It was November 13th, 1441: the curious people of London lined the streets to observe an act of public penance. The criminal was a woman, perhaps 40 years of age, bare-headed, plainly dressed, who was rowed in a barge to Temple Stairs off the Thames. She would then proceed to walk all the way to St. Paul’s Cathedral, carrying before her a wax taper and showing the entire time a “meek and demure countenance.”
The condemned woman was Eleanor Cobham, the wife to a royal prince: Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester. The duchess had been tried and condemned for heresy and witchcraft.
She most probably did dabble in the black arts, and the most serious of such crimes was to seek to know, or perhaps even alter, the future, through the practice of necromancy.
Eleanor Cobham was born in Kent around 1400, daughter of Sir Reginald Cobham, 3rd Baron Sterborough, grew up surrounded by the glories of English courts. At the age of about twenty, Eleanor entered the service of the illustrious Jacqueline, countess of Hanault, who desired her as lady-in-waiting.
Jacqueline repudiated her husband, John of Brabant, and in 1423 she fled to England after the annulment of her marriage, marrying one of the sons of King Henry IV, the youngest brother of Henry V: Humphrey, duke of Gloucester.
At some point over the next five years, and after some trips to France in 1425 to recover some possessions of his wife Jacqueline, Eleanor herself became the mistress of the duke, the husband of her employer.
In 1428, when their relationship was uncovered, Humphrey abandoned his wife; the pope annulled the marriage because of legalities to do with her first husband and the Duke of Gloucester married his lover Eleanor Cobham, pregnant with the first of their two children.
When the two settled at the Palace of Placentia in Greenwich, Humphrey made his court a bustle of artists, poets and musicians. He was indeed known as “the good Duke Humphrey” because of his patronage, but despite this, he was a complex man. Well educated, he supported learning more than most aristocrats, was a devoted patron of the arts, but also an enthusiastic soldier, devoted to his oldest brother, the famous warrior Henry V. Moreover, he was also impulsive and vengeful. There is little doubt he was, in addition, a womanizer.
In 1435, his elder brother the King, Henry V, died, leaving the throne to his son, the very young Henry VI, of whom Humphrey had been appointed Lord protector. Because he was too young to reign, Humphrey, mindful of the wishes of his elder brother, proposed himself as ruler. Although there was support from the newly deceased sovereign, the entire court council, headed by Humphrey, opposed his appointment forcefully.
Nevertheless, Humphrey obtained the regency of the kingdom, which was also favored by the great affection that the young Henry VI felt towards his uncle. The two branches of the Lancaster family fought for power for the rest of Humphrey’s life.
In all this serie of events, Eleanor did not go unnoticed: at court there were slanders about her, between those who considered her immoral for her past, and those who considered her greedy.
Historian Ralph Griffiths says, “One chronicler noted how she flaunted her pride and her position by riding through the streets of London, glitteringly dressed.”
Some historians claim that, at the source of the storm that shortly afterwards Eleanor Cobham would hit, there was the manipulation of the naive Henry VI by some high-ranking members of the court council. They, determined to bring down the kingdom of Humphrey of Lancaster, believed that the pawn to be shaken was not directly him, but his wife Eleanor, so influential on her husband’s decisions.
In late June 1441, word spread through London that two men had been arrested for conspiring against the king–divining Henry VI’s future through the use of necromancy and concluding that he would soon suffer a serious illness.
The accused were two clerks, Roger Bolingbroke, an Oxford priest, and Thomas Southwell, a canon.
At that time, who practiced necromancy were often churchmen, because to learn it, knowledge of Latin was necessary, the language in which the ancient texts of astrology, alchemy and necromancy were written.
The men were sent to the Tower of London and possibly tortured. Bolingbroke told his interrogators that he had been prompted to look into the future of the king by the duchess of Gloucester.
The authorities, driven by the extremely worried prince who feared for his health, warned the court council, which consulted other astrologers to verify the veracity of the prophecy, which (obviously) turned out to be false.
After being captured in Winchester, following an escape attempt, it was the turn of Eleanor’s trial, which was brought in front of the ecclesiastical court to respond to accusations of witchcraft and necromancy.
A witness, a witch, was produced, Margaret Jourdemayne, who said she procured love potions for the duchess to make Gloucester marry her. In her trial, Eleanor denied seeking to know the future of the king through necromancy, but she “did acknowledge recourse to the Black Art.” It is believed she turned to the necromancers and witch to try to bear a child.
Later, the two clerics were convicted, but only Bolingbroke was executed (according to the terrible punishment that goes under the name of lhanged, drawn, and quartered”), while Southwell died of starvation still held at the Tower of London. Margaret Jourdemayne was instead condemned and burned alive at the stake in Smithfield.
After suffering public humiliation three times, going in procession around St. Paul, Eleanor Cobham was “helped” by Humphrey of Lancaster, who did everything possible to alleviate her sentence.
She spent the rest of her life confined in various castles and died on 7 July 1452 in Anglesey, five years after her former husband Humphrey in 1452. His wife’s disgrace had finished him as an important man of the kingdom.
Although recourse to the so-called “dark arts” was frequent within the English courts, it was nevertheless risky to talk about it openly. It is unlikely, according to historians, that Eleanor did turn to the dark arts to try to bring about the death of Henry VI so that her husband could become king and she become queen. More likely, she dabbled in the same forbidden practices that other court ladies did. But in the tense and treacherous political climate of the Lancastrian court, where rivalries were soon to explode into the War of the Roses, a mistake in judgment could cost the life.
The story of Eleanor Cobham upset public opinion at the time. Despite the accusations of witchcraft for these noblewomen turned out to be historically fake, those of Eleanor Cobham were verified by the accused herself, a more unique than rare event.