01 June 2010

What Surprised Me: Witchcraft and Royalty

By Margaret Mallory
Were I a man, a duke, and next of blood,
I would remove these tedious stumbling-blocks
And smooth my way upon their headless necks...

Speech of Eleanor Cobham, Duchess of Gloucester
From Shakespeare's HENRY VI (Part 2, Act 1, Scene 2)
When I was doing my research for KNIGHT OF PASSION, the third book in my "All the King's Men" medieval series, I came across Eleanor Cobham, a woman who married into the royal family and was accused of using witchcraft. It was so easy to falsely accuse a woman of witchcraft that I assumed this was a trumped up charge.

What surprised me is that Eleanor Cobham, Duchess of Gloucester, probably did it.

Eleanor was an ambitious woman--and not very nice.

The daughter of a mere knight, she became Gloucester's mistress while she was a lady-in-waiting to Gloucester's wife. There had been rumblings from the start of Gloucester's marriage that his wife still had a husband on the Continent. Since she was a great heiress, the rumors were ignored. When Gloucester, who was Henry V's youngest brother, wanted to get rid of his wife, however, the church conveniently invalidated his marriage.

Royal marriages were about power, inheritances, and alliances. It was no surprise, then, when Henry V made it clear he was not inclined to give his brother permission to make Eleanor his duchess. But when Henry V died unexpectedly, Gloucester married his mistress before Henry's body was brought home for burial.

Gloucester's nephew, a nine-month-old babe, became Henry VI. Some years later, after Gloucester's last remaining brother died, Gloucester became the young king's heir.

Eleanor could almost feel the crown on her head--and decided she better act before the now-teenage king took a wife and begat a new heir. It all came out when one of her co-conspirators turned informant. The allegation was that Eleanor was part of a witches' cabal, that included a woman known as The Witch of Eye, and at least three men of the church, including her confessor. This cabal allegedly employed sorcery in an attempt to predict the death of the king and to cut short his life.

While you may not believe their sorcery could harm the king, they did. Hence, their activity amounted to both heresy and treason.

Eleanor admitted to witchcraft, but she claimed she was only using it to try to get pregnant. She wisely denied the allegations of treason and was allowed, in effect, to plead guilty to a lesser offence. For her penance, she was made to walk London barefoot with a candle. Afterward, she was imprisoned for life on the Isle of Man--with servants, of course.

Eleanor's co-conspirators did not fare so well. Because this was The Witch of Eye's second offense, she was burned as a relapsed heretic. One of the churchman, a well-known Oxford scholar, was hung, drawn & quartered; another died in the Tower.

Gloucester laid low throughout the whole nasty business and let Eleanor face her accusers alone. (I like to think he made the plea for the servants.) Being royalty, he was conveniently "unmarried" a second time on the basis that Eleanor must have used sorcery on him from the beginning.

I had great fun with Eleanor Cobham and the Duke of Gloucester, who both appear as secondary characters in my new book, KNIGHT OF PASSION. I'd love to hear your comments or answer questions.

* Historical photos courtesy of Wikipedia


Blythe Gifford said...

Margaret - You might also be surprised, then, to discover that James IV of Scotland (James I of England) "wrote the book" on witchcraft. It was called Daemonologie, published in 1597, and he was quite the witch hunter in his day. Thanks for the story on Eleanor.

Mary McCall said...

Wonderful info, Margaret. I enjoyed your post.

Margaret Mallory said...

Thanks for the comments, Blythe & Mary. I did come across James IV's witch hunting in researching my new series. Unfortunately, it appears he was quite manic about it.

Chassily Wakefield said...

I love nothing more than coming across such interesting tidbits. Thanks for sharing that story, Margaret! I can't wait to dive into Knight of Pleasure!

Margaret Mallory said...

I should have mentioned that the lack of info on what people who practiced witchcraft/sorcery actually did gave me a lot of room for creativity. ;) Although there was a lot of speculation about sexual rites and consorting with demons, the people involved generally didn't talk--except under torture. In Eleanor's case, there was evidence that a wax figure was involved.

Debby Lee said...

Dear Margaret, what interesting English history. My hubby is half English and its so much fun discussing this kind of stuff with him. Wishing you all the best with this series and all the ones to come. Hugs, Debby Lee

azteclady said...

You gotta love how easily marriages were erased when it was convenient.

Margaret Mallory said...

Oh yeah, Henry VIII wasn't the first royal to find a back-door way out of a marriage that no longer seemed advantageous.

Harper said...

Thanks for such a fascinating post. I love finding gems like these!