"... Do you want your child to be burned for a witch? If someone should catch her at it, they will cry witchcraft and claim she is consorting with the devil ..."
The quote is from my second novel, THE WELSH HEALER. The main character, Arlais, is in fact not a witch, but she would most definitely have been regarded as one in 15th century England. I did not go on a witchhunt (pun intended!) but my research surprisingly turned up a few historical figures who were looked upon with eyes of suspicion: Joanna of Navarre, Queen consort of Henry IV of England; Joan of Arc, who was tried and burned at the stake for heresy; and Margery Jourdemayne, the Witch of Eye.
Joanna of Navarre was accused of witchcraft by her stepson, Henry V, who up until the allegation was said to have a friendly relationship with her. Although she was known to have employed two learned men adept in prognostication, the charge was widely believed to be an excuse for Henry to imprison her then confiscate a good portion of her fortune in the name of his quest for the French crown. She was held from 1419-1422, but after her release, she lived out the remainder of her life as Dowager Queen of England.
As I have explored in previous posts, Joan of Arc’s prosecutors would have liked to have her declared a witch to expedite her trial and execution. Alas, she foiled their plans from the start by passing a moral inquiry and earning the label of a good and virtuous Christian. Even up until her fiery demise—the result of a lengthy detention and drawn out trial for heresy (her accusers’ Plan B)—she maintained that her mission had come from God. She was posthumously cleared of the heresy charge and declared a martyr, then canonized by the Catholic Church nearly 500 years later.
But the last woman on the list, Margery Jourdemayne, seems a more likely candidate for being a witch in deed and truth. Although little is known of her origins, the Witch of Eye became a prominent figure in respected mystical circles of her time, which included colleagues proficient in all manner of supernatural practices: astronomy, astrology, prognostication, herbal healing, charms, potions, spells, etc. She was apparently adept at her craft as evidenced by the following verse:
"There was a Beldame called the wytch of Ey,
Old mother Madge her neyghbours did hir name
Which wrought wonders in countryes by heresaye
Both feendes and fayries her charmyng would obay
And dead corpsis from grave she could uprere
Suche an inchauntresse, as that tyme had no peere."
The Witch of Eye was so well known that there are accounts of high-ranking figures—Edmund Beaufort, 2nd Duke of Somerset for example—who sought out her council. Many women at court also used Margery’s services, and from 1430-1432 Madge was held at Windsor Castle for a sorcery related offense. She was released on her vow to behave herself and cease practicing witchcraft. Unfortunately, it was a promise she could not keep.
Her claim to infamy and subsequent undoing came some years later in 1441 through her association with Eleanor Cobham, Duchess of Gloucester. Eleanor was the second wife of Humphrey of Lancaster, 1st Duke of Gloucester, son of Henry IV of England, uncle to the king at the time, Henry VI … and next in line to the throne. Aah, the plot thickens!
In October of 1440, Roger Bolingbroke and Thomas Southwell, two men in Eleanor’s employ, cast a horoscope predicting the death of Henry VI, her beloved royal nephew by marriage. If he were to die without issue, his passing would elevate her husband to the position of King of England and herself to that of Humphrey’s dutiful Queen. Needless to say, when Henry learned of the intrigue, he was not amused. The suspects were rounded up, charged, and put on trial for their crimes against the crown.
Margery Jourdemayne was also implicated in other dubious activities associated with the plot. Eleanor confessed to having an extended relationship with the notorious Witch of Eye and that she had previously acquired from the woman potions for her health and creams to preserve her beauty. On this occasion, however, the Duchess claimed that she had consulted her friend on the simplest of women’s matters; She wanted to become pregnant to provide her husband with an heir. Regrettably, the evidence of the enterprise—a melted wax figure—was unrecognizable and misconstrued as a device to effect the death of her nephew, the king.
Even more lamentable was the result. All involved, including the two astrologers, were found guilty of necromancy, witchcraft, and treason. Eleanor got off with the lightest punishment. She was sentenced to do public penance, her marriage to the Duke of Gloucester was dissolved, and she was imprisoned for the remainder of her life. Bolingbroke suffered a traitor’s death of being drawn, hanged, and quartered, Southwell perished in the Tower of London, and Margery Jourdemayne, the Witch of Eye, was burned at the stake at Smithfield.