Eleanor was thrilled when, in 1435, her husband became heir to England's throne (to the so-far-childless Henry VI) upon the death of his elder brother, John of Lancaster, the First Duke of Bedford. At this point, Eleanor began to consult several astrologers in an attempt to find out if her husband would ever become king. These astrologers included Thomas Southwell (Eleanor’s personal physician) and Roger Bolingbroke - both respected and well-educated clergymen - and a witch named Margery Jourdemayne.
Southwell was a canon of St Stephen’s Chapel in the Palace of Westminster, and Rector of St Stephen’s, Walbrook, London. He was probably the personal physician to the Duke and Duchess of Gloucester. Bolingbroke was a member of the Duke’s household, and a personal clerk to the Duchess. He was an astronomer, an astrologer, and probably also a necromancer. Although it was not uncommon in those days to consult astrologers, many in the king's court did not think highly of the predictions that these particular ones made, i.e., that the king would become sick and die in the approaching twentieth year of his reign in 1442.
On 28th June 1441 Eleanor was formally accused of conspiring with these two scholars of the ducal household, Roger Bolingbroke and Thomas Southwell, and with a woman, the so-called Witch of Eye (Ebury Manor, near Westminster), Margery Jourdemayne, to secure the death of Henry VI so that her husband could become King.
Eleven years earlier, Margery had been imprisoned for practising black magic, and had been released with she promised to desist from the practice. According to the accusations made against her, Margery attempted to bring about the death of the king by the black art of necromancy, i.e., divination (manteia) of the dead (nekro) – this would have involved the two crimes of treason and witchcraft.
Eleanor hastened to obtain sanctuary in the Abbey of St Peter at Westminster, and thereby received an ecclesiastical trial rather than a civil one. Eleanor admitted to only five of the twenty-eight counts laid against her. She acknowledged consulting Margery Jourdemayne on matters of witchcraft, but strenuously denied committing treason. Treason was a civil rather than an ecclesiastical matter, and the latter charges against her were abandoned; the ecclesiastical court would deal with her, a noblewoman and wife of a potential future King of England, in a sufficient manner without needing to have the civil authorities proceed to execute her.
Eleanor appeared before a four-person ecclesiastical tribunal of Chicheley, Archbishop of Canterbury, Cardinal Henry Beaufort, Bishop of Winchester, Cardinal Kemp, Archbishop of York, and Ayscough, Bishop of Salisbury, on 2nd July 1441. For her admission of using witchcraft and necromancy, Eleanor was given a humiliating public penance on 13th November 1441, which apparently had the opposite effect of drawing sympathy for her from the London citizens who witnessed it. As well, on the premise that she had invoked black magic to cause the Duke to wed her, her marriage to the Duke was declared void.
She was also sentenced to spend the rest of her life in custody, but was granted a decree of comfort by being provided with100 marks a year, enough with which to employ a dozen servants. She lived in the custody of members of the king’s household, first in Chester House, and was then exiled to the isolation of Peel Castle on the Isle of Man. Guards were stationed at the castle to prevent her from killing herself. She remained there until her death on 7th July 1452. On 27th October 1441 Margery Jourdemayne (sometimes named as Margery Goodman), who made a confession to using witchcraft and who had implicated the Duchess of Gloucester, was burnt at the stake at Smithfield as a relapsed heretic. The two clerics, Bolingbroke and Southwell, were indicted as the principals of treason, and Eleanor as an accessory (a charge later dropped).
Photo (above): The Tower of London, which was host on their final days to Roger Bolingbroke, Thomas Southwell and the Duke of Gloucester, and even to the object of their alleged necromancy, King Henry VI.
The charge brought against them rested entirely on the allegation that, at the request of the Duchess, they had made a waxen image to resemble the king, and had placed it before a fire that, as it gradually melted, so might the king languish and die – news of which treacherously risked alienating the king in the minds and affection of his subjects. On the basis of the evidence, it could be asked why the two clerics were deemed the principals and Eleanor the accessory – possibly because they spoke the news abroad, but she did not?
As evidenced in Eleanor’s sentence outlined above, Eleanor received preferential treatment, probably because of her twofold status as a member of the nobility and the wife of the second in line to the Throne. On 18th November 1441 Bolingbroke was taken from the Tower of London to the Guildhall to be found guilty of treason by the King’s Commissioners, and then conveyed immediately to the gallows at Tyburn. There he was hanged, drawn and quartered. His head was displayed on London Bridge, and his four quarters were parcelled out to Oxford, Cambridge, Hereford and to one other town (either York or Bristol).
Thomas Southwell died in the Tower of London within hours of Margery’s execution, and one day before his trial was set to begin. It was said that he died “of sorrow.” As a physician he may have arranged access to poison and taken his own life before a predictable mortal judicial sentence could be imposed on him. In hindsight it is difficult to assess how much these trials were the result of superstitious hysteria, and how much they were politically-motivated against Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester, the brother of the late King Henry V, and a rival to Henry’s then-reigning son, King Henry VI).
Indeed, Cardinal Henry Beaufort, one of the ecclesiastical judges of Eleanor, was long opposed politically to the Duke of Gloucester, and is thought to have had no compunction about striking at the Duke by tarnishing his public image and removing his wife from him. What had happened to Eleanor effectively demolished whatever public regard for the Duke that had earlier existed.
Although Gloucester was not directly implicated in his wife's crimes, the incident provided fuel for his enemies to ultimately bring him down. In 1447, six years after his wife's exile, Gloucester was arrested for treason and died in mysterious circumstances soon afterwards. The other figure in the background of these events, King Henry VI, nephew of the Duke of Gloucester, suffered a nervous breakdown in 1453, was exiled to Scotland in 1461, briefly assumed the English throne in 1470, and in the following year was imprisoned in the Tower of London, and died there on 21st May 1471. He was the last king from the House of Lancaster.
Eleanor in Shakespeare
She appears in: Henry VI, Part 2 Eleanor Cobham is portrayed as a highly ambitious woman in 2 Henry VI. She urges her husband Gloucester, who is heir to the throne, to pursue his claim, which he does not go along with. In turn, she consults several astronomers as to the fates of Henry VI and the Dukes of Somerset and York. As the astronomers are giving their answers, York arrives and arrests them all. They are put on trial where they are found guilty of treason. Eleanor is exiled while all the others involved are put to death. As she is being paraded through London's streets on her way to exile, Eleanor and Gloucester share a sad farewell before she is led off.
Necromancy. Wikipedia. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Necromancy
Letter of Warrant from King Henry VI. To the Bishop of Bath, his Chancellor, in 1441, concerning the exile of Eleanor Duchess of Gloucester. Read all about it! http://www.isle-of-man.com/manxnotebook/manxsoc/msvol16/p191a.htm