Born around 1400 and probably at the castle of Sterborough in Kent, Eleanor Cobham was the daughter of Sir Reginald Cobham of Sterborough and his wife Eleanor, daughter of Sir Thomas Culpeper of Rayal.
As is often the case with Medieval women, nothing is known of Eleanor’s early life. She appeared at court in her early 20s, when she was appointed lady-in-waiting to Jacqueline of Hainault, Duchess of Gloucester.
Jacqueline had come to England to escape her 2nd husband, the abusive John IV Duke of Brabant. She obtained an annulment of the marriage from the Antipope, Benedict XIII, and married Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester, in 1423. He would spend a large amount of their marriage trying to recover Jacqueline’s lands from the Dukes of Brabant and Burgundy.
Humphrey was a younger brother of King Henry V and John, Duke of Bedford. He had fought at the Battle of Shrewsbury at the age of 12 years and 9 months and would go on to fight at Agincourt in 1415. On Henry V’s death, Humphrey acted as Regent for his young nephew, Henry VI, whenever his older brother, the Duke of Bedford, was away fighting in France. However, he seems to have been little liked and was never trusted with full Regency powers.
In 1428 Pope Martin V refused to recognise the annulment of Jacqueline’s previous marriage to John of Brabant and declared the Gloucester marriage null and void. However, John of Brabant had died in 1426 and so Humphrey and Jacqueline were free to remarry – if they wanted to. In the mean time, Humphrey’s attention had turned to Eleanor of Cobham and he made no attempt to keep Jacqueline by his side.
This did not go down too well with the good ladies of London, who petitioned parliament between Christmas 1427 and Easter 1428.
According to the chronicler Stow their letters were delivered to Humphrey, the archbishops and the lords “containing matter of rebuke and sharpe reprehension of the Duke of Gloucester, because he would not deliver his wife Jacqueline out of her grievous imprisonment, being then held prisoner by the Duke of Burgundy, suffering her to remaine so unkindly, contrary to the law of God and the honourable estate of matrimony”.
Humphrey paid the petition little attention and married Eleanor sometime between 1428 and 1431. It has been suggested that Eleanor was the mother of Humphrey’s 2 illegitimate children – Arthur and Antigone – although this seems unlikely as Humphrey made no attempt to legitimise them following the marriage (as his grandfather John of Gaunt had done with his Beaufort children by Katherine Swynford).
Described by Aeneas Sylvius as “a woman distinguished in her form” and “beautiful and marvellously pleasant” by Jean de Waurin, Eleanor and Humphrey had a small but lively court at their residence of La Plesaunce at Greenwich. Humphrey had a lifelong love of learning, which Eleanor most likely shared, and the couple attracted scholars, musicians and poets to their court.
On 25th June 1431, as Duchess of Gloucester, Eleanor was admitted to the fraternity of the monastery of St Albans – to which her husband already belonged – and in 1432 she was made a Lady of the Garter.
Eleanor’s status rose even higher in 1435, with the death of John Duke of Bedford. Whilst Henry VI was still childless, John had been heir presumptive. He died having had no children and so the position passed to Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester.
With her heightened status, Eleanor received sumptuous Christmas gifts from the king; and her father was given custody of the French hostage Charles, Duke of Orleans – a prisoner since Agincourt.
But in 1441 came Eleanor’s dramatic downfall.
Master Thomas Southwell, a canon of St Stephen’s Chapel at Westminster, and Master Roger Bolyngbroke, a scholar, astronomer and cleric – and alleged necromancer, were arrested for casting the King’s horoscope and predicting his death.
Southwell and Bolyngbroke, along with Margery Jourdemayne, known as the Witch of Eye and renowned for selling potions and spells, were accused of making a wax image of the king, ‘the which image they dealt so with, that by their devilish incantations and sorcery they intended to bring out of life, little and little, the king’s person, as they little and little consumed that image’.
Bolyngbroke implicated Eleanor during questioning, saying she had asked him to cast her horoscope and predict her future; for the wife of the heir to the throne, this was a dangerous practise. Did she have her eye on the throne itself?
On hearing of the arrest of her associates Eleanor fled to Sanctuary at Westminster. Of 28 charges against her she admitted to 5. Eleanor denied the treason charges, but confessed to obtaining potions from Jourdemayne in order to help her conceive a child. Awaiting further proceedings, as Eleanor remained in Sanctuary, pleading sickness, she tried to escape by river. Thwarted, she was escorted to Leeds Castle on 11th August and held there for 2 months.
Having returned to Westminster Eleanor was examined by an ecclesiastical tribunal on 19th October and on the 23rd she faced Bolyngbroke, Southwell and Jourdemayne who accused her of being the “causer and doer of all these deeds”.
Eleanor was found guilty of sorcery and witchcraft; she was condemned to do public penance and perpetual imprisonment. Of her co-accused; Bolyngbroke was hanged, drawn and quartered, Southwell died in the Tower of London and Margery Jourdemayne was burned at the stake at Smithfield.
Eleanor’s own chaplain, Master John Hume, had also been arrested, although he was accused only of knowing of the others’ actions and was later pardoned.
On 3 occasions Eleanor was made to do public penance at various churches in London; on the 1st of such, 13th November 1441, bareheaded and dressed in black carrying a wax taper, she walked from Temple Bar to St Paul’s Cathedral, where she offered the wax taper at the high altar. Following 2 further penances, at Christ Church and St Michael’s in Cornhill, Eleanor was sent first to Chester Castle and then to Kenilworth. Her circumstances much reduced, Eleanor was allowed a household of only 12 persons.
Eleanor’s witchcraft conviction discredited her husband; Humphrey was marginalised and on 6th November 1441 his marriage was annulled. Humphrey’s enemies, Margaret of Anjou (Henry VI’s queen) and the Earl of Suffolk, convinced the king that his uncle was plotting against him. In February 1447, Humphrey was arrested and confined in Bury St Edmunds. He died a week later, on 23rd February; some claimed it was murder, but the most likely cause of death is stroke.
Eleanor was moved to Peel Castle on the Isle of Man, in 1446 and one final time in 1449 when she was transferred to Beaumaris Castle on Anglesey.
Eleanor Cobham, one time Duchess of Gloucester and wife to the heir to England’s throne, having risen so high – and fallen so low – died still a prisoner, at Beaumaris Castle on 7th July 1452; she was buried at Beaumaris, at the expense of Sir William Beauchamp, the castle’s constable.
Eleanor Cobham’s story features in my book, Heroines of the Medieval World.
Pictures courtesy of Wikipedia
Sources: Brewer’s British Royalty by David Williamson; History Today Companion to British History Edited by Juliet Gardiner and Neil Wenborn; The Mammoth Book of British Kings & Queens by Mike Ashley; Britain’s Royal Families, the Complete Genealogy by Alison Weir; The Oxford Companion to British History Edited by John Cannon; The Plantagenets, the Kings who made England by Dan Jones; The Plantagenets, the Kings that Made Britain by Derek Wilson; madameguillotine.co.uk; susanhigginbotham.com; The Medieval Mind.
Ladies of Magna Carta: Women of Influence in Thirteenth Century England looks into the relationships of the various noble families of the 13th century, and how they were affected by the Barons’ Wars, Magna Carta and its aftermath; the bonds that were formed and those that were broken. It is now available from Pen & Sword, Amazon and from Book Depository worldwide.
Also by Sharon Bennett Connolly:
Silk and the Sword: The Women of the Norman Conquest traces the fortunes of the women who had a significant role to play in the momentous events of 1066. Available now from Amazon, Amberley Publishing, Book Depository.
Heroines of the Medieval World tells the stories of some of the most remarkable women from Medieval history, from Eleanor of Aquitaine to Julian of Norwich. Available now from Amberley Publishing and Amazon and Book Depository.
©2015 Sharon Bennett Connolly