There was a Beldame called the wytch of Ey,
Old mother Madge her neyghbours did hir name
Which wrought wonders in countryes by heresaye
Both feendes and fayries her charmyng would obay
And dead corpsis from grave she could uprere
Suche an inchauntresse, as that tyme had no peere
On this date in 1441, a Westminster folk magician went to the stake.
The “Witch of Eye” had meddled with powers beyond her control — not the Satanic for which her sentence condemned her, but those of the royal court.
This local wise woman had been arrested as a sorceress once a number of years before. But medieval Europe, before the Reformation and Counter-Reformation and the attendant gloom of existential danger from within, was usually not eager to pursue a local shaman for serving a community’s demand for everyday magick — just so long as the charms and incantations purveyed were not being turned to any apparently injurious purpose. The Witch of Eye, Margery Jourdemayne by name, spent several months imprisoned in Windsor Castle and was released with a pledge to stop with the hocus-pocus.
In her fatal last affair this broken promise would augur very ill. But barring that extraordinary case, this was actually one of those little social regulations that could usually just be ignored in the breach. Our cowherd’s wife returned to purveying salves, potions, and elixirs, perhaps a bit more quietly.
Despite her humble rank, the Witch of Eye seems to have enjoyed a sizable client base among the great lords and ladies.
Such august persons of course had interests outside of love tonics. At the start of the 1440s, the royal court was absorbed by the affairs of the teenage king Henry VI.
In Late June of 1441, three servants of Eleanor, Duchess of Gloucester were accused of compassing the death of the king by using astrological divination to forecast the date of his death — which looked especially treasonable since the result reported is supposed to have been soon.
Though a Peerress by marriage, Eleanor was only the daughter of a knight. A sort of proto-Anne Boleyn, she had raised herself (and not a few eyebrows) by starting off as a lady in waiting of the Duke’s previous wife, and (once dynastic machinations sent that Duchess packing for her native Low Countries) advancing herself into the master’s bed.
A cultivated humanist, Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester gave every impression of having found a satisfying domestic union — but Eleanor’s social-climbing set her up for some resentment. It was even said by a chronicle, laying a retrospective interpretation on events, that only occult arts could account for Eleanor’s boudoir triumph:
And this same tyme was take a womman callid the wicche of Eye, whoos sorcerie and wicchecraft the said dame Alienore hadde longe tyme usid; and be suche medicines and drynkis as the said wicche made, the said Alienore enforced theforsaid duke of Gloucestre to love her and to wedde her.
The rank of the figures involved elevated such gossip beyond the court’s everyday palaver.
Humphrey had claimed the Regency for a brief period before Henry VI declared his own majority in 1437, at age 16. More than that, Humphrey was the most senior uncle to the unmarried* Henry, which made him the heir presumptive. He was a heartbeat away from having the crown on his own head.
And that made it a very colorable accusation that Eleanor’s servants — and those henchmen soon accused Eleanor herself, too — took interest in the prospective imminent death of a king in the springtime of his youth.**
Henry’s alarmed response was twofold. First, he commissioned a horoscope reading of his own; no surprise, this improved horoscope predicted a long, healthy life.† Second, he kicked off the judicial processes that would ruin all concerned — although some ruinations were more final than others.
The servants pointed the finger at Eleanor, and the Duchess desperately fled to the sanctuary of Westminster Abbey. This proved not to help her that much when an ecclesiastical court handed down charges of witchcraft and heresy. One of Eleanor’s three busted cronies, Roger Bolingbroke, had already been forced to publicly abjure his devilries amid a display of his necromancing tools.
Just as Bolingbroke claimed that “he wroughte the said nygromancie atte stiryng of the forsaid dame Alienore, to knowe what sholde falle of hir and to what astat she sholde come,” Eleanor implicated her old magic-vendor, the Witch of Eye for building some of the illicit charms. By now it was pratically beside the point that Eleanor said Bolingbroke’s damning wax figurines were meant to inflict children upon Eleanor rather than injury upon His Majesty. Margery Jourdemayne had shaped the wretched dolls, and nobody caught in the storm of charges had less pull than she. Plus, of course, she was now a repeat offender.
How she in waxe by counsel of the witch,
An image made, crowned like a king,
… which dayly they did pytch
Against a fyre, that as the wax did melt,
So should his life consume away unfelt.
Condemned by a court presided by the Archbishop of Canterbury, she was burned at Smithfield.
Two of the three courtiers died violently, too: Roger Bolingbroke was hanged, drawn, and quartered on November 18, while Thomas Southwell died suddenly in prison around the time of Jourdemayne’s execution. He might have poisoned himself. The third man, John Home, was only shown to have known what his fellows were up to and not to have taken part himself: he skated on a royal pardon.
The Duchess of Gloucester did well to confine her own juridical guilt to ecclesiastical charges only — heresy and witchcraft — and beat the much more dangerous treason charge that was leveled at her. (In another century, Britons would be much more used to the idea of executing elite nobility.) Her marriage was annulled (she procured it by witchcraft, remember?) and she was forced to perform a humiliating, Cersei Lannister-like‡ public penance on foot around Westminster and London before being shunted off into a forced and closely-watched retirement.
The Penance of Eleanor, by Edwin Austin Abbey (1900)
The scandal didn’t directly touch the Duke of Gloucester, but it essentially forced him out of public life. Six years later he was arrested for treason, but he died (possibly of a stroke, or possibly poison) within days.
The sensational fall of this household excited literary interlocutors almost before Margery Jourdemayne’s ashes were cold — such as this nearly-contemporary “Lament of the Duchess of Gloucester” which dwells on the titular character’s self-destruction by dint of her own vanity: “who wille be high, he shalle be low / the whele of fortune, who may it trow.”
The verses excerpted above in this post come from the following century’s “Mirror for Magistrates”, which makes use of historical figures who met terrible fates not unlike this very site. She might also have helped inspire a lost play from the late 16th or the 17th century.
Shakespeare too stages this entire affair in Henry VI, Part 2, representing Gloucester as an innocent tragically bearing the disaster his enemies visit on him through his wife.
In Act I, Scene 2, Eleanor arranges her divination — and we learn that her enemies are in the process of framing her.
Eleanor. While Gloucester bears this base and humble mind.
Were I a man, a duke, and next of blood,
I would remove these tedious stumbling-blocks
And smooth my way upon their headless necks;
And, being a woman, I will not be slack
To play my part in Fortune’s pageant.
Where are you there? Sir John! nay, fear not, man,
We are alone; here’s none but thee and I.
Father John Hume. Jesus preserve your royal majesty!
Eleanor. What say’st thou? majesty! I am but grace.
Father John Hume. But, by the grace of God, and Hume’s advice,
Your grace’s title shall be multiplied.
Eleanor. What say’st thou, man? hast thou as yet conferr’d
With Margery Jourdain, the cunning witch,
With Roger Bolingbroke, the conjurer?
And will they undertake to do me good?
Father John Hume. This they have promised, to show your highness
A spirit raised from depth of under-ground,
That shall make answer to such questions
As by your grace shall be propounded him.
Eleanor. It is enough; I’ll think upon the questions:
When from St. Alban’s we do make return,
We’ll see these things effected to the full.
Here, Hume, take this reward; make merry, man,
With thy confederates in this weighty cause.
Father John Hume. Hume must make merry with the duchess’ gold;
Marry, and shall. But how now, Sir John Hume!
Seal up your lips, and give no words but mum:
The business asketh silent secrecy.
Dame Eleanor gives gold to bring the witch:
Gold cannot come amiss, were she a devil.
Yet have I gold flies from another coast;
I dare not say, from the rich cardinal
And from the great and new-made Duke of Suffolk,
Yet I do find it so; for to be plain,
They, knowing Dame Eleanor’s aspiring humour,
Have hired me to undermine the duchess
And buz these conjurations in her brain.
They say ‘A crafty knave does need no broker;’
Yet am I Suffolk and the cardinal’s broker.
Hume, if you take not heed, you shall go near
To call them both a pair of crafty knaves.
Well, so it stands; and thus, I fear, at last
Hume’s knavery will be the duchess’ wreck,
And her attainture will be Humphrey’s fall:
Sort how it will, I shall have gold for all.
In Act I, Scene 4, the enthusiasts summon a shade from the underworld and our day’s principal is favored with a few lines from the bard:
Margaret Jourdain. Asmath,
By the eternal God, whose name and power
Thou tremblest at, answer that I shall ask;
For, till thou speak, thou shalt not pass from hence.
But the entire party is arrested and Gloucester’s attempts to note the meaningless vagueness of the predictions supplied by the alleged demon are overruled abruptly.
The conjuration scene in Henry VI, Part 2, illustrated by John Opie.
In Act II, Scene 3 the Duke and Duchess are destroyed politically, and their hirelings destroyed bodily.
Henry VI. Stand forth, Dame Eleanor Cobham, Gloucester’s wife:
In sight of God and us, your guilt is great:
Receive the sentence of the law for sins
Such as by God’s book are adjudged to death.
You four, from hence to prison back again;
From thence unto the place of execution:
The witch in Smithfield shall be burn’d to ashes,
And you three shall be strangled on the gallows.
You, madam, for you are more nobly born,
Despoiled of your honour in your life,
Shall, after three days’ open penance done,
Live in your country here in banishment,
With Sir John Stanley, in the Isle of Man.
Eleanor. Welcome is banishment; welcome were my death.
Duke of Gloucester. Eleanor, the law, thou see’st, hath judged thee:
I cannot justify whom the law condemns.
[Exeunt DUCHESS and other prisoners, guarded]
Mine eyes are full of tears, my heart of grief.
Ah, Humphrey, this dishonour in thine age
Will bring thy head with sorrow to the ground!
I beseech your majesty, give me leave to go;
Sorrow would solace and mine age would ease.
Henry VI. Stay, Humphrey Duke of Gloucester: ere thou go,
Give up thy staff: Henry will to himself
Protector be; and God shall be my hope,
My stay, my guide and lantern to my feet:
And go in peace, Humphrey, no less beloved
Than when thou wert protector to thy King.
Queen Margaret. I see no reason why a king of years
Should be to be protected like a child.
God and King Henry govern England’s realm.
Give up your staff, sir, and the king his realm.
Duke of Gloucester. My staff? here, noble Henry, is my staff:
As willingly do I the same resign
As e’er thy father Henry made it mine;
And even as willingly at thy feet I leave it
As others would ambitiously receive it.
Farewell, good king: when I am dead and gone,
May honourable peace attend thy throne!
Queen Margaret. Why, now is Henry king, and Margaret queen;
And Humphrey Duke of Gloucester scarce himself,
That bears so shrewd a maim; two pulls at once;
His lady banish’d, and a limb lopp’d off.
This staff of honour raught, there let it stand
Where it best fits to be, in Henry’s hand.
Earl of Suffolk. Thus droops this lofty pine and hangs his sprays;
Thus Eleanor’s pride dies in her youngest days.
See also: Jessica Freeman, “Sorcery at Court and Manor: Margery Jourdemayne, the Witch of Eye Next Westminster,” Journal of Medieval History, vol. 30, pp. 343-357.
* Henry married Margaret of Anjou in 1445. Despite the Shakespeare portrayal, she had no part in the proceedings against Eleanor or the Witch of Eye.
** It has long been supposed that part or all of the real impetus for these charges was an opportunistic attack by the Duke’s political rivals, specifically around the question of making peace with France in the Hundred Years’ War. Gloucester, who fought at Agincourt (Shakespeare’s Henry V name-checks him in the great Crispin’s Day pre-battle oration), opposed the growing pro-peace faction.
† It did not predict that Henry would end up murdered in prison.
‡ Game of Thrones author George R.R. Martin unquestionably mines historical atrocities for inspiration and the notorious Walk of Shame scene is no exception; however, the specific public penance he’s cited as the fountainhead for Cersei’s ritual humiliation was not Lady Gloucester’s, but a similar walk endured some years afterward by Edward IV mistress Jane Shore, for which affair we may digressively endorse this History of England podcast episode.
The Penance of Jane Shore, by William Blake (1780).