It is not uncommon to find women accused of witchcraft in medieval and early modern history. But it is unique to find a woman accused of witchcraft in order to take down her powerful husband. Eleanor Cobham, Duchess of Gloucester is such an exceptional case.
The reign of the Lancastrian King Henry VI was long and complicated. A medieval king was only as strong as his own ability to dominate and control his nobility. Henry VI became king as an infant, remaining unmarried until he turned twenty-four years old. There were several factions who vied for control of the regency during the king’s minority. The king’s uncle, Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester rightfully took his place in the council and for some time, held onto his position quite competently. However, it wasn’t long before things began to unravel.
It all started with the troubles of Jacqueline, Duchess of Bavaria-Straubing, Countess of Holland, Zeeland, Hainaut and Oostervant. She was the wealthy heiress of an impressive patrimony including several areas of the Low Countries, now known as the Netherlands. At a very young age, she had been betrothed to John of Turenne, son of King Charles VI of France. When John’s elder brother, Louis, Duke of Guyenne died, John became Dauphin and would have become King of France if he hadn’t died an unexpected death.
With Jacqueline once again a rich and eligible bride, her uncle, the powerful John the Fearless, Duke of Burgundy harbored a great desire to annex her territories into his own patrimony. He brokered a marriage between Jacqueline and one of his relatives, John IV, Duke of Brabant. John turned out to be a rotten husband and thoroughly mistreated her, even going to far as to engage in a civil war, have himself named regent in Holland and mortgaging Jacqueline’s territories in Holland and Zeeland. Jacqueline sought and obtained an annulment of her marriage and received a safe conduct from King Henry V to go to England.
Jacqueline received a warm welcome from King Henry. He gave her an income and asked her to be godmother to his infant son, the future Henry VI. When Jacqueline formed her household in England, Eleanor Cobham became one of her ladies. After Henry V died, Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester was initially denied any significant role on the regency council and decided to put his career in England on hold. He married Jacqueline in January 1423, and began mustering an army to go to Holland to fight and reclaim Jacqueline’s lands.
Eleanor was born c. 1400, the fourth child of Sir Reginald Cobham of Sterborough, Lingfield, Surrey and his first wife Eleanor. We know nothing of her childhood and education but as a child of the gentry, she most likely was taught to read and write. Shortly after Eleanor’s mother died in 1422, she became an attendant to Jacqueline of Hainault. When Jacqueline and Humphrey took their invasion force to Hainault, Eleanor traveled with them. Unsuccessful in their mission, Gloucester deserted Jacqueline, returning to England with Eleanor as his mistress. Following Gloucester’s departure, Jacqueline could no longer resist the forces against her and had to concede all of her territories to the Duke of Burgundy.
With Humphrey’s marriage to Jacqueline declared null and void in January 1428, he married Eleanor. Despite the fact the Duke had made an alliance beneath him socially, the marriage was notably successful. Eleanor was beautiful, intelligent and ambitious and the Duke was cultivated, pleasure-loving and famous. Together they resolved to convert their manor near Greenwich into a sizable estate with an imposing and large residence, adding a pleasure garden and conduit. They called the renovated palace La Plesaunce. Parliament gave authorization to impark an additional two hundred acres and to rebuild the house with crenellated stone towers. The residence was encircled by a wall with walks along the banks of the Thames and in this lovely setting, they entertained their friends along with poets, men of learning, musicians, physicians and scholars.
In 1429, Dowager Queen Joan of Navarre, Humphrey’s stepmother, gave Eleanor all the furnishings of her personal chapel, a very generous gift. Eleanor became a patron of St. Alban’s Abbey and enjoyed a respectable reputation there. Following the death of Humphrey’s elder brother John, Duke of Bedford, Humphrey became heir to the throne and he and Eleanor were at the height of their influence.
Eleanor received full recognition of her position. In November 1435, the Duke created a jointure for her from his vast estate, allowing her the singular privilege of enjoying all of his properties for life, which had the effect of making her one of the richest women in England. This legal right could only be taken from her under extreme circumstances, such as treason. In April 1436, Eleanor was given the robes of a duchess for her induction into the Order of the Garter.
Eleanor had some influence over the young King Henry VI at court. For the New Year 1440, King Henry gave Eleanor a garter barred with bars of gold and inscribed with the motto of the Order of the Garter, ‘hony soit qui mal y pense’ in gold letters, garnished with a flower of diamonds on a buckle, with two great pearls and a ruby on the pendant and two more great pearls with twenty-six smaller pearls on the garter itself. On June 28, 1441, the Duchess rode through London with a train of magnates and lords, all dressed in splendid attire. It was a brilliant display of a woman at the height of her power. She was clever, beautiful and married to the heir to the throne.
During this time, she became pre-occupied with the possibility of her husband succeeding to the throne after the passive and unmarried king. By the spring of 1440, Eleanor consulted astrologers to cast the king’s horoscope in order to gain predictions of her own personal future. Consulting astrologers in and of itself was not unusual at the time. Mathematical astrology was academically and socially acceptable, and other nobles regularly employed these men.
The men she consulted were Thomas Southwell, her personal physician and a canon of St. Stephen’s, Westminster and Roger Bolingbroke, principal of St. Andrew’s Hall, Oxford. Both of them had excellent reputations. These experts predicted King Henry VI would suffer a serious illness, endangering his life in the summer of 1441. Rumors of this patently unwise prediction began to spread in London, eventually reaching the court.
Henry believed Eleanor plotted his death by magical means. Alarmed, authorities around the king commissioned a new horoscope to comfort and assure the king. The Dukes of Beaufort and Suffolk had the ear of the king and denigrated Humphrey and Eleanor even further. At the end of June, they examined Southwell, Bolingbroke and Eleanor’s chaplain, John Home, canon of Hereford. Sometime between July 10 and 12, the men were arrested and charged with necromancy and heretical practices. Eleanor saw the writing on the wall and fled into sanctuary in Westminster.
On July 23, Bolingbroke confessed to the council, naming Eleanor as the instigator. The next day, a panel of bishops interrogated Eleanor on a list of eighteen charges, including treasonable necromancy. She initially denied all the charges but after the testimony of Bolingbroke, Eleanor admitted to five of them. Remanded to the care of Sir John Stiward and Sir John Stanley and on August 11, they sent her to Leeds Castle, pending her trial.
Witchcraft was not necessarily considered a crime under temporal law at the time. As long as no one was harmed, the courts would look the other way. However, harmful forms of witchcraft would be investigated by the Church, as it was considered heresy. A special commission was formed with several noblemen, bishops and judges to inquire into the matters of sorcery. This commission appears to be an effort on the part of the Duke of Gloucester’s enemies to bring his wife before a secular court.
These men discovered another accomplice of Eleanor’s, a woman named Margery Jordemayne, known as the ‘Witch of Eye’ (Ebury, near Westminster), an accomplished expert at making potions. After further investigations, Southwell and Bolingbroke were indicted for sorcery, felony and treason with Eleanor as an accessory. Before the commission came to any decision about the fate of Eleanor, she insisted on being brought before an ecclesiastical tribunal, which met on October 21.
The Archbishop of Canterbury, Henry Chichele, a good friend and ally of Eleanor’s husband, formed the tribunal and then proceeded to excuse himself from further participation in the matter. Her judges were the Bishops of London, Lincoln and Norwich, among others. The Duchess denied most of the charges but admitted to procuring potions from Margery Jordemayne, in an effort to help her conceive and bear Gloucester an heir. She denied the charge of conspiring the king’s death.
On October 23, witnesses were heard and a verdict of guilty returned. She submitted only to the correction of the Bishops. On October 27, she renounced her heresies and witchcraft before the commission and on November 9, her penance was declared. She was ordered to walk barefoot to three London churches on successive market days in November, holding a taper. forced to divorce the Duke, she was sentenced to life in prison. Her associates were dealt with much more harshly. Southwell died in the Tower of London, Bolingbroke was hanged, drawn and quartered, with Margery Jordemayne being burnt at the stake at Smithfield.
On November 13, Eleanor walked barefoot from Temple Bar through Fleet Street to St. Paul’s Cathedral, dressed in black and led by two knights. On the 15th, her path took her from the Swan Pier in Thames Street to Christchurch, Aldgate, and on the 17th, she went from Queen Hithe to St. Michael’s, Cornhill. Each time, she carried a wax taper in her hand and was instructed to tread with a meek and demur countenance, walking alone with no hood. This medieval form of ultimate humiliation resulted in garnering some sympathy with the people of London.
They debated over what to do with Eleanor. She was found guilty of using witchcraft by the bishops of the King’s Council but there was no mandatory death penalty for this crime. They considered convicting her as an accessory with her accomplices but she was under the protection of sanctuary. No precedent for trying and convicting a woman of her rank existed.
The sources give no tangible indication of the eventual decision of punishment of life in prison. However, there is a letter of warrant from the king dated January 19, 1442 and subsequent records of her imprisonment. She was remanded to the custody of Sir Thomas Stanley, who held the title of King of Mann and constable of Chester Castle. An allowance was given of one hundred marks per annum to live on and she could have a few servants. Her imprisonment began in Chester Castle where she remained for a year and a half. Orders were given for her to be taken to Kenilworth and later she was moved to the Isle of Mann. In March 1449, Eleanor was incarcerated in Beaumaris Castle, where she died on July 7, 1452. Presumably she was buried in the parish church there.
There is a strong presumption that Humphrey was silent while his wife was brought down and this is bolstered by his obvious desertion of his wife Jacqueline. However, Humphrey’s biographer, Kenneth Vickers, says there is some indication he did make some attempts to save Eleanor, primarily by interfering in the proceedings against her and by the abstention of Bishop Chichele from taking part in the procedures of the bishop’s commission. Also, every precaution was taken in transporting Eleanor to her places of confinement, as if attempts to rescue her were feared.
Even though the astrologers predicted the king’s illness, this was not plotting the death of the king. Eleanor certainly dabbled in the black arts, which wasn’t treason in and of itself, but would definitely have been viewed with suspicion. To this day, one of her books still exists which is a semi-medical, semi-astrological work translated from the original Arabic. Eleanor admitted to purchasing love potions and may have participated in casting spells. None of this was out of the ordinary and certainly practiced by all classes. Eleanor had power and influence and her downfall was most likely plotted by the many enemies of her husband. After his separation from Eleanor, the Duke was noticeably depressed.
Undoubtedly, King Henry showed no leniency where Eleanor was concerned. Gloucester was unable to protect his wife and his influence with his nephew was ruined. Humphrey’s loss of prestige after these events came at a time when his power had already begun to wane. He does not appear as a man of influence in the councils of the king after Eleanor’s fall.
Six years after Eleanor’s conviction, the Duke of Suffolk led a plot to overthrow the Duke of Gloucester. In February 1447, Gloucester was in the deep throes of depression when authorities arrested him. Unable to see the king and devastated by the fabricated charges against him, he refused to move or communicate for three days. It’s possible he had suffered a stroke, for on February 23, he was found dead in his lodgings.
Eleanor’s final sentence for treason was decreed by King Henry without any trial by a duly constituted, secular court of law, causing much apprehension. During the next Parliament, in 1442, a petition was introduced in the House of Commons, appealing to Magna Carta on behalf of such defenseless women in general. Parliament passed a measure ensuring that in the future, but not retrospectively, peeresses in their own right, or as wives of their husbands, were guaranteed the same trial by their peers, for charges of felony and treason, as was enjoyed by their husbands.
During the meeting of Parliament in 1447 at Bury, an ordinance passed annulling Eleanor of Gloucester’s right to any dower, or to any freehold or other possession left to her by her husband. In effect, this debarred the Duchess from receiving any dower or jointure from the dead Duke’s lands. After his death, all of his possessions were hastily given to King Henry’s queen, Margaret of Anjou, as well as the king’s foundations and members of the royal household.
Further reading: “Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester: A Biography” by Kenneth Hotham Vickers, entry on Eleanor[née Eleanor Cobham], duchess of Gloucester written by G.L. Harriss in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, entry on Humphrey [Humfrey or Humphrey of Lancaster], duke of Gloucester [called Good Duke Humphrey] written by G.L. Harriss in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, “Royal Witches: From Joan of Navarre to Elizabeth Woodville” by Gemma Hollman, “Henry VI” by Bertram Wolffe, “The Reign of Henry VI” by R.A. Griffiths, article entitled “The Trial of Eleanor Cobham: An Episode in the Fall of Duke Humphrey of Gloucester” in “King and Country: England and Wales in the Fifteenth “ by Ralph A. Griffiths