Eleanor Cobham ended her life divorced, disgraced and imprisoned, but she began it as a lady and lover of the brother of a king. How did she get to that? What happened in her life, and was she really what everyone believed of her?
Eleanor was born in 1400, to a noble family in Kent. Not much is known about her before the early 1420’s, when she became lady-in-waiting to Jacqueline of Hainaut.
Jacqueline, the Countess of Holland, Zeeland and Hainaut had fled political upheaval in the Low Countries and asked King Henry V for help. She had become a glamorous and honoured presence at the English court, but it was only upon the unexpected death of Henry V that Jacqueline managed to secure the divorce from her husband that she had wanted for over a year.
The divorce itself was dubious – only valid in England – but nonetheless, Jacqueline married Henry V’s brother, Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester in a hasty and secret ceremony in 1423. The couple went back to the Low Countries to claim her land, and at some point on their return to England in 1425, Eleanor Cobham, beautiful lady-in-waiting, became mistress of the Duke.
In early 1428, Jacqueline and Humphrey’s marriage was annulled, and so the way for Eleanor was clear. She married Humphrey, and the two of them set up their own little court in Greenwich, filled with friends, allies, musicians, poets and scholars. The two were well matched in many ways: attractive, flamboyant, ambitious. They weren’t necessarily popular, but they continued to rise in favour, with Eleanor being granted a Lady of the Garter, and remaining close to their nephew; the young King Henry VI.
In 1435, Humphrey’s elder brother, John, Duke of Bedford, died. While the King was young and heirless, this made Humphrey the heir-presumptive to the throne. Eleanor, already a proud woman by all accounts, became even more haughty and proud – one day she might be Queen of England.
Eleanor had a keen interest in astrology and horoscopes. In 1441 he used two astrologers, Thomas Southwell and Roger Bolingbroke, to try and divine the future. They predicted that the King would suffer a life-threatening illness that summer, and somehow their words found their way to the king’s guardians, who questioned both men, and John Home, Eleanor’s personal secretary.
Following on from this interrogation, Southwell and Bolingbroke were arrested on charges of treasonable necromancy, and they named Eleanor as the instigator of these treasonable prophecies. Eleanor was now in grave danger, and so she fled her home to Westminster Abbey, where she could claim sanctuary. Not only had she consulted astrologers to see the future, but she had also been in contact with Margery Jourdemayne, a wise woman – or a witch.
As she was in sanctuary, she could not be tried by a court of law, but she was instead questioned by a panel of religious men. Eleanor denied all of the charges, but did confess that she had bought potions from Jourdemayne, “The Witch of Eye” – they were to help her conceive. After 13 years of marriage to the Duke, and over 15 in a relationship with him, they still had no children.
Afraid of what might happen to her, Eleanor pleaded illness and tried to escape by river, but was captured, and had to face another trial, alongside the three others, who claimed that she had encouraged them to use their gifts to kill the King. Jourdemayne claimed that she had been employed as a witch by Eleanor for years; even giving Eleanor potions to ensure that the Duke fell in love with her.
While Southwell, Bolingbroke and Jourdemayne all died for their crimes (Southwell died in the Tower of London, Bolingbroke was hanged, drawn and quartered and Jourdemayne burnt at the stake), Eleanor escaped death and was sentenced to life imprisonment. But, before that, humiliation. Her marriage to the Duke of Gloucester, which had brought glamour and danger into her life, was ended and she was forced to do public penance in London.
Dressed in black and bareheaded, on 13 November 1441, Eleanor walked, carrying a wax taper from Temple Bar to St. Paul’s cathedral; she repeated this twice more, carrying a taper from Thames Street to Christ Church and then Queenhithe to St. Michael’s in Cornhill.
After this, Eleanor was imprisoned for the rest of her life. First she was at Chester Castle, then Kenilworth, then in July 1446 she was relocated to the Isle of Man. Her former husband, the Duke of Gloucester wasn’t faring much better: having lost his grip on power and having made many enemies, he found himself outmanoeuvred by the Queen, Maragret of Anjou, and was arrested in February 1447 and dying a week later.
Eleanor Cobham had risen from obscurity to the highest-ranking woman at the English court, by virtue of her beauty, wit, and whatever else had attracted Humphrey to her; but her years at the centre of a dazzling court were long over by the time she died. Eleanor died, alone and disgraced in 1442, the label “witch” hanging over her for the rest of history.
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