The English Duchess Convicted of Witchcraft


On January 19, 1442, Eleanor Cobham, Duchess of Gloucester was convicted of treason for conspiring against the king, Henry VI. Specifically, she was charged with witchcraft and for consorting with astrologers and fortune-tellers to predict when King Henry would die. Not at all coincidentally, Eleanor stood to benefit from Henry’s death since her husband, his uncle, was the heir apparent.

The charges, which were likely embellished by the political enemies of her husband, Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester, nevertheless prompted him to swiftly divorce her when they came to light in the summer of 1441. After her conviction, Eleanor was forced to do penance by walking through the streets of London and then imprisoned.

She began her captivity at Chester Castle in Cheshire, before moving to Kenilworth Castle the following year and then to the Isle of Man in 1446. She finally ended up at Beaumaris Castle in Anglesey, Wales in 1449, where she died three years later on July 7, 1452.

BeaumarisAerial North Castles Historic Sites
Beaumaris Castle today

As unlikely as Eleanor’s fate may seem given that she was a royal duchess by marriage, the fact that she even ended up in that exalted role is even less likely given her origins. Eleanor was born in Kent around 1400 to Reynold, 3rd Baron Cobham and Eleanor Culpeper, a perfectly respectable English family. Nothing is known about her childhood or how she became attached to the royal court, but in 1422 she gained a place in the household of Jacqueline of Hainaut, Duchess of Brabant.

Jacqueline, herself, was a controversial figure in England. She had arrived in 1421 with the permission of King Henry V, but had made her way there without the knowledge of her husband, John IV, Duke of Brabant, or her mother, Margaret of Burgundy, Countess of Hainaut. Jacqueline, as the only surviving child of her parents, was Countess of Hainaut in her own right, but had those rights  challenged by her paternal uncle, John of Bavaria, upon inheriting them in 1418.

Jacqueline of Hainaut

Prior to that, Jacqueline’s parents had married her to the second son of Charles VI, King of France, Jean, Duke of Touraine. Had plans unfolded as they thought, Jean would have been in an excellent position, with the backing of France, to ensure he, Jacqueline, and their subsequent children maintained their hold on Hainaut. However in December 1415, two months after France’s defeat at Agincourt, Jean’s older brother, Louis of Guienne, the dauphin, died in Rouen. Jean became the eldest living son of his father, King Charles, and stood to inherit the French throne.

Jean of Touraine, the dauphin of France

Unfortunately, France was in the throes of the Burgundy-Armagnac civil war. Jean’s father, Charles VI, suffered intermittent bouts of madness that grew steadily worse as he got older, leading to a jockeying of power between his cousins, the dukes of Burgundy, and his nephew, Charles, Duke of Orleans. The current Duke of Burgundy was Jean Sans Peur, brother to Jacqueline’s mother, Margaret. When the first dauphin died and Jean became the heir, this stood as excellent news for Jean Sans Peur, who believed that he could exert control over the new dauphin, his nephew.

Jean’s mother, Isabeau of Bavaria, Queen of France, sought to gain access of her son, who had been raised away from her at Le Quesnoy in Hainaut. Despite the capture of Charles of Orleans by the English at Agincourt, she still remained largely under the control of his party, known as the Armagnacs. With the Queen and the Duke of Burgundy both trying to gain custody of the new dauphin, Jacqueline’s parents had the foresight to keep their cards close to their vest and delay handing him over until they could be certain of his safety and autonomy.

Yet, despite their good intentions, Jean’s time as the dauphin would be short. He died in Compiègne on April 5, 1417 from an abscess in his ear and his younger brother, the future Charles VII, became the next dauphin. His death was followed the next month by that of Jacqueline’s father, William, Count of Hainaut, on May 3, and thus, in short order, Jacqueline lost her husband, her father and came into her inheritance without a much-needed protector.

John IV, Duke of Brabant

Jacqueline quickly entered into a second marriage on the advice of her mother and her uncle, Jean Sans Peur. Her new husband was John IV, Duke of Brabant, who could seemingly help her protect her lands from the claims of her paternal uncle, who had promptly left the Church on the death of his brother and attempted to disinherit his niece. John IV proved incompetent, the marriage was unhappy, and rumors of John IV’s infidelity were an embarrassment to his wife. Jacqueline left his court in 1421 and made her way to England where her former sister-in-law, Katherine of Valois, had married Henry V in 1420. From there, she sought a divorce and bided her time to challenge her uncle.

Thus, Eleanor joined the household of a powerful woman by 15th century standards, albeit one tainted by scandal. In August of 1422, the same year that Eleanor entered into her service, Henry V died in France and the English throne was inherited by his infant son, Henry VI. The new king had two uncles, John, Duke of Bedford, who was fighting in France, and Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester, who was overseeing affairs in England.

By the end of the year, Humphrey had been denied the role of Lord Protector, and instead saw his power dependent on a council of English lords and curtailed by his brother. But he would have the last move when, over the winter of 1422/1423, Jacqueline gained her divorce from the Avignon Pope and he secretly married her without the knowledge of the government.

By the autumn of 1424 Humphrey and Jacqueline departed England for Hainaut, taking Eleanor with them. Their campaign abroad was a disaster and severely jeopardized the alliance between England and Burgundy since Jean Sans Peur’s son, Philip, Duke of Burgundy, had taken an interest in Jacqueline’s lands. In 1425, Jacqueline’s uncle had died and Jacqueline’s former husband, John IV, named Philip as regent.

Philip, Duke of Burgundy

By this time, however, Humphrey had lost interest in both the campaign and his wife. In April he effectively abandoned Jacqueline in Hainaut, after making an enemy of Philip of Burgundy and therefore angering his brother, John of Bedford. He returned to England where, it appears, he took Eleanor with him.

It’s unclear when an affair between Humphrey and Eleanor began. It’s possible it started in Hainaut, but it’s just as likely Eleanor, as an Englishwoman, was eager to return home and so left with the Duke as a means to get there. Nevertheless, it became an open secret at court that the two were lovers as Humphrey faced the music for his misadventure abroad over the next few years.

Jacqueline, meanwhile, still Humphrey’s legal wife, remained in Hainaut, battling it out with Philip of Burgundy. She pleaded with England for financial and military aid, but none was forthcoming – neither was any communication from her husband, who appeared to ignore her letters. In 1427, John IV died amidst rumors of poison and Rome decreed that his marriage to Jacqueline had been valid, and that the annulment granted by the Pope in Avignon was null and void. Thus, Humphrey’s own marriage to Jacqueline was declared illegal in January 1428 and he swiftly married Eleanor, making her Duchess of Gloucester.

Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester

From the late 1420s until the early 1440s, Eleanor became one of the few prominent women at the royal court. Henry VI’s mother, Katherine of Valois, the Dowager Queen of England, resided outside of London whenever possible and appears to have been mainly preoccupied with a secret relationship with a Welshman in her household, Owen Tudor. She died in January 1437.

Anne of Burgundy, Duchess of Bedford

With John, Duke of Bedford living primarily in France, Eleanor was usually the highest-ranking woman at court. John’s first wife, Anne of Burgundy, sister to Philip, Duke of Burgundy, died in November 1432 and he remarried to Jacquetta of Luxembourg in 1433, before he, himself, died in September 1435. Jacquetta, uninterested in having another marriage arranged for her and seemingly in love, married Sir Richard Woodville without permission and therefore saw herself in some disgrace by the late 1430s.

Upon Bedford’s death, however, Humphrey became his nephew’s heir apparent, which put Eleanor in the position of becoming queen should Henry VI die without any heirs. With the King around 20 in the early 1440s, and poised to marry soon, Eleanor had a vested interest in determining how long he would live and, equally as important, whether she would have children.

Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester

It’s been determined that Humphrey had two children during his life, Arthur and Antigone. However, intriguingly, their maternity is unknown, save that they are definitely not the children of Jacqueline of Hainaut. Historians are divided as to whether these children are Humphrey’s bastards through an unknown mother, or whether they are Eleanor’s from before her marriage to Humphrey. If they were born to Eleanor, it does seem odd that Humphrey wouldn’t have sought to legitimize them after he married their mother, particularly since neither Henry VI nor John of Bedford had any children in the 1430s and a firm Lancastrian succession would have been ideal.

Regardless, Eleanor’s consultations came to light and Humphrey deserted her as quickly as he left Jacqueline 16 years before, in the hopes of preserving royal favor and his political standing. He never married again and, ironically, Eleanor would outlive him. On February 20, 1447, Humphrey’s political enemies would finally finish him off and he was charged with treason, dying in custody three days later.

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2 thoughts on “The English Duchess Convicted of Witchcraft

  1. Caitriona O'DRudy

    Re: Eleanor Cobhan-This is compelling reading for anyone irked by the history of flagrant abuse of women through the ages in the guise of claiming witchcraft ; Joan of Arc, Bridget Cleary (Ireland, early 20 century).

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