Researching my novel ‘The Black Hours’ led me to discover many strange and horrifying stories of persecution, suspicion and murder, most of which seem hard to believe in this day and age. Much of my research centred on Essex, East Anglia and parts of Kent in the period that Matthew Hopkins, Witchfinder General and antihero of my book, was operating. However, there have been many other instances of accusations of witchcraft in the UK, from both before and after Hopkins’ horrible reign. Predictably, most of them centred on poorer, older women, outcasts or those on the edge of society. However, the rich and powerful didn’t always escape.
Eleanor Cobham was the mistress and second wife of Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester. In 1441, she was imprisoned for the impressive sounding crime of treasonable necromancy.
Eleanor’s downfall came about through her interest in both astrology and the monarchy. Her husband was the fourth and youngest son of King Henry IV by his first wife Mary de Bohun. His brother was King Henry V. When Humphrey’s older brother died in 1453, Humphrey became heir presumptive to the English throne. Eleanor, perhaps feeling that the crown was within her husband’s grasp, consulted astrologers Thomas Southwell and Roger Bolingbroke. They predicted that the king, Henry VI, would suffer a life threatening illness. Word of this reached the court, and the two men were arrested along with Eleanor’s personal confessor, John Home. Under interrogation, Bolingbroke named Eleanor as the instigator of their predictions. She was arrested and tried.
Although she denied most of the accusations, Eleanor did confess to obtaining potions from ‘the witch of Eye’, Margery Jourdemayne. She denied that these potions had anything to do with the predictions however, claiming that they were purchased in order to help her conceive. Poor Margery was also arrested.
Not surprisingly, as a woman of some power and influence, and being such a close relative by marriage to the king, Eleanor escaped rather more lightly than her fellow accused. Bolingbroke was hanged, drawn and quartered, Southwell died in the Tower and Margery was burned at the stake. Eleanor was sentenced to carry out public penance, forced to divorce her husband and imprisoned for life. She died at Beaumaris Castle in Anglesey in 1452.
Eleanor carrying out her penance
I am a UK-based writer, editor and independent novelist. I love reading and I love to write. These are the two great passions of my life. Find out about my historical novels ‘Blackwater’ and ‘The Black Hours’ here.
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