Eleanor Cobham is famed for being a royal witch. Born in 1400, Eleanor Cobham was the fourth eldest child of Sir Reginald Cobham and his first wife, also called Eleanor. From this position as a younger child in a family within the gentry, Eleanor rose to become Duchess of Gloucester, married to duke Humphrey, who at the time of marriage was second in line to the throne of England. The union was happy and the couple devoted themselves to each other, to the arts, and to the expansion of their royal residence in Greenwich, known as La Plesaunce. Her stock rose with that of her husband. With the passing of the Duke of Bedford in 1435 Humphrey became heir to the child king Henry VI, making Eleanor a potential Queen Consort. The elevated status was not to last. Just six years later Eleanor was charged with treasonable necromancy, was found guilty, had her marriage forcibly annulled and was sentenced to public penance and a life imprisoned. In little under twenty years Eleanor Cobham had risen from nowhere to the highest table in the land and endured a fall from grace that is unparalleled in English History.
Eleanor Cobham’s early life and introduction to court
Eleanor Cobham was born in Surrey in 1400. Her father was Sir Reginald Cobham, a knight of the gentry class. Her mother was Eleanor Cobham, Sir Reginald’s first wife. Little is known about Eleanor’s childhood. It can be assumed that as a daughter of somebody of rank that she would have received some formal education with a view to her father arranging a beneficial marriage for his daughter.
In 1422 Eleanor’s mother died. Around the same time, Eleanor begins to be found more frequently in documented evidence. Jacqueline of Hainault had fled the Low Countries to England, sought assistance from Henry V, and begun to form a household in exile from her homeland. Eleanor Cobham was appointed as one of Jacqueline’s attendants. This meant that Eleanor became known within court and in particular to duke Humphrey of Gloucester, to whom Jacqueline of Hainault married in 1423.
Humphrey duke of Gloucester’s first marriage
The marriage of Humphrey and Jacqueline was diplomatic in nature and the duke sought to enforce his wife’s claims to territories in modern day Holland. The royal couple soon travelled to the continent, taking their household with them and a small army. Humphrey’s attempt to take Hainault for his wife through force of arms was an abject failure. The royal couple found themselves separated. At some point in their time on the continent, Humphrey took Eleanor Cobham as a mistress. Young, intelligent, beautiful, she was hugely appealing to the duke. So much so that when his military expedition drew to a conclusion, he returned to England with his mistress, leaving his wife in captivity in Hainault.
Eleanor Cobham: from mistress to wife
Duke Humphrey’s political opponents on the continent had persisted in attempting to have his marriage to Jacqueline declared null and void. With little hope of gaining the lands to which Jacqueline had a claim, Humphrey put up little contest, resulting in the marriage being annulled. Duke Humphrey wasted little time in marrying his mistress. In 1428 Eleanor Cobham became wife of the duke of Gloucester. The union was controversial. Eleanor’s rank was far below that of the duke. The marriage brought the crown no diplomatic, economic, military or political benefits. For many courtiers it was a wholly unsuitable match but one that, initially, they could do very little about.
Humphrey and Eleanor’s La Plesaunce
The marriage itself was based on love. A manor in Greenwich that was held by duke Humphrey was soon expanded, refurbished, landscaped. It became La Plesaunce, a court away from court, that was frequented by artists, writers and philosophers. The royal couple invested heavily in enjoyment, the arts, and learning. It enhanced Humphrey’s reputation, seeing being referred to as ‘Good Duke Humphrey’. Humphrey remained politically important. His nephew Henry VI was still a minor and with his elder brother, John duke of Bedford, acting as Regent in Paris, Humphrey was theoretically the most powerful subject in the land. His happiness at home was not always reflected in successes at court or council though. Despite his popular appeal Humphrey clashed with other members of the royal council.
Eleanor as consort to the heir to the throne
In 1435 the duke of Bedford died. The king was still a minor, entering his teens in this year. It meant that Humphrey was now the heir to the throne and sole protector of the realm in his nephews minority. The increased importance was mirrored by increased tensions at court. The disagreements that Humphrey had with other nobles had been moderated by his elder brother and a well fostered sense of collective responsibility by those on council. Those were soon to be put to the test. Burgundy had been central to the success of the English in retaining control of their French domains, of which King Henry was also monarch under the terms of the Treaty of Troyes. However, the Anglo-Burgundian relationship had been strained, the duke of Bedford’s good relationship with the duke of Burgundy having been significant in easing the underlying tensions. With John duke of Bedford dead, the agreement between England and Burgundy fell apart quickly, the French seizing the opportunity and Burgundy making a dramatic change of allegiance.
The diplomatic change could not have happened at a worse time for England. It soon led to the council having heated debates about the best policy to have in France. As the debate over whether a defensive or offensive strategy grew, so did the divisions within Council. Humphrey began to find himself struggling to win arguments, especially so following his nephew assuming personal rule.
At the same time as her husband’s political role altered and became more intense, Eleanor was enjoying her rise. In 1435 Eleanor Cobham was named in jointure to duke Humphrey. This was a hugely significant move. If she were to outlive Humphrey, she would inherit all of his estates and wealth. And, at the time of the jointure being created, Humphrey was heir to the throne and King Henry VI remained young, unmarried and years away from producing a direct heir: in short, there was no guarantee that the young king would live long enough to produce a son. Eleanor therefore stood to gain a lot. As duchess she would inherit considerable wealth, should she ever become Queen Consort, the potential benefits were extraordinary. Symbolism was at play in such a move, it counteracted the complaints about Eleanor’s status, making her more wealthy than most of the detractors. The same symbolism led to Eleanor Cobham being invested as a Lady of the Garter in 1436.
Eleanor Cobham looks to the future
Eleanor Cobham was now in a very powerful position. Married to the heir to the throne, she was also influential in court and over the young king. However, the power and potential of her husband one day becoming king affected Eleanor. The duchess became preoccupied with the idea of duke Humphrey possibly becoming King of England. At the same time, Eleanor also became interested in horoscopes, with her own personal future being very much at the heart of what she wanted to learn. Astrology in itself presented little problem, it was widely practised and acceptable within society. Eleanor, however, was looking for issues relating to the future of herself, her husband, and by virtue of those, the king.
Highly Respected Astrologers
Eleanor Cobham had consulted with well respected men. Thomas Southwell, her physician, canon of St Stephen’s, Westminster, and Roger Bolingbroke, principal of St Andrew’s Hall, Oxford gave readings. The horoscopes that they produced made a startling and dangerous prediction: that the king would become seriously ill in the summer of 1441. Rumours of Eleanor having obtained such a prediction soon spread to court. Here, the horoscopes presented Eleanor Cobham with a problem. In predicting serious illness, possibly fatal, for the king, the astrologers were potentially wishing the king dead, an act that was considered treasonable at the time.
Investigations into alleged witchcraft and heretical practices
Councillors sought to rectify any damage that the rumoured prediction may have by ordering their own horoscopes which could be used to reassure King Henry VI. They also brought in Southwell, Bolingbroke and Eleanor Cobham’s personal chaplain for questioning about the rumours. This questioning took place on 24th/25th June 1441. During the investigation Roger Bolingbroke revealed that Eleanor Cobham had instigated the horoscopes. It was evidence that would soon, but not immediately, be used against her and the astrologers. It was several weeks later that action began to be taken against those involved in the compilation of the horoscopes. Between the 10th and 12th of July 1441 the astrologers were arrested on charges of heresy and treasonable necromancy. When word of the first arrest reached Eleanor Cobham, the duchess fled to Westminster to seek sanctuary.
Eleanor’s attempt to seek sanctuary at Westminster was to become a legal turning point in England. Typically sanctuary could be claimed at Parish churches for a limited period of time. Or, in a chartered sanctuary such as that at Westminster for an indefinite period, so long as the sanctuary was registered according to ecclesiastical protocols. 18 charges had been made against Eleanor Cobham. They were all related to treasonable necromancy through acts of witchcraft and heretical acts. On this basis a panel of bishops was appointed to consider the case. As heresy is an ecclesiastical crime it was for the church to determine innocence or guilt. In this case the bishops went beyond this remit. It was judged that those being judged for alleged treason or alleged use of witchcraft could not have the protection of the church. Sanctuary could not therefore be given to Eleanor Cobham. In legal terms this sets a precedent on sanctuary claims for those accused of treason or witchcraft. See Eleanor Cobham, Duchess of Gloucester: Witchcraft, treason, and sanctuary denied by Dr Shannon McSheffrey for full details.
The first hearing for the accusations against Eleanor Cobham took place in front of an ecclesiastical tribunal at Westminster Abbey, beginning on the 24th of July 1441. It was presided over by the most senior clerics in England, the Archbishops of Canterbury and York, along with the bishop of Salisbury and other bishops:
Wherfore she was citid to appere befor certayn bisshoppis of the kyngis ; that is to say , befor maister Harri Chicheli ,archebisshop of Cauntirbury , maister Harry Beaufort bisshoppe of Wynchestre and cardinalle , maister Johan Kemp archebisshoppe of York and cardinalle , maister_William Ayscoughe bisshoppe of Salisbury, by and othir , on the Monday the xxij day off Juylle next folowyng , in saint Stephene ; chapelle of Westmynstre , forto ansuere to certayn article ; of nygromancie , of wicchecraft or sorcery , of heresy and of tresoun .
From Stowe’s collection of English Chronicles, edited and published by the Camden Society with Stowe’s annotations alongside his translations of earlier, believed contemporary, works. Full text available on British History Online, Google books, or on Archive.org
Eleanor Cobham accepts guilt on five charges
Of the charges against Eleanor Cobham, she accepted guilt on five counts including obtaining potions from Margery Jourdemayne, the Witch of Eye. These potions were intended to ensure that the duchess of Gloucester conceived an heir. Eleanor renounced the behaviours to which she had admitted on July 27th. Then she was denied the continued use of Westminster as sanctuary and sent to Leeds Castle, Kent, to be held securely whilst preparations were made for her trial.
The case remained before the church courts though, partly at the insistence of Eleanor Cobham. On October 21st judgement was passed on her. Her sentence was humiliating and a total removal of all of Eleanor’s titles, wealth and influence:
- On three market days in November 1441 she was to walk barefoot to three churches bearing a taper. This was a very public act on penance. Market days were chosen as they were busy, the humiliation and penance would be seen by as many people as possible.
- The marriage of Eleanor to duke Humphrey was ended through an imposed divorce. This stripped her of her titles and removed Eleanor’s rights to any of the duke’s wealth.
- A sentence of perpetual imprisonment was imposed. She was initially sent to Chester. In 1443 she was moved to Kenilworth Castle. Three years later she was transferred to the Isle of Man before finally being transferred to Beaumaris Castle in 1449 where she lived in captivity until her death in 1452.
Royal Witchcraft Charges: Context
The nature of the charges against Eleanor Cobham may seem far fetched and unusual. However, it was not unheard of for women of rank to be accused of witchcraft. Henry V had made such an accusation against Joan of Navarre, a Dowager Queen of England. This was within living memory for older members of English society when Eleanor was charged. The difference is that Eleanor faced a trial, no formal charges or trial were endured by Joan of Navarre, nor was there any public humiliation. Both had politics in common though. It also was not far fetched to say that Eleanor Cobham was using horoscopes in a way that could be interpreted as wishing the king dead. Both Eleanor Cobham and Duke Humphrey had astrology books within their collection. Margery Jourdemayne whom Eleanor had procured potions had a previous conviction for sorcery, dating to 1432. The men who had constructed the horoscope were learned in art of astrology. The act of undertaking a horoscope in itself was not particularly unusual. It was however a problem because of the context. Given Eleanor’s position as wife of the heir, and her high status and influence over the king, her asking for such predictions is foolhardy and naive at best. Any improvement in Eleanor’s standing could only be at the expense of the king. For her enemies in court, it was easy to suggest that such predictions were wishing the kings death, a treasonable act. Furthermore it was easy to extend any factual evidence with suggestions of sorcery, especially so as a convicted sorceress was known to have been involved in Eleanor’s dabbling in astrology. The political aspect of Eleanor’s trial relates also to duke Humphrey and his political opponents. This is discussed in this article (pdf) by Ralph A. Griffiths from the University of Swansea.
Eleanor’s humiliation was total. She did fair better than the others who were implicated. Margery Jourdemayne was burnt at the stake at Smithfield. Roger Bolingbroke was hanged, drawn and quartered.
Oxford Dictionary of National Biography – Eleanor [née Eleanor Cobham], duchess of Gloucester. Login required, Free using a UK Library card.
Historic Royal Palaces – The Rise and Fall of Eleanor Cobham
University of Manchester – The Trial of Eleanor Cobham, an episode in the fall of the Duke of Gloucester (pdf)
HSLC.org – The Imprisonment of Eleanor Cobham (pdf)
Freelance History Writer – Eleanor Cobham, Duchess of Gloucester
Susan Higginbotham – Eleanor Cobham: The Duchess and her Downfall
Featured Image: Illuminated miniature of Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester and his second wife Eleanor, Duchess of Gloucester from the Liber Benefactorum of St Albans by Thomas Walsingham, Cotton MS Nero D VII, British Library. Sourced from wikimedia commons.