I have been trying to understand the downfall of Eleanor Cobham. Not because I plan to write about her (life is too short) but purely because I like to understand events clearly.
Eleanor was, of course, the wife of Duke Humphrey of Gloucester, Henry VI‘s youngest and last surviving uncle. I have no doubt at all that Eleanor’s fall was ‘political’. Humphrey had powerful enemies, and those enemies struck at him through his wife. It was a very effective strategy. Although Eleanor was the daughter of a minor peer, she was not a great lady by birth and had been Humphrey’s mistress before she was his wife.
One thing is clear. Astrology was not forbidden. Indeed, St. Thomas Aquinas had stated it was lawful to seek guidance on future events. You don’t get a much more authoritative source than that. So, if Eleanor, for example, asked for a horoscope to be cast to predict whether she would give Humphrey an heir, that was quite lawful. It was no more than many other nobles did.
Necromancy – in effect speaking to the dead and having them speak back – was, however, regarded as sinful and contrary to the Church’s teaching. It seems that her accomplices were accused of performing various dodgy rituals that may have amounted to this. They were learned men – indeed, they needed to be to read the forbidden books, which in those days were neither printed in English nor readily available on Amazon.
Even this though, was not in itself capital. Normally the Church would have demanded penance, possibly a severe one, but not death unless heresy was involved and not renounced.
What seems to have made this case ‘serious’ was the alleged questioning of the life prospects of King Henry VI. When one is immediate heir to the throne (or married to the heir) such curiosity is perhaps natural. However ‘compassing and imagining the death of the king’ was high treason, and those words could be widely interpreted. Or they could if one was so minded.
Margery Jourdemayne, ‘the Witch of Eye Next Westminster’ was another of Eleanor’s accomplices. She had been known to Eleanor for years and was probably a ‘wise woman’ and consultant on ‘women’s issues’ – notably on how to get pregnant. I have quite recently seen it confidently asserted that the Church was not unduly bothered about such matters. But Margery allegedly made an image of Henry VI, with the purpose of destroying him.
I am confident that this is why she was burnt at the stake – as a high traitor making use of witchcraft, not as a witch per se. The distinction is important because at this time witchcraft in itself was not a capital offence.
Eleanor’s other accomplices, Roger Bolingbroke, John Hume (or Home), Thomas Southwell (all clerics) seem also to have been regarded as traitors. Southwell died in the Tower, Hume was pardoned (for whatever reason) but Bolingbroke was hanged, drawn and quartered.
Eleanor had an ecclesiastical trial, and as is well known then did three days of penance in London. Unlike Bolingbroke, she never faced a criminal trial but spent the rest of her days locked up in various castles, the modest allowance of 100 marks a year given for her maintenance suggesting she was not kept in the lap of luxury. It looks very much as if she was imprisoned ‘at the King’s pleasure’ rather than under the sentence of a court.
I researched the full story of Lady Eleanor Cobham, and visited the locations in my book, The Secret Diary of Eleanor Cobham:
In most big trials like this you get someone being pardoned. The idea was more about choosing one or two to make an example of, and giving the others a second chance. Humme (as his name is spelled in the records) was very much an afterthought and not involved at a high level.
Margery Jordan was burnt as a relapsed heretic. Witchcraft was increasingly being construed as hersey by the authorities, and Margery had been convicted of heretical witchcraft once before and abjured the practice.