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The Haunters and the Haunted edited by Ernest Rhys online
LVII ELEANOR COBHAM, DUCHESS OF GLOUCESTER
GODWIN'S "Lives of the Necromancers"
This was a period in which the ideas of witchcraft had caught fast hold of the minds of mankind; and those accusations, which by the enlightened part of the species would now be regarded as worthy only of contempt, were then considered as charges of the most flagitious nature. While John, Duke of Bedford, the eldest uncle of King Henry VI., was regent of France, Humphrey of Gloucester, next brother to Bedford, was Lord Protector of the realm of England. Though Henry was now nineteen years of age, yet as he was a prince of slender capacity, Humphrey still continued to discharge the functions of sovereignty. He was eminently endowed with popular qualities, and was a favourite with the majority of the nation. He had, however, many enemies, one of the chief of whom was Henry Beaufort, great-uncle to the king, and Cardinal of Winchester. One of the means employed by this prelate to undermine the power of Humphrey, consisted in a charge of witchcraft brought against Eleanor Cobham, his wife.
This woman had probably yielded to the delusions which artful persons, who saw into the weakness of her character, sought to practise upon her. She was the second wife of Humphrey, and he was suspected to have indulged in undue familiarity with her before he was a widower. His present duchess was reported to have had recourse to witchcraft in the first instance, by way of securing his wayward inclinations. The Duke of Bedford had died in 1435; and Humphrey now, in addition to the actual exercise of the powers of sovereignty, was next heir to the crown in case of the king's decease. This weak and licentious woman, being now Duchess of Gloucester, and wife to the Lord Protector, directed her ambition to the higher title and prerogatives of a queen, and, by way of feeding her evil passions, called to her counsels Margery Jourdain, commonly called the Witch of Eye, Roger Bolingbroke, an astrologer and supposed magician, Thomas Southwel, Canon of St Stephen's, and one John Hume, or Hun, a priest. These persons frequently met the duchess in secret cabal. They were accused of calling up spirits from the infernal world; and they made an image of wax, which they slowly consumed before a fire, expecting that, as the image gradually wasted away, so the constitution and life of the poor king would decay and finally perish.
Hume, or Hun, is supposed to have turned informer, and upon his information several of these persons were taken into custody. After previous examination, on the 25th of July 1441, Bolingbroke was placed upon a scaffold before the cross of St Paul's, with a chair curiously painted, which was supposed to be one of his implements of necromancy, and dressed in mystical attire, and there, before the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Cardinal of Winchester, and several other bishops, made abjuration of all his unlawful arts.
A short time after, the Duchess of Gloucester having fled to the sanctuary at Westminster, her case was referred to the same high persons, and Bolingbroke was brought forth to give evidence against her. She was of consequence committed to custody in the castle of Leeds, near Maidstone, to take her trial in the month of October. A commission was directed to the lord treasurer, several noblemen, and certain judges of both benches, to inquire into all manner of treasons, sorceries, and other things that might be hurtful to the king's person, and Bolingbroke and Southwel as principals, and the Duchess of Gloucester as accessory, were brought before them. Margery Jourdain was arraigned at the same time; and she, as a witch and relapsed heretic, was condemned to be burned in Smithfield. The Duchess of Gloucester was sentenced to do penance on three several days, walking through the streets of London, with a lighted taper in her hand, attended by the lord mayor, the sheriffs, and a select body of the livery, and then to be banished for life to the Isle of Man. Thomas Southwel died in prison; and Bolingbroke was hanged at Tyburn on the 18th of November.