A Response to Eleanor Cobham – The Witch Who Would Be Queen

The Conjuration, from Henry VI (Act 1, Scene 4)
The Conjuration, from Henry VI (Act 1, Scene 4)

In the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, it was quite common for people to be accused of practising black magic, when the real motive was political.  In 1310 Pope Boniface VIII (who had died in1303) was posthumously charged, by Philip the Fair of France, of having commerce with a demon.  The actual reason was that the king wanted certain papal decisions, such as that he might not tax the clergy, to be overturned.  He was able to put pressure on a following pope, Clement V, who was based at Avignon in the south of France and so to some extent had to do as he was told, to annul Boniface’s bulls, and after this was done the magic charges were not pursued.   In 1440, just a year before the Duchess of Gloucester’s prosecution, the French military commander Gilles de Rais was alleged to have murdered dozens of children in the course of magical rituals.  No bodies were found to confirm this, but he was convicted anyway because, after three days of continuous torture, he confessed.  If you consider the kind of tortures employed by the Inquisition in those days, then I think that nearly all of us would have ‘confessed’.  The fact is that, though de Rais had successfully fought the English in the Hundred Years’ War, he had made enemies on his own side, who were determined to bring him down.

Montague Summers admitted, of the present case, that “The hand of the enemies of Duke Humphrey [of Gloucester] is, of course, to be seen in such an attack.”  Nevertheless, there seems to be at least some basis for the charges: Eleanor had had the king’s horoscope calculated, and it indicated that illness could put his life at risk in July or August of 1441.  This was not illegal (in contrast to the way that the Romans had made it a crime to predict the death of the emperor), but when word spread, the authorities commissioned an alternative horoscope to reassure the king.  Marjorie Jourdemain the witch of Eye (the name of a house near to Parliament) had provided the duchess with potions which were supposed to help her have a child.

Beyond that, the various accounts are contradictory and unclear.  Since her associates included at least one priest, it is possible that they may have tried a technique that had been condemned by the Council of Toledo as far back as the seventh century, that is, to say a Requiem Mass for someone still alive, in the hope that it would kill him.  But it was also said in some sources that they had made an image of wax to represent the king, which, being destroyed little by little, would destroy the monarch himself.


Henry VI did not die for another thirty years, and the duchess never did have a child.  Perhaps they were incompetent magicians.  The Duke of Gloucester paid for the Bodleian Library in Oxford to be built and supplied with books – though it was not completed until after his death – and the oldest section is still known as Duke Humphrey’s Library.  At one time I hoped that, since it contains a large number of magical manuscripts, these might shed light on what rituals may have been performed.  I discovered, however, that in 1550 Edward VI’s commissioners took away all the books, and it only re-opened half a century later, after it was restocked by  Thomas Bodley.

The story was dramatized by Shakespeare in Henry VI, Part Two, Act 1, Scene 4, which has the stage direction: Here the ceremonies belonging, and make the circle; Bolingbroke or Southwell reads, ‘Conjuro te’, etc.  It thunders and lightens terribly; then the Spirit riseth.  The spirit is addressed as ‘Asmath’, which is not to be found in Moïse Schwab’s Vocabulaire de l’Angélologie (Paris, 1897), although there are similar names such as Asmadai; it has been suggested that it was a misprint for Asnath, that is, an anagram of Sathan.  It should be borne in mind, though, that Shakespeare’s historical plays took considerable liberties with history.

Gareth J. Medway

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