In the 15th century, a black mass allegedly took place in Highgate which could have altered the history of the monarchy today. Today the site of this rite, where wax figures of the king are said to have been melted in the fire, is a harmless golf course.
But why was Highgate chosen as the location for this diabolical rite, real or fabricated? As ever, we will probably never know …
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.
From The Mirror for Magistrates (1560)
Margery Jourdemayne – The Witch Of Ey
The quote above describes a remarkable woman, who in 1441 made the mistake – just possibly – of coming to Highgate, and as a result was burned at the stake. Margery Jourdemayne, known as “The Witch of Ey” – named colloquially for the district of Westminster in which she lived – was a wise woman of quite some renown, and her divinatory and faith-healing services were utilised by many people in influential positions in15th century London and beyond.
Margery must have cut quite a bold figure in those superstitious and judgmental days. Despite her less than aristocratic upbringing, Margery moved in elite circles, with both priests and the nobility requesting her assistance as a prophetess and her proficiency in the art of spellcraft for the benefit of the purchaser. Margery had already been imprisoned for practicing witchcraft in 1432, but remarkably had been released. Her perceived bravado would inevitably have ruffled some feathers.
Introducing … Eleanor
Margery’s downfall came about because of her relationship with another ambitious woman, the equally ill-fated Eleanor Cobham, Duchess of Gloucester. Eleanor’s meteoric rise to stardom in the English court would rival that of Eva Peron in 1950s Argentina. Born around 1400 into a noble family, whilst lady in waiting to Jacqueline, Countess of Hainault and wife of Humphrey the Duke of Gloucester Eleanor surplanted her mistress, and by 1428, after a substantial period of political and social intrigue (and opposition), had claimed Humphrey legally as her own.
Humphrey was no ordinary lord; in fact he was a remarkable catch, having been legitimately sired by no less than Henry IV. After the death of their father, Humphrey’s brother Henry (VI, born 1421) had been crowned as a child king, and Humphrey acted as his Lord Protector, holding considerable sway over his affairs (their older brother Henry V having passed away in 1422 at the age of 35).
Eleanor swiftly elevated herself to the role of (potential) heiress to the throne, entertaining in style and ingratiating herself with aristocratic orders of note. She was known as a beautiful and vivacious woman, and the world seemed, for a while, to be her oyster. If the future was scryable for her peers, she would have perhaps represented to some a Marie Antoinette in becoming. In 1435, upon the death of Prince John, her husband’s older brother, the crown seemed ever closer, with little but a teenaged king – albeit one who adored her and lavished her with gifts of gold – standing in her way. At least, this is how her accusers presented her. An equally valid interpretation would be that of a woman in a male-dominated society making the very best of her abilities to advance in such a world, and to enjoy any subsequent fruit. But Humphrey’s attempts to be crowned Regent after his brother John’s death met with controversy, and so the alleged plot thickeneth…
When worlds collide …
It is unclear exactly when or how Eleanor and Margery Jourdemayne first met. One of Margery’s biggest trades seems to have been in fertility charms, and the marriage of Eleanor and Humphrey is not recorded as being fertile. Certainly many ladies of Eleanor’s acquaintance were employing Margery’s services in attempts to conceive and therefore keep their husbands. Whilst Humphrey did have two illegitimate children, a boy and a girl, there is nothing to suggest that these were Eleanor’s. By 1441 Eleanor was in her early 40s, and the patriarchal society which she had danced upon for so long was probably causing her, as a childless wife, quite some anxiety. That she, when a nubile young woman, acquired her husband through adultery may well have added to her insecurities.
The tryst is sealed …?
It seems that this insecurity – quite probably coupled with a genuine curiosity in the art – lead to Eleanor’s forays into astrology. This was not unusual at all for the time, indeed it was considered a mark of prestige to have one’s own astrologer within the hierarchies of court. At this stage, three more men enter the stage – Thomas Southwell, canon of St Stephen’s, Westminster and Eleanor’s personal physician; John Home, her secretary and also the canon of Hereford; and Roger Bolingbroke, principle of St Andrew’s Hall, Oxford. Allegedly the three men, along with Eleanor, began talking amongst their peers about a prediction which their calculations had made, regarding a fatal or near fatal illness which would afflict the king in July or August of that year. The king wasn’t happy. In fact he was very upset, and had them all arrested for treason. The legitimacy with which horoscopes were regarded is evidenced by the fact that an alternative horoscope was commissioned to reassure the king that no ill was imminently going to befall him – and to ‘prove’ the invalidity of Eleanor’s friends’ prediction. As it happens, King Henry VI did live to see 50 years of age.
Suddenly the situation escalated. On 10th July all four were arrested and formally charged not only with heretical practices – but with necromancy. Necromancy is in essence the art of divination via the assistance of the spirits of the deceased, but the term was also used in times past to refer to any form of magic which was considered to utilise dark forces.
The allegation seemed to hinge upon the idea that the prediction of the death of the king was not based upon attempts to accurately map Fate, but rather to engineer it.
This twist comes into its own in the subsequent accusation put to the group that they willfully attempted to end the life of King Henry VI by the practice of sorcery. Precisely, (amongst many other things even more ludicrous!) the men were accused (with Eleanor as an accessory) of labouring to “consume the King’s person by way of negromancie and [saying] masses in the Lodge of Hornsey Park near London, upon certaine instruments with which the said Sir Roger should use his craft of negromancie, against the faith.” The core crime of which these society darlings suddenly found themselves accused of was of creating a wax effigy, or effigies of the king, and melting them in a fire with the added context of black masses to increase the chances of their plan’s success.
And this – thanks for your patience – is where Highgate comes in!
The lodge chosen for this purpose and referred to is what we now know to be the Bishop of London’s hunting lodge, which was situated within a vast acreage of land (over 1000 acres) which became substantially enclosed and managed from the early 1000s. This massive stretch of woodland includes Highgate Wood and Coldfall Wood as we now know them, although it is difficult to imagine the vista of such vast woodland today. We know that by 1241 this hedgerow enclosed land was being used as a hunting park, and the lodge which existed there in Eleanor’s Cobham’s time would have been substantial enough to serve as a working building and also as a place for entertaining guests and their entourages.
The position of the lodge on elevated ground (the site was known as ‘Lodge Hill’) has made it easy to trace through the centuries of change which have ultimately resulted in its present position, 25ft beneath the 12th hole of Highgate Golf Club’s course.
The illustration below by artist Amanda Attenborrow, commissioned by Highgate Golf Club for their book “The History of Highgate Golf Club” (Corpus Publishing Ltd 2003), is intended to depict how the lodge would have looked in its prime (albeit a bit tidied up and deserted by serfs perhaps!)
It seems that after the trials of the accused, with all their morbid and salacious consequences, the lodge fell into disuse. It is certainly not difficult to imagine the reputation it gained when the nefarious acts which were purported to have taken place within its stone walls became the gossip of the nation.
Brick tile and Cornish slate remained on the site by 1593 when Norden surveyed the lodge, the bulk of the slabs and square cut stone which had comprised the walls of the “Bishop’s Palace” as it was sometimes referred to having been removed to form the base of the church tower of St Mary’s at Hornsey. But trees (one estimated to be a century old at the time) and ditches indicating the previous existence of a moat (some 70ft square) afforded some semblance of the splendors of previous centuries. When Frederick Prickett published his gargantuan work ‘The History and Antiquities of Highgate, Middlesex’ of 1842, the portion of the moat which still remained was used “as a watering place for cattle; the aged bushes on its banks [may yet be seen] drooping into the refreshing stream.”
The remains of the moat can still be seen in certain light conditions on the 12th hole today – but one must join the Golf Club if one wishes to inspect them I am informed!
But what of our accused?
No happy endings I am afraid, as with the majority of witch trials. Margery Jourdemayne, whose sole crime in the endeavour seems to have been to try to help the probably menopausal Eleanor conceive, was burned at the stake at Smithfields – the same part of London where herders would have been driving swine down Swains Lane to market during her era.
Roger Bolingbroke was hung, drawn and quartered after being forced to take part in a bizarre ‘theatre of death’ ritual which involved him publicly demonstrating his ‘powers’ and tools of the trade before a live audience on stage in a grotesque scene (which said a lot more about his accusers than about him in my opinion).
Thomas Southwell perished in jail – possibly by his own hand but allegedly of grief. Home was forgiven for his involvement and received no sentence, returning to his role as a clergyman. And Eleanor – well …
After admitting only a handful of the 18 charges stacked up against her, specifically the ones which involved obtaining fertility charms, this once emancipated woman managed to escape with her life, but was forced to divorce her husband, walk shaven-headed through the streets of London barefoot holding a taper candle, and spend the rest of her life in various jails before being buried in an unacknowledged grave at Beaumaris, Wales. Her husband, Humphrey, who disowned her after her alleged attempts to procure his fortune were exposed, also died in contentious circumstances in 1447.
Why did this group of people choose Highgate as the location for their black magical rituals? And if the accused were innocent, why did their accusers choose Highgate? We know that a century later the hermit of the settlement, the principle Christian influence in the hamlet was accused of sorcery. To a generation or so after this we can date the remains of ritual sacrifice in Highgate’s Lauderdale House. But in the present, all speculation can only remain dominated by mystery.
You can find out more about Eleanor and the people involved in this story at Melanie Clegg’s excellent blog here: http://madameguillotine.org.uk/2012/09/03/the-duchess-downfall-eleanor-cobham/
And at Ian Topham’s Mysterious Britain and Ireland here:
Referring to two of the prisons in which Eleanor was detained, Ian notes:
Leeds Castle is haunted by a large Black Dog that has been attributed to the Duchess of Gloucester. Peel Castle is also haunted by a large Black Dog, coincidence, or perhaps part of the same tradition.
For many years a public house existed in Highgate by the name of the Black Dog, the origins of its name lost to obscurity. Could this, too, be part of the same tradition? Reports of poltergeist activity in the vicinity of the lodge and the buildings used with its discarded stone foundations persist. Perhaps Eleanor and her co-conspirators were not as innocent as a modern readership might infer…