Post-classical history

Witchcraft and Sorcery

Book title

Jacquetta and her children were still reeling from the deaths of Earl Rivers and John when their enemies struck a second blow. This time, one Thomas Wake, Esquire, brought to Warwick Castle, where Edward IV was still being held prisoner, ‘an image of lead made like a man of arms of the length of a man’s finger broken in the middle and made fast with a wire, saying that it was made by [Jacquetta] to use with witchcraft and sorcery’. Wake also enlisted the aid of John Daunger, the parish clerk of Stoke Brewerne, to say that Jacquetta had made two other images, ‘one for the king and one for the queen’.1 The Duchess of Bedford was arrested and brought to Warwick Castle.2

This was not the first time a high-born lady in fifteenth-century England had been accused of dabbling in the supernatural. In 1419, Joan of Navarre, queen to the late Henry IV, was accused by her confessor, Friar Randolf, of ‘compassing the death and destruction of [Henry V] in the most treasonable and horrible manner that could be devised’.3 Friar Randolf himself fled abroad but was eventually captured and sent to the Tower, where he is alleged to have been murdered by a crazed priest in 1429. Joan, accused but never tried, was confined in various castles for three years. As A.R. Myers’s studies of her household accounts for that period indicates, her confinement does not seem to have been overly rigorous; her expenses included outlays for rich fabrics, fine wines, and horses for her chaise, and she played hostess to distinguished visitors, including the Archbishop of Canterbury and Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester. One visitor, Thomas, Lord Camoys, stayed nine months! Joan was freed in 1422 by orders of the dying Henry V and lived a comfortable, uneventful life until her death in 1437, when Henry VI buried her next to her husband in a manner befitting a queen. Myers has suggested that the charges against her might have been prompted by mistrust of her Breton connections and by rumours of other plots to use witchcraft against Henry V. Once the initial scare passed, there were sound reasons for keeping the queen in captivity without further investigation: her imprisonment allowed the Crown to avoid having to pay her dowry of 10,000 marks per annum, while holding her without trial spared the crown from having to free her if she were found innocent and from having to punish her if she were found guilty.

A very different situation was that of Eleanor Cobham, Duchess of Gloucester, wife to Henry V’s younger brother, Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester.4 The death of Humphrey’s brother John, Duke of Bedford (Jacquetta Woodville’s first husband) in 1435 meant that Humphrey was next in line to the throne of the adolescent king, Henry VI. A beautiful, proud woman who had been Gloucester’s mistress before she became his wife, Eleanor seems to have been unable to resist employing astrologers to find whether a crown might be in her husband’s future. In 1441, two of her associates, Master Roger Bolingbroke and Master Thomas Southwell, were accused of using astrology to predict the king’s death in his twentieth year. Soon Eleanor, who had fled into sanctuary, was forced to stand trial in an ecclesiastical court for heresy and witchcraft. By this time, Margery Jourdemayne, known as ‘the witch of Eye’, had been added to the list of suspects. Ultimately, Southwell died in prison, perhaps a suicide, Bolingbroke was hanged, drawn, and quartered, and Margery was burned alive at the stake. Found guilty of the charges against her, Eleanor was made to do public penance, forcibly divorced from Gloucester, and imprisoned for the rest of her life on an allowance of 100 marks a year. She died in 1452 at Beaumaris Castle, little noticed by the chroniclers.

Jacquetta, who certainly would have met the Duchess of Gloucester – her sister-in-law – during her own marriage to the Duke of Bedford, would have been well aware of the duchess’s grim fate. She had every reason to fear for the future, especially if Edward IV remained in Warwick’s control. But Jacquetta, though she must have been still labouring under the shock of the deaths of her husband and her son, did not panic. Instead, on 31 August 1469, she called in a favour by reminding the mayor and aldermen of London of the service she had done the city in 1461 by begging Margaret of Anjou to spare the city from Lancastrian destruction. The city officials readily agreed – it helped that the current mayor, Richard Lee, had held the same position in 1461 – and forwarded Jacquetta’s letter to Warwick’s ally, George, Duke of Clarence.5

Thomas Wake’s son and heir had died fighting for Warwick at the Battle of Edgecote, and Wake himself was clearly a follower of Warwick, as he was one of the men Jacquetta would later seek to bring to justice for the murder of Lord Rivers.6 It is hard, therefore, to avoid the suspicion that Warwick had something to do with the charges against Jacquetta. But what precisely was Jacquetta suspected of doing? The person represented by the ‘image of lead made like a man of arms of the length of a man’s finger broken in the middle and made fast with a wire’ is unidentified, nor is it clear whether Jacquetta was trying to destroy the person in question (by breaking him in the middle) or healing him (by making him fast with the wire). Nor is there any inkling of what was being done with the figures of the queen and the king, although John Leland has suggested that the figures might have been used to bring about their marriage, which of course would indicate that they had served their purpose some time ago.7 Another possibility might have been that Jacquetta was attempting to help the couple, who had thus far produced only daughters, to have a son. As Leland notes, there is certainly no reason to think that Jacquetta might have been cursing them.

All this, however, supposes that Wake’s allegations about the figures were true. In the event, although the captive Edward IV dutifully appointed lords to examine the witnesses, the case against Jacquetta collapsed once the king shook off Warwick’s control. On 19 or 20 January 1470, Jacquetta went before the king’s great council, where she accused Thomas Wake of being of a ‘malicious disposition’ toward her ‘of long time continued, intending not only to hurt and impair her good name and fame, but also purpos[ing] the final destruction of her person’.8 When the council acquitted her, Jacquetta insisted that its exoneration of her be made part of the official record. On 10 February 1470, the king and his council, including the Earl of Warwick, agreed to Jacquetta’s request. They set down what, in the wake of Edward IV’s recovered power, had become an almost farcical series of backpedalling statements by the witnesses against Jacquetta:

    Thomas Wake says that this image was shown and left in Stoke with an honest person who delivered it to the clerk of the church and so showed it to divers neighbours after to the parson in the church openly to men both of Shetyllanger and Stoke and after it was shown in Sewrisley, a nunnery, and to many other persons, and of all this he heard or wist nothing till after it was sent him by Thomas Kymbell from the said clerk. John Daunger of Shetyllanger said that Thomas Wake sent to him one Thomas Kymbell, then his bailiff, and bad the said John send him the image of lead that he had and so he sent it, at which time he heard no witchcraft of the lady of Bedford, and that the image was delivered to him by one Harry Kyngeston of Stoke, who found it in his house after the departing of soldiers, and that the said Thomas Wake after he came from London from the king sent for him and said that he had excused himself and laid all the blame on John and bad him say that he durst not keep the image and for that cause sent it to Thomas and also bad him say that there were two other images, one for the king and one for the queen, but he refused to say so.9

Jacquetta also let it be known that she had always ‘truly believed in God according to the faith of Holy Church, as a true Christian Woman ought to do’.10

The notion that Jacquetta practised witchcraft would be revived in 1484, when Richard III’s only parliament declared Edward IV and Elizabeth Woodville’s marriage invalid, partly on the ground that it had been made by sorcery and witchcraft committed by Elizabeth and Jacquetta ‘as is the common opinion of the people and the public voice and fame throughout this land, and as can be adequately proved hereafter at a convenient time and place’.11

Were Jacquetta or Elizabeth witches, or at least dabblers in witchcraft? In recent years, popular fiction, especially the novels of Rosemary Hawley Jarman and Philippa Gregory, has portrayed them as practising the magical arts, and some writers of non-fiction, particularly those eager to vindicate Richard III, have followed suit.

Much has been made, to begin with, of Jacquetta’s mythical descent from Melusine, a ‘serpent woman’ who was the supposed ancestor of the House of Luxembourg. Jonathan Hughes proposes, ‘As the disastrous political consequences of the marriage became apparent and Edward’s reputation as a voluptuary grew, the demonic aspects of the king’s falling into the clutches of these two descendants of Melusine [i.e. Jacquetta and Elizabeth] would have preoccupied those prosecuting the charge of witchcraft’.12 There is little evidence, however, that Jacquetta took a special interest in the Melusine legend, and none that Elizabeth did. Jacquetta owned a copy of the ancestral romance Mélusine, but only as part of a collection of treatises and histories of the crusades and the Holy Land.13 Mélusine was, in fact, a popular fifteenth-century text, owned by other high-born ladies besides Jacquetta.14 In any case, Melusine was not the only mythical figure from which a great family could claim descent; the Beauchamp family, of which the Earl of Warwick’s own countess was a member, was supposed to have sprung from Eneas, transformed from a swan into human form when his golden chain was restored to him. His less fortunate brother, whose chain had been used to mend a cup, remained enchanted. Warwick did not have to look outside of his own household for ancestral magic; the mended cup associated in legend with the swan knight’s brother was said to be in his own castle.15 In 1474 at a pageant at Coventry, it was Elizabeth’s supposed descent from the Magi, not that of Melusine, that was pointed out.16

Aside from Jacquetta’s ancestor Melusine, those eager to find truth in the allegations that Elizabeth’s marriage to Edward was procured through witchcraft have pointed to the date of the wedding – 1 May, the day after the witches’ Grand Sabbath of Walpurgisnacht. We have seen in Chapter 2 that in the one detailed, but not quite contemporary, account of Elizabeth and Edward’s wedding, the king rode early in the morning of 1 May to Grafton and wed his bride. ‘After which spousals ended, he went to bed, and so tarried there three or four hours, and after departed and rode again to Stony Stratford, and came as though he had been hunting, and there went to bed again’. Fabyan, our source, added delicately, ‘What obloquy ran after this marriage, how the king was enchanted by the Duchess of Bedford, and how after he would have refused her, with many other things concerning this matter, I here pass it over’.17

Modern writers have not shared Fabyan’s inhibitions. Undaunted by the fact that no source actually places the king at Grafton (less than 6 miles from Stony Stratford) on the evening of 30 April, W.E. Hampton moved Edward’s ride ahead a few hours to that date, just in time for Walpurgisnacht. After describing the rites of witches’ sabbaths in some detail, without troubling to explain why Edward IV would be misguided enough to be in attendance at one, Hampton lets his imagination run wild:

    Remembering the description of Edward’s night ride, and that of the King’s irregular and profane, ‘pretensed’ marriage given [in 1484 by Richard III’s Parliament], it is clearly apparent that the young king, one of our history’s notable voluptuaries, on a date of obvious significance, and in circumstances and company which were, to put it mildly, dubious, entered into a form of marriage which may well have been precisely what [Parliament] claims, a marriage made by ‘sorcerie and wichecrafte’ […] Even the fatigue of which Edward, a young man of exceptional physique, complained so sorely acquires an added significance when one considers the orgiastic nature of the rites to which he may have been introduced.18

Fabyan, as we saw in Chapter 2, listed the ‘company’ present at the wedding – the ‘spouse, the spousess, the Duchess of Bedford her mother, the priest, two gentlewomen, and a young man to help the priest sing’. Assuming this account is correct, the company hardly merits Hampton’s description as dubious. Moreover, Fabyan’s account does not have Edward complaining ‘sorely’ of fatigue, but as simply going to bed upon his return to Stony Stratford in the pretence that he had been hunting. In any case, Edward might have had some cause to feel fatigued, after three or four hours in bed sandwiched by horseback rides to and from Grafton. (Fabyan does not state that the king spent those three or four hours in bed with his attractive new bride in slumber.) The most serious flaw in Hampton’s argument, however, is that there is not a shred of evidence that any Grand Sabbath rites were held in the environs of Grafton on 30 April, much less that Edward or any of the Woodvilles attended them.

Annette Carson, while not matching Hampton in sheer creativity, nonetheless quotes his reconstruction of Edward IV’s wedding night approvingly before positing her own rather operatic theory: that Edward was given a love potion by the queen and her mother. ‘[W]as he fed a potent cocktail of aphrodisiacs and love-charms and intoxicating potions to confound his senses and induce him to answer “Yes” when asked, “Do you intend to marry this woman?”’19 While this scenario is not as far-fetched as Hampton’s – one of the charges against Eleanor Cobham had been that she procured ‘medicines and drynkis’ in order to induce Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester ‘to love her and wed her’20 – it is still rather implausible. Unless the potion was exceptionally long-acting, it would have surely worn off well before Edward announced his marriage at Reading. Are we really to believe that a man who had fought his way to the throne at age 18 was incapable of disentangling himself from a marriage he had been tricked into making? Elizabeth might have been able to embarrass Edward had she raised a fuss over his refusal to acknowledge his marriage, but if the matter came down to the king’s word versus that of a relatively impoverished widow with Lancastrian connections, it is not difficult to imagine which party would have prevailed.

The fact remains that there is simply no evidence, other than the unproven assertions of Jacquetta’s and Elizabeth’s enemies, that Elizabeth used anything other than conventional means – beauty and a winning personality – to lure Edward into marriage. (After all, no fewer than four commoners appealed sufficiently to Edward’s grandson Henry VIII for him to marry them – all without benefit of witchcraft or sorcery.) Thomas Wake’s ‘evidence’ – which, it should be remembered, involved images, not Hampton’s Grand Sabbaths or Carson’s elixirs of love – crumbled in the face of Edward IV’s recovered power, and Jacquetta vigorously denied his accusations. As for the 1484 accusations against mother and daughter, Richard III’s parliament put forth no evidence at all to support the claim that Jacquetta and Elizabeth had practised witchcraft to bring about Elizabeth’s royal marriage. By that time, Jacquetta was dead and could not defend herself. While Elizabeth never denied the allegations, she was hardly in a position to stand up to Richard III, who had executed her brother Anthony and her son Richard Grey and who had her royal sons in his power (if they had not already been disposed of). When Henry VII came to the throne and ordered the destruction of Titulus Regius, the Act of Parliament invalidating Elizabeth’s marriage to Edward, there was no longer any need for Elizabeth to defend the validity of her marriage, especially when Henry tacitly affirmed the legitimacy of Elizabeth’s children by marrying her eldest daughter.

It is not inconceivable, of course, that Jacquetta and Elizabeth employed supernatural means to lure Edward into marriage or against the unidentified knight whose image was supposedly in Jacquetta’s possession. As Jessica Freeman notes, women like Margery Jourdemayne, the Duchess of Gloucester’s associate, offered services to clients such as love potions and fertility charms; indeed, the duchess acknowledged employing Margery to help her bear a child by Humphrey. Authorities in fifteenth-century England were tolerant of such ‘practical magic’ if it was not employed to harm others.21 The fact that a high-ranking lady such as the Duchess of Gloucester, whose husband was next in line for the throne at the time, could mingle with the likes of Margery shows that high status was no bar to one’s dabbling in witchcraft. But because the allegations against Jacquetta and Elizabeth came solely from their enemies in times of turmoil, and were vigorously denied by one of the ladies in question, we should at the very least regard the accusations against them with the greatest of scepticism.

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