried King was fearful of Barton's power, and her prophecies predicting he would "die a villain's death" were said to scare him.
Her character profile on the Anne Boleyn Files website states: "It is not known whether Barton confessed of her own volition or whether she was tortured, either physically or psychologically.
"It is impossible to judge whether Barton was a fraudster, mentally ill or medically ill.
"She may have suffered from fits, she could have been delusional or perhaps she did have visions or what she believed to be visions, we just can’t say.
"At the end of the day, she may well have been a tragic victim of a society where mental illness or medical conditions, such as epilepsy, were completely misunderstood."
As for the chapel outside Aldington, which may or may not have been in disrepair when Barton visited, it fell into ruin and became the home of a hermit.
Its advantageous position looking across the Marsh heralded a modification in the Second World War when a concrete pillbox, of which hundreds are spread across Kent, was built in front of the ancient chapel.
The defence was designed to help protect Britain against an invasion from the Germans.
Although parking isn't easy (outside Aldington's St Martin's Church is probably the best bet), the lonely chapel - accessed via a public footpath on the Saxon Shore Way - is well worth a visit.
There may be no information boards detailing its fascinating part in history - but its seclusion is all part of the appeal.