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A Royal Witch Hunt in Medieval England

Owain Glyndwr was a Welsh national hero. His life story is fascinating.

Humphrey and Eleanor, Duke and Duchess of Gloucester.

Humphrey and Eleanor, Duke and Duchess of Gloucester.

Eleanor Cobham, Lady in Waiting

Eleanor Cobham wasn’t royal by birth but she did come from a respected noble family. Born circa 1400, she was the daughter of Reginald Cobham, the 3rd Earl of Cobham and his wife Eleanor Culpeper. She grew up to be a captivating and intelligent woman and was expected to marry well but her parents wouldn’t have dared to hope for a royal match.

Around 1422 Eleanor was made a lady-in-waiting to Countess Jacqueline of Hainault, the twenty one year old Duchess of Gloucester, wife of Humphrey, the youngest son of England’s King Henry IV and the brother of King Henry V, hero of Agincourt. Jacqueline was on her third marriage, her first husband died, the second union had ended in divorce. Her third would be memorable for being declared null and void by the Pope in 1428.

A Controversial Royal Marriage

Henry V died in 1422 and his son King Henry VI was born in 1421 so a regency was needed. Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester ruled in England as Lord Protector whilst his elder brother John, Duke of Bedford, who was made regent to their nephew went to France to continue with his late brother’s military campaigns.

In 1425 Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester left his wife and its assumed that Eleanor was already his mistress by the time of the separation. Three years later the Pope absolved Humphrey and Jacqueline’s marriage on a convenient technicality related to marriage number two’s divorce. Humphrey married Eleanor after this decree but the exact wedding date remains unknown. Many people in England still thought of Jacqueline as Humphrey’s true wife so the union was not hugely popular.

King Henry VI.

King Henry VI.

Moving Closer to the Throne of England

Two illegitimate children were born to Humphrey in his life. It has been claimed that their mother was Eleanor. There’s no proof that Arthur and Antigone Plantagenet were Eleanor’s and Humphrey made no attempt to legitimise them.

By 1431 Eleanor, Duchess of Gloucester was enjoying royal life, she attracted the learned, musicians and poets to her homes and she had an avid interest in alchemy and astronomy. She was inducted into the Fraternity of the Monastery of St. Albans and given the highest chivalric honour in the land when she was made a Lady of the Garter.

Her brother-in-law the Duke of Bedford passed away in 1435. King Henry VI was still a minor at fourteen years old so Humphrey was not only proclaimed his regent but the new heir presumptive to the throne. If Henry died prior to having children then the crown would be placed on Humphrey’s head, with Eleanor as his consort. She had risen a long way from the Cobham family home. Her manner became grander as her status did.

A scene from The Hollow Crown: Eleanor's Arrest.

Eleanor's Treason: A Horoscope

Her downfall came in 1441. One day in June her meal was interrupted by the shocking news that her acquaintances John Bolingbroke, a priest and astrologer and Thomas Southwell, a canon and astrologer had been arrested for casting a horoscope which predicted that the king’s death was imminent. The king had heard the rumours about his looming death and had commissioned another horoscope which to his relief foretold that there were many years left in his life. (He died in 1471).

To speak of or predict the death of a monarch was treason and Eleanor realised that the men were in great danger. To her horror, she too was implicated. It was at Eleanor’s request that this horoscope had been arranged so that she could see her own future. The forecasted death of Henry was deemed a way for her to lay claim to the throne of England.

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Interested in Science or Witchcraft?

She took sanctuary at Westminster. In July 1441 twenty eight charges of treason and felony were brought against Eleanor. Although she denied treason she did not refute that she used the services of the known witch “the Witch of Eye” Margery Jourdemayne. She said that she acquired potions to help her fall pregnant, which in that era of magic and superstition was not unusual.

Soon afterwards, Bolingbroke confessed to witchcraft and again laid the blame at Eleanor’s door. Further charges against her were being considered that autumn when she tried to escape her captivity. She failed.

Southwell and Bolingbroke testified at their joint trial that Eleanor had promised them great rewards for foretelling Henry VI’s death and that she used sorcery regularly and had encouraged them to consider witchcraft. Margery Jourdemayne added more damning words, that Eleanor had been using her services for years, even to make the Duke of Gloucester fall in love with her. Eleanor’s interests in alchemy and astronomy were used as evidence of her willingness to use “treasonable necromancy”.

J.W.E. Doyle's 1864 depiction of Eleanor Cobham, Duchess of Gloucester's penance.

J.W.E. Doyle's 1864 depiction of Eleanor Cobham, Duchess of Gloucester's penance.

The Duchess of Gloucester Was a Witch

Eleanor, Duchess of Gloucester was found guilty of witchcraft and sentenced to carry out public penance before being imprisoned for life. She was humiliated and devastated. If this was a plot to bring her down by her enemies then it was their moment of triumph and whether or not she was guilty of being anything more than unpopular is highly debatable. Southwell committed suicide to avoid the fate of traitors and Bolingbroke was hung, drawn and quartered. Margery Jourdemayne was burnt at the stake.

On three occasions in November 1441 Eleanor did public penance, walking from church to church under the watchful eyes of a crowd that was mostly out of sympathy with her. Her penance completed, she was comfortably incarcerated in Chester Castle and had a staff of twelve with her. Henry VI, fond of his aunt, regularly sent her presents.

Eleanor Abandoned by Duke Humphrey

Where was Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester throughout this tumultuous time? He retired from public life and as in his opinion there was little that he could do or say to help Eleanor, he did nothing. Their marriage was annulled as a result of the guilty verdict.

After a couple of years in Chester Eleanor was moved to Kenilworth and a few years after this she found herself on the Isle of Man. Humphrey did not marry again and he predeceased Eleanor, passing away in 1447 aged fifty six. The cause was most probably a stroke although rumours spread about his death being murder.

In 1449 Eleanor was taken to Beaumaris Castle on the island of Anglesey off the North Wales mainland where she remained until her death on the 7th July 1452. Forgotten by most people, her death was not mentioned by the numerous chroniclers of the day and it was centuries before her date of death was discovered.

Beaumaris Castle, Anglesey where Eleanor, Duchess of Gloucester spent her final days.

Beaumaris Castle, Anglesey where Eleanor, Duchess of Gloucester spent her final days.


This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2022 Joanne Hayle

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