Margery Jourdemayne, the possessor of maybe the best name of anyone in 15th century England, was known as The Witch of Eye. Because she was a woman and a peasant, little is known about her early life so it’s sort of like she just emerged one day as this incredibly interesting adult woman. She was born probably sometime before 1415 and her last name was probably something different until she married William Jourdemayne. Again, because very little is known about this part of her life, let’s assume for her sake that she was at least 20 when they got married and it was a love match. Perhaps it was? William was a cowherd by profession, and the Jourdemayne family was a known entity around town of the time. So, let’s assume Margery’s family was about the same class level as him.
If their story had just been that of Mr. and Mrs. Jourdemayne, cowherders around town, nobody would know her name today. But the thing is, Margery’s life was anything but ordinary. For reasons unknown, starting in the 1430s, she was known to be in the social circles of some people far above her station. Like courtiers, clerics, learned people, etc., most of whom didn’t as a general practice hang out with the wives of cowherders. So I think we can assume that Margery was perhaps a) super charming and/or b) wildly beautiful and/or c) had something on offer that interested them. And we do not know the answers to a) or b), but for sure c) is correct because Margery seems to have had an entrepreneurial way around her, and the goods she was selling included magic potions and her own skills as a diviner and fortune teller because yes, friends, Margery Jourdemayne was possibly a witch.
Margery was first arrested for sorcery in 1432, at which time she was put in prison at Windsor Castle. While in jail, she made the acquaintance of Friar John Ashwell as well as the scholar Roger Bolingbroke. Both Ashwell and Bolingbroke were proficient in astronomy, and after spending time in jail at the same time as Margery, they seem to have all become good friends. Margery was eventually released from prison under two conditions: that she refrain from further witchcraft, and that she be on good behaviour from then on. Margery… did not do either of those things.
In fact, Margery continued on looking into peoples’ future for money. And maybe it was the stature of her clientele that protected her for the next eight years, as even notable people like Edmund Beaufort, Duke of Somerset, are said to have consulted with The Witch of Eye for guidance about his upcoming battles. But she couldn’t stay protected forever, and that’s where Eleanor Cobham comes into the story.
Like Margery, not much is known about the early life of Eleanor Cobham. She was probably at least a bit older than Margery, probably born around 1400 or so. She was the daughter of a noble family and, like so many other wealthy young women at the time, became a lady-in-waiting to an even wealthier woman. In this instance, her lady was Jacqueline d’Hainault, who was herself a pretty scandalous and interesting woman. Jacqueline had been married twice before to men in France before coming to England, where she secured a match with a man named Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester. Humphrey was the younger son King Henry IV and the uncle of King Henry VI.
Quick history lesson: When Henry IV died, his son Henry V (Humphrey’s brother) became King. But Henry V died young, meaning that his son, the infant Henry VI, became king while he was still a baby. So there were three Henrys, all Kings; one was Humphrey’s father, one was his brother, but by the time this story happens only one was left, and that was his little baby nephew.
Back to the story: Because the King was now a baby, someone needed to do all the King things for him. And that person was Humphrey, who was named Lord Protector, which meant basically that he was in charge of everything until Henry VI came of age. If the Baby King died, though, the next in line to inherit was Humphrey’s older brother John. And if John died, then Humphrey would be the next King. So Eleanor getting to be a lady-in-waiting to a woman who may one day be Queen was a pretty big deal and reflected how important Eleanor’s family were in the grand scheme of things.
But then, plot twist! Humphrey fell in love with Eleanor, who was his wife’s lady-in-waiting, and she became his mistress. Or perhaps she became his mistress and then he fell in love with her. But while that was happening, things were getting really messy with Jacqueline. It turns out that she was technically still sort of married to one of her previous husbands, which meant her marriage to Humphrey had to be annulled. This was a stroke of luck for Eleanor, because now she was able to marry her One True Love. And just like that, Eleanor Cobham became Eleanor, Countess of Gloucester.
Humphrey and Eleanor together were a power couple and a dream team. They were both glamorous, ambitious, clever, and the life of every party. They were super popular and everybody liked to visit with them, including lots of scholars, who were truly the rock stars of their time. So they were living fast and partying hard and then suddenly, in 1435, everything changed because Humphrey’s brother John died. Which meant Humphrey was now next in line to be King, which meant that Eleanor was one sneeze away from being QUEEN. Henry VI was now about 14 years old and apparently, he really liked them both, and Eleanor had some power around court. Everything was falling into place for the Gloucesters. Until it wasn’t.
Because… remember Margery? Eleanor was quite a fan of the Witch of Eye, and had apparently been consulting with her for like ten years. Presumably, this was for regular fortune telling, maybe the casual spell or concoction, etc. But Eleanor wasn’t satisfied just dealing with Margery, because I guess she was really into astrology too because she also went to Roger Bolingbroke and Thomas Southwell for fortunes. And this is where it all starts to go a little wonky so pay close attention. Bolingbroke and Southwell both gave the same prediction: that Teen King Henry VI was going to have a life-threatening illness sometime that year. Why were they giving predictions about the King to Eleanor? Maybe because she was curious about if and when Humphrey would become King, is my best guess.
But it turns out that predicting the King was going to maybe die was not the best career move. And also, it was the 15th century in England, and everyone took astrology very seriously. So when word began to spread about what Bolingbroke and Southwell had divined, the King’s guardians consulted some other astrologers (because there were lots around at this time, apparently), and these new astrologers were like, No, the King’s fine, I don’t see any illness in his future whatsoever. But the rumours about the original predictions were still upsetting the Teen King and his scheming and ruthless advisors, so they arrested Bolingbroke and Southwell, along with a man named John Home who was Eleanor’s personal confessor, because I guess she’d confessed to him about the predictions?
The charge against Southwell and Bolingbroke was “treasonable necromancy” which means basically, using witchcraft to commit treason. Bolingbroke squealed on Eleanor, saying it was all her idea and her fault, so she was also arrested like, thanks, Bolingbroke. All Eleanor had done was to be a gorgeous and fun-loving woman with an astrology hobby, and now she was in jail because these guys sucked. But the thing is, remember how Humphrey was heir to the throne and also he and Eleanor were ambitious? Perhaps some of their enemies saw an opportunity to remove Humphrey and Eleanor from power and decided to exaggerate the charges against her.
Eleanor, of course, denied any wrongdoing other than having obtained some potions from her friendly neighbourhood sorceress, Margery Jourdemayne. Eleanor claimed that the potions weren’t for treason at all, but rather were to help her with her fertility. Her excuse was not good enough, and she, Bolingbroke, Southwell, and Margery Jourdemayne were all found guilty. Bolingbroke was hanged, drawn, and quartered; Southwell died in the Tower of London; and Margery was burned at the stake on October 27, 1441.
And Eleanor? She wasn’t sentenced to death, but rather to three things: a) she had to divorce Humphrey, b) she would go to jail for life and c) she had to perform a public act of penance. This third thing is part of what’s so ghastly and memorable about the whole situation. She was forced–like Cersei on Game of Thrones but for real–to walk down the middle of the road in a Walk Of Shame. She didn’t have her hair shaved off like Cersei, but she had to do it without a head covering which was like, profoundly humiliating for a woman in that time and place. Following this public humiliation, Eleanor was sent off to prison.
Humphrey did not remarry, and the scandal destroyed any chance he’d ever had of becoming the next King. He died on February 23, 1447, possibly murdered. Eleanor outlived him by five years, passing away on July 7, 1452, having spent 10 years in prison for the crime of enjoying astrology.
Humphrey’s daughter Antigone, who may have been Eleanor’s daughter or maybe the daughter of one of his other mistresses, is the ancestor of both Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon (Queen Elizabeth II’s mother aka The Queen Mum), as well as of Sophie, Countess of Wessex.
Eleanor, Margery, and Humphrey all appear in William Shakespeare’s Henry VI, Part 2. Eleanor’s character is shown as being very ambitious, urging her husband Humphrey (presented in the play as highly sympathetic) to pursue his claim to be King. When Humphrey doesn’t agree to do so, Shakespeare’s Eleanor consults several astronomers–including Margery Jourdemayne (called “Margery Jourdayn”)–to get some hints about what will become of the current King. She is then arrested, along with the astrologers, and then put on trial where they are found guilty of treason. The play includes Eleanor’s parade, which ends with her being exiled. She and Humphrey share a fond farewell in the play. Later, his character is murdered.
There are very few books about either of these two women, and no biographies at all, which is a travesty. Eleanor appears as a supporting character in Philippa Gregory’s novel The Lady of the Rivers and as the protagonist of Tony Riches’s The Secret Diary of Eleanor Cobham. The story of the two women is told in the historical fiction novel The Witch of Eye by Mari Griffith.
“Political Uses of Sorcery in Medieval Europe” by William R. Jones (published in The Historian, Vol. 34, No. 4 (August, 1972), pp. 670-687)
“Shaping Superstition in Late Medieval England” by Kathleen Kamerick (published in Magic, Ritual, and Witchcraft, Volume 3, Number 1, Summer 2008, pp. 29-53)
“Sorcery at court and manor: Margery Jourdemayne, the witch of Eye next Westminster” by Jessica Freeman (published in Journal of Medieval History 30 (2004) 343–357)
“Stars, demons and the body in fifteenth-century England” by Robert Ralley (published in Studies in History and Philosophy of Biological and Biomedical Sciences 41 (2010) 109–116)