Every now and then I find a story about an ordinary woman in history. Elizabeth Crofts is just one of those cases. She was involved in a curious incident during the reign of the Tudor Queen Mary I and ended up being accused of trying to undermine the Catholic Church and the crown of England. There is not much information on Elizabeth before she appears in the chronicles in 1554. It is believed she was a serving maid and about eighteen years old at that time which means she was born c. 1535. Her story appears in Protestant and Catholic chronicles and the story doesn’t vary in any of the sources.
England had endured much in the name of religion during the reigns of Kings Henry VIII and Edward VI. In an effort to dissolve his marriage to Katherine of Aragon and marry Anne Boleyn, Henry VIII had broken with the Catholic Church, denying the pope was the head of the church in England and making himself Supreme Head of the Church. This was followed by the Dissolution of the Monasteries. During the reign of Edward VI, the Protector Edward Seymour and later John Dudley, Earl of Northumberland took the church even further away from Catholicism, promoting Protestant and Evangelical beliefs and doing away with Catholic ritual.
When the devoted Catholic Mary I became queen upon the death of her brother Edward, the whole country knew she would try to return England to the Catholic fold. She also wanted to get married and concluded a marriage agreement to wed her cousin, the very Catholic King Philip II of Spain. Needless to say, this match was not at all popular with the people of England. With Philip coming to England, Protestants were worried there would be a backlash and wide-scale persecution.
The marriage was planned for July 25. It is not known if she was Protestant or Catholic but on March 14 of 1554, Elizabeth was convinced and perhaps paid by Protestant advocates to hide herself behind the false exterior wall of a house on Aldersgate Street in a section of London where a large reformist population lived. While concealed, she began to make whistling noises with a special whistle given to her by a servant of Sir Anthony Nevill (or possibly Knyvet) named Drake. She also began to speak anti-Catholic propaganda and many who heard her believed she was an invisible spirit or some kind of angel. They called her “the angel (or bird) in the wall”.
She spoke heresies and treason against Queen Mary, King Philip and the Catholic Church. She would answer questions put to her by a clerk, an actor and a weaver who were part of the trickery. These men fired up the crowd by saying “the voice in the wall” would reveal the truth behind appearances and differentiate religious falsehoods. Elizabeth gave answers meant to provoke the crowd.
When asked “What is the mass?” Elizabeth replied “Idolatry”. When asked about the act of confession she replied with condemnation of all Catholic practices. When asked about the marriage of the Queen and the coming of the Spaniards, she implied there was divine disapproval of the Queen and King Philip. When the clerk yelled “God save Queen Mary” there would be silence behind the wall. When he cried “God save the Lady Elizabeth” (the future Queen Elizabeth I), she would say “So be it”.
The entire incident appears to have been well prepared and very successful. Elizabeth attracted huge crowds with her performance. By the second day, the throng apparently reached as many as seventeen thousand. After several days of the spectacle, the imposture was discovered. The wall was pulled down and Elizabeth was arrested. She was imprisoned in Newgate and later spent some time in the prison on Bread Street.
On July 6 (or possibly July 15), Elizabeth was forced to do penance by standing on a scaffold near the preacher at Paul’s Cross and confess that her performance had only been a ruse. She stated she had offended God and the Queen’s majesty…to her great shame and she denounced her accomplices. After her confession, she was returned to Newgate and later she was released. Although one of her corrupters was pilloried, Elizabeth herself was never held fully responsible for her actions. Londoners felt she had either been led astray or that she was merely mad. All trace of Elizabeth Crofts then disappears from the records.
Further reading: “Bloody Mary” by Carolly Erickson, entry on Elizabeth Crofts in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography written by Daniel Hahn