Eleanor Cobham, Duchess of Gloucester: Witchcraft, treason, and sanctuary denied

In 1441, Eleanor, duchess of Gloucester, wife of the king’s uncle and next heir Humphrey of Gloucester, was accused of employing astrology & necromancy to “imagine the king’s death.” If the young Henry VI died, her own husband Humphrey was the next heir, and she would become queen. Allegedly aided by scholars learned in the magical arts, as well as the “witch of Eye” [or Ebury, now Hyde Park], Margery Jourdemayne, Eleanor was said to have predicted Henry VI’s death, including by fashioning a wax figurine of the king and casting astrological charts.

15th-century learned magic in the Rawlinson manuscript

When the plot came to light, Eleanor sought sanctuary at Westminster Abbey. She could be considered the first of a flurry of sanctuary claims coming out of the mid-fifteenth-century civil wars (aka the Wars of the Roses), if we think of this conspiracy as a proem to the later coups d’état that would mark English politics for the second half of the fifteenth century. Though subsequent sanctuary claims by royals, royals-adjacent, and aristocratic partisans would almost always be efficacious, Eleanor’s was not. A council of bishops rejected her sanctuary claim on the basis that those charged with witchcraft and treason could not avail themselves of the church’s protection. Later claims of treason were allowed in King’s Bench, as we’ll see. I’ve found no other sanctuary claims for witchcraft, however, which was heresy rather than felony until the 1540s and in any case a very rare charge generally until the 1560s. Heresy was a more common accusation but likewise the protection of church sanctuary was seen as unavailable to those who rejected the church’s authority (the crux of a heresy charge). It’s important to note that for Eleanor, witchcraft was alleged as the means of her treason rather than as a separate crime; Margery Jourdemayne on the other hand was charged in the church court with heresy. All of Eleanor’s co-accused were executed for either treason or heresy or both; she was sent into exile on the Isle of Man, where she died in 1452.

English Chronicle, 57-58; Cox, Sanctuaries, 58-59; Ralph A. Griffiths, “The Trial of Eleanor Cobham: An Episode in the Fall of Duke Humphrey of Gloucester,” Bulletin of the John Rylands Library 51, no. 2 (1969): 388-89; Jessica Freeman, “Sorcery at Court and Manor: Margery Jourdemayne, the Witch of Eye next Westminster,” Journal of Medieval History 30, no. 4 (2004): 343–357.

Image at top: Eleanor and her husband, Humphrey, duke of Gloucester. BL Cotton Nero D VII, http://www.bl.uk/manuscripts/Viewer.aspx?ref=cotton_ms_nero_d_vii_f154r

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