Eleanor Cobham was not born royal. Yet she rose to the highest ranks in society, only to suffer a great downfall.
Eleanor Cobham was born around 1400, probably in Kent, England, as the daughter of Reginald Cobham, 3rd Baron Cobham, and his wife, Eleanor Culpeper. She came from a noble family, but the likelihood of her marrying into royalty seemed unlikely. Eleanor first appeared on the scene in the early 1420s, when she was a lady-in-waiting for Jacqueline of Hainaut, the wife of Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester. Humphrey was the fourth and youngest son of King Henry IV of England. His oldest brother, Henry V of England, died in 1422, leaving behind an infant son, Henry VI. The second brother, Thomas, Duke of Clarence, died in 1421. After the death of Henry V, the third brother, John, Duke of Bedford, governed in France, which Henry was trying to win over at the time of his death. Humphrey was named as regent in England for the young king.
Around this time, Humphrey was married to Jacqueline, Countess of Hainaut in her own right. Eleanor soon became one of her ladies-in-waiting.
Humphrey left Jacqueline in 1425. Around this time, Eleanor became his mistress. In 1428, the Pope dissolved Humphrey and Jacqueline’s marriage. This left him free to marry Eleanor.
Humphrey and Eleanor married sometime between 1428 and 1431. This marriage was not popular; some still saw Jacqueline as his legal wife. It was later alleged that Eleanor used witchcraft to get the duke to fall in love with her. Their marriage was most likely childless, although Humphrey had two illegitimate children, Arthur and Antigone. It is sometimes said that Eleanor was the mother of these children, but it’s unlikely. There was no attempt to legitimise them after the marriage. Eleanor was also known to have used potions in hope to bear Humphrey a child.
Once married, the future was looking bright for Eleanor. In 1431, Eleanor, now Duchess of Gloucester, was admitted to the fraternity of the monastery of St Albans, of which Humphrey was a part. In 1432, she was made a Lady of the Garter. Eleanor’s greatest rise in status happened in 1435. Humphrey’s only remaining brother, John died childless, and since the king was only fourteen, Humphrey became the heir presumptive. If the king was to die early with no children, Eleanor could become the Queen of England.
Eleanor was clearly a proud woman by now. She and Humphrey lived in a court surrounded by poets and musicians. Eleanor had a strong interest in learning, astrology, and alchemy. Her interests would be her undoing.
In June 1441, Eleanor was enjoying a meal in her usual high style. But this would be interrupted by some shocking news. She was informed that three men of her household had been arrested. They were Roger Bolingbroke, a priest and Eleanor’s personal clerk, Thomas Southwell, a canon and rector, and John Home, her chaplain and secretary. They were accused of casting the king’s horoscope and predicting his death. They were believed to be doing this at Eleanor’s own request. It was believed that Eleanor had an eye on the throne, and was trying to plot the young king’s downfall.
On hearing this news, Eleanor fled into sanctuary. In July, she was examined on 28 charges of felony and treason. She denied the treason charges but confessed to five of the other charges. She did admit that she was using services from Margery Jourdemayne, known as “the Witch of Eye”. These services included seeking a potion to help her conceive. Soon Bolingbroke confessed to his charges of witchcraft, saying that his activities were from Eleanor’s order to predict her fortune.
Eleanor remained in sanctuary, awaiting further charges. Not wanting to be arrested, she pleaded illness, and tried to escape, but was caught. In October, there was a second hearing where she appeared with her co-accused. They claimed that Eleanor encouraged them to use witchcraft and sorcery to bring about the king’s death, promising them gifts in return. Jourdemayne admitted that Eleanor had long employed her as a sorceress, first having her make potions to get the duke to fall in love with her.
Eleanor was found guilty of witchcraft and sorcery. John Home was pardoned, because he had only known of the others’ actions, but did not take part in them himself. Eleanor was sentenced to do public penance and imprisonment. The three others suffered the worst fates: Southwell died in the Tower of London, possibly by suicide in order to escape a brutal execution. Bolingbroke was hung, drawn, and quartered, and Jourdemayne was burnt at the stake.
By this time, Humphrey was falling out with the king and his other advisers. There was little that he could do to help Eleanor. On 6 November 1441, a group of bishops had their marriage annulled. Eleanor was ordered to do public penance three times. On the 13th, 15th and 17th November, she walked through the streets of London, carrying a taper. She walked from church to church, escorted by two knights. Many Londoners gathered to watch her penance.
Eleanor was first imprisoned in Chester Castle. She was not treated harshly, but her household was reduced to twelve people. She was also allowed 100 marks per year. In October 1443, she was transferred to Kenilworth, and then in July 1446 to the Isle of Mann. When Humphrey died in 1447, Eleanor was still imprisoned. His death was rumoured to have been murder, but a stroke is more likely. In March 1449, Eleanor was moved for a final time to Beaumaris Castle, on Anglesey in Wales. There she died on 7 July 1452. She was virtually forgotten by then; very few chronicles mentioned her death.
Eleanor’s marriage with Humphrey was not popular, and her enemies seemed determined to bring her down. What makes Eleanor’s case especially interesting, was that there was some truth to her involvement in witchcraft. Whether or not she was using witchcraft to predict the king’s death is up to debate. Either way, Henry VI’s reign turned out to be tumultuous and ended in the Wars of the Roses. 1