Royal Witches: Witchcraft and the Nobility in Fifteenth-century England

By: Hollman, Gemma.
Call Number:  133.43 H74
Publication Date: 2020
Reviewed By: Gretchen
Find it at MRL:$002f$002fSD_ILS$002f0$002fSD_ILS:704240/one?qu=Witchcraft+and+the+Nobility+in+the+Fifteenth+Century

Ms. Hollman speaks truly when she says in her introduction that the fifteenth century is an extremely popular period for writing both fiction and non-fiction. If the popularity of works by Philippa Gregory, Alison Weir, and the production of TV shows such as The Tudors is anything to go by, she is most correct.

In her book Royal  Witches, Ms. Hollman explores the lives of four notable and noble women of their time: Joan of Navarre, Eleonor Cobham, Jacquetta of Luxemburg and Elizabeth Woodville. All these ladies were born into nobility to one degree or another. All the played the part expected for women of their time, lovely gracious, refined, virtuous and often, pious. But as happens when a woman becomes an inconvenience, a charge of witchcraft can be leveled by the men who see her as an obstacle.  Thus unfolds the plots and conspiracies to destroy these women or at least discredit them at any cost, in a saga worthy of any episode in Game of Thrones.

All these ladies had in common some association with the English crown in the personage of Henry IV and Henry V and members related to them. All of them also had in common, that they were obstacles to those in power, either directly or through the political machinations against the men they were married to.

In the case of Joan of Navarre, daughter of Charles I of Navarre, France, she led an exemplary life, respected and revered by the men around her, widowed twice and the mother of numerous children. However, she was in the position of receiving what amounted to £6,600 in today’s currency in a time when the royal coffers of England were nearly empty. Despite the esteem with which her stepson, Henry V held her, she was an impediment financially and something had to be done.

Eleonor Cobham was less well educated and came from a far less illustrious background, being only the daughter of an English baron. Her life was described as “pleasant but insignificant”.  Prior to her marriage to the Duke of Gloucester, she was a lady in waiting to Jacquelin d’Hainault and was the mistress for whom the Duke threw over his wife, having their marriage annulled so he could marry Eleonor. Her real mistake was admitting later that she had used the dark arts of a woman known as Marjory to produce love charms to win over the love of the Duke and to have his children. This was a serious charge indeed and one which Marjory paid for her life at the stake. Though Eleonor was eventually sentenced to do penance and serve life imprisonment, her fate was far less brutal than those around her who were sentenced to a traitors’ death and hanged, drawn and quartered.

Elizabeth Woodville is perhaps most well known for being the mother of the young princes in the tower. She gambled on being the queen mother and lost. She lost her sons as well, murdered in their sleep by persons unknown, though the finger points most often at their uncle, Richard III.

Does this book give lascivious details about cauldrons with questionable ingredients, deals made with the devil, pins inserted into “witch’s marks” or any evidence at all for dark sorcery or even magic herbalism being practiced within the solars and chambers of refined women of the fifteenth century? In a word, no. But it does draw back a curtain into the lives of women who, even though they were part of a segment of society with fewer rights and social freedom, were able to make their own way, holding the respect and highest esteem of those in power around them, even those who may have been threatened by their power, financial capability, or knowledge that made them a liability. They accomplished all this with gracious refinement and genteel elegance. The only way to lay them low was to bring charges of witchcraft upon them. The time they may have changed, but not the methods.

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