Saturday, 7 March 2015

Eleanor Cobham: Gender, Politics and Witchcraft

HumphreyGloucester.jpgHumphrey & Eleanor.jpg
Above: Humphrey, duke of Gloucester (left).
Humphrey and Eleanor (right).

Eleanor Cobham, duchess of Gloucester, is well-known today as a convicted sorceress. The second wife of Humphrey, duke of Gloucester, who was uncle to Henry VI, the duchess has usually been perceived as a proud and ambitious parvenu who resorted to witchcraft in a calculated attempt to ensure her husband's succession to the throne. At a time of dynastic uncertainty and political turmoil, the fear and dismay of her contemporaries is understandable. Believing that women resorted to the black arts as a mechanism for wielding power, they readily believed the charges against Eleanor. Their belief fitted in with the conventional understanding that women were naturally manipulative, power-hungry and secretive.

Born around 1400, Eleanor was the fourth child of Sir Reginald Cobham and his wife Eleanor. Following her mother's death in 1422, she departed to serve in the household of Jacqueline, countess of Hainault. The countess was an immensely influential lady who was also duchess of Bavaria-Straubing, countess of Holland and Zealand, and had been Dauphine of France between 1415 and 1417 as the wife of the dauphin John. Eleanor's appointment to her household was therefore an excellent opportunity for her. She was not content merely to serve the duchess, however. In the spring of 1425 she became Humphrey's mistress. Three years later, Humphrey's marriage to Jacqueline was declared invalid, and shortly thereafter he married Eleanor Cobham.

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Above: Jacqueline of Hainault.

It is possible that Eleanor was an ambitious and calculating woman, but it is equally valid that she was in love with Humphrey and believed that she had a right to become his wife if he had, in fact, never lawfully been married to Jacqueline. Although the marriage may have attracted hostility, the couple appear to have been exceptionally happy with one another. They established a pleasure garden, La Plesaunce, at Greenwich and invited musicians, poets, scholars, physicians and their friends to form a miniature court there.

In 1435-6, Humphrey became heir apparent following the death of his elder brother, the duke of Bedford. This represented a turning point in Eleanor's career, for it enhanced her prominence greatly. If Henry VI, her nephew, died, she would become queen of England. Eleanor was accorded full recognition of her status: in November 1435 the duke created a jointure for her in his whole estate, and in spring of the following year she acquired the robes of a duchess for the Garter ceremony. She appears to have been close to her young nephew, the king. By 1440 she was consulting astrologers to cast Henry's horoscope and to predict her own fortunes. Given that the teenaged king had not yet married or produced an heir, Eleanor's actions may represent less a determined attempt to wrest the crown from him through witchcraft than an earnest effort to establish a sense of security regarding the succession. Her actions may be considered understandable in a context of dynastic uncertainty and international conflict, at a time of decline in England's fortunes in the Hundred Years War with France.

Eleanor's actions were not necessarily suspicious in and of themselves; as Harriss notes, 'mathematical astrology had become socially and academically respectable and other great noblemen had astrologers in their employ'. Surely if the king harboured suspicions of his aunt's behaviour he would have acted sooner against her than he in fact did. The prediction of Eleanor's physician Thomas Southwell and principal of St Andrew's Hall, Oxford, Roger Bolingbroke, however, that Henry VI would be endangered by a serious illness in the summer of 1441, led to rumours surrounding the duchess's ambitions. Southwell, Bolingbroke and John Home, canon of Hereford, chaplain to the duchess, were all examined. They were arrested and charged with the practice of necromancy in July 1441 and, when Bolingbroke named Eleanor, she was examined for eighteen charges of treasonable necromancy, to which she admitted her guilt. She was incarcerated in Leeds Castle. Southwell died in the Tower, Bolingbroke was hanged, drawn and quartered and the 'Witch of Eye', Margery Jourdemayne, was burned, whom Eleanor had admitted to procuring potions from in order to conceive and bear Humphrey's child. The duchess herself was sentenced to walk barefoot to three London churches in penance on successive market days in November, bearing a taper. She was then imprisoned, firstly at Chester, then at Kenilworth, then on the Isle of Man, and finally at Beaumaris, where she died in 1452.

It is uncertain whether Eleanor Cobham was guilty of the charges levied against her. There is no evidence that she plotted the king's death, although she did admit to consulting his horoscope and to obtaining potions from a witch with which to fall pregnant by the duke. Undoubtedly the charges were politicised and sought to attack her husband. High status women were vulnerable to charges of witchcraft and treasonable activity as a way of casting suspicion on their husbands. Jacquetta, duchess of Bedford, was another victim of witchcraft accusations in the reign of Edward IV that were motivated by a desire to bring down the Wydevilles. Humphrey's political enemies used the charges as a way of estranging the duke from his nephew. Six years later, the duke himself was arrested and died in suspicious circumstances. Eleanor, duchess of Gloucester, may have been less a convicted sorceress than a victim of the dynastic turmoil, political conflict and gendered suspicions of the mid-fifteenth-century.


  1. Good summary Conor - you may be interested in 'The Secret Diary of Eleanor Cobham' as I spent over a year visiting sites such as Beaumaris Castle and researching primary and secondary sources. You can find more info here:

  2. Thanks Tony! I'll be sure to check it out.

  3. Good post on an interesting topic, Conor :)

    Correct me if I'm wrong, but I believe it was considered treason even to *predict* the King's death, even if you weren't actually planning to do anything about it?

    I have no set opinion on Eleanor's guilt or lack thereof - nor Jacquetta's, for that matter - but it's interesting how we tend to assume that of course the witchcraft accusations were bogus. (Just a general 'we': not that you made such assumptions, but most authors tend to.)

    And yet we know for a fact that a lot of people did, in fact, seek help from witchcraft. Harmless things like talismans and spells for good fortune and curing illnesses were endemic in all levels of society - but black magic was definitely practised as well, people believed in its power, and yet for some reason we have a hard time believing that anyone in higher levels of society actually tried to benefit from it! By now we know the whole thing is mumbo-jumbo, so we automatically dismiss the charge… and that seems strange to me, considering that the people of this time period did indeed believe in the power of witchcraft, and were perfectly capable of acting in ruthless ways otherwise.

    It's interesting, too, how the crime of sorcery and the crime of poisoning were inextricably linked to each other in this era: probably partly because both crimes were stealthy and hard to explain, and partly because the best sources on both subjects were foreign, e.g. Arabic, and an expert on one would probably generally have been an expert on the other as well… (Obviously this level of sorcery was a very 'male' pursuit - something like necromancy was not to be done without a university education.)

    Anyway, Eleanor's case is certainly fascinating. Even more than the question of her guilt, this makes me wonder: If she was set up, who exactly was the one plotting her and Humphrey's downfall? There are so many potential candidates, and each has a somewhat different motive…

    1. Sorry, I have no idea why my comment above came up as anonymous! (Blogspot makes commenting hair-tearingly difficult, by the way.)

  4. I was trying to google and find out why it was scandalous for Humphrey to court Jacqueline when I came across your blog here. Any ideas? Thanks!