It’s a tough gig, marrying into the royal family. There’s a long list of contradictory rules and expectations, and if you put one foot even the slightest bit wrong, it brings down the wrath of palace functionaries and the tabloid press and self-appointed experts in royal protocol. Meghan Markle is the best example, but even Kate Middleton faced petty criticism before forging herself an ironclad public persona. But 600 years ago, in the 15th century, the stakes were even higher: you could find yourself on the wrong side of a witchcraft accusation, instead of simply a metaphorical witch hunt.
In her new history book, Royal Witches, Gemma Hollman traces the intertwined lives of four women associated with the royal family of England—Joan of Navarre, Eleanor Cobham, Jacquetta of Luxembourg, and Elizabeth Woodville—who each faced witchcraft accusations during the 15th century, a tumultuous time in England when rival factions were duking it out for control of the country. These were powerful, high-ranking women who were caught in a contradictory set of expectations, as the men in their families engaged in court politics with, literally, life and death stakes. Witchcraft made a convenient tool when various factions were looking for anything that might give them the upper hand. And, too, this was before our modern understanding of science, at a time when many learned men were attempting alchemy and astrology was a very serious, very intellectual pursuit.
Joan of Navarre, for instance, was a widow with an enormous fortune, and her stepson, the king, wanted that money; accusing her of witchcraft was an easy way to get it. Eleanor Cobham was accused of consulting astrologers to find out whether she might soon be elevated to a higher position, at a time when her husband was the heir to the throne—a question that by its very nature was dangerously close to treason. Jacquetta of Luxembourg and Elizabeth Woodville were accused separately, but both cases were intimately connected to the fact that Jacquetta’s second husband was a lowly knight and many at court didn’t like the fact that the Woodville family were such a passel of upstarts—to the point that Elizabeth ultimately married the king.
Their stories are a fascinating case study in women and power, one that reverberates down into the modern era—for the current crop of Windsors, sure, but also for women in politics more broadly. What better to ponder on the verge of both Halloween and the most consequential election of our lifetimes? I spoke to Hollman about her royal witches, why they came under fire, and the contemporary echoes of her story.
JEZEBEL: Set the scene for us. It’s the 15th century. What’s the role of magic in England, and who does it? What’s people’s idea of what magic is, who would be doing it, and how is that gendered?
GEMMA HOLLMAN: The idea of magic had been around for centuries and centuries, but it wasn’t really super defined. At the start of the 15th century, the word “witch” didn’t really exist. You couldn’t point to someone and say, “They’re a witch, because they do X, Y and Z.”” It really starts to develop across the period of my book, in the 15th century. You start to get this gendered split, where you get different types of magic associated with men and women. Men start to become associated with very intellectual, very learned magic, because it was generally men who were educated in this period. They were the only ones who really had access to all the books that they could read to learn about how to do really intense, powerful magic. They were doing things like necromancy, which is where you would summon the spirits of the dead and you would ask these spirits questions and they might be able to tell you the future, or you might be able to get them to do your bidding. Then as the 15th century develops, you start to get this idea of more female magic, and this is a lot simpler—things like herbs and charms and potions. Women aren’t as educated, so they’re doing this more almost folk magic, in a way.
They also become very associated with love magic. As we both know, women are very emotional creatures. We’re not very rational, and we love men, and all we want to do is get men to marry us and fall in love with us and have our babies. Sometimes, the men don’t want to do this, and so women have to resort to love magic. This really becomes a strong idea during the 15th century, that women are emotional manipulators who will use magic to get their way. That’s when you do start to get the development of the word “witch,” and right at the end of the century, you have a German man who writes this book that’s known as The Hammer of Witches. He is the one who really says witches are overwhelmingly women. Because they’re so irrational and emotional, they’re more likely to fall in league with the devil, and the devil is where people get their magical powers. He’s the one who says it’s loose, immoral women who are witches. If someone’s an adulterer, they’re more likely to be a witch because, again, it all ties in with this idea of the devil, and that women will be using this magic to manipulate people around them, specifically men.
It’s interesting, because there’s this popular stereotype that like, oh, they burn witches in the Middle Ages. The real witchcraft freakout starts as you get more into the Early Modern period.
Right. That’s when you do get the really big witch hunts, mostly the 17th century, a little bit into the 18th century. This is a lot earlier. I mean, you do still have if not loads, but still enough notable cases for it to be becoming more of a widespread thing.
But people aren’t quite sure what to do with witches at this point. Later on, you go on trial and if you’re found guilty, you will be killed. But earlier on, in the medieval period, they can’t decide whether they’re harmless or not. And so lots of people actually get let off the hook, even if they are found guilty of witchcraft. If they haven’t done anything too extreme, then they just give them a bit of a slap on the wrist and say: you can go free, but don’t do it again. The big problems really only come if people reoffend, because of this idea that witches are linked to the devil. It comes under church law and if you’re practicing witchcraft, then you’re being a heretic. You’re not being a good Christian. That’s where you start to get people burned at the stake—they’re burnt for their heresy, rather than for the crime of witchcraft. They’ve gone against the church, the church has told them, “Don’t do that again,” and they’ve done it again.
When you said the thing about folk magic, you can sort of see the ideas starting to take hold, but it sounds like initially, they’re kinda like, yeah, you’re doing a very stereotypically womanly thing, but as long as you don’t cause too much trouble, it’s probably fine. It’s like more up for debate, it sounds like.
Exactly. Because it’s not so widespread, it’s not too scary yet. It’s more in this later medieval period where you get a few times where witchcraft is possibly being used to try and kill someone, and a lot of the time it is used in treason accusations, that someone’s tried to kill the king using magic. That’s when it starts to get a lot more dangerous, and that’s when you do get these more extreme cases where people will be put to death. But again, it’s more because of what they’ve done with the witchcraft rather than committing the witchcraft itself. They’re being executed because they’ve tried to kill the king, rather than that being executed because they’ve used witchcraft. They definitely are a lot more lenient than you might believe from the later trials.
We were talking about how you start to see this gendered split in what’s magic and how do people do magic. Talk to me a little bit about how that plays out in the court politics of England at the time.
The 15th century in England is a really interesting period, because you’ve just got so much going on at court. It’s really turbulent. You’ve got lots of factions.
Right at the start of the century, you have Henry IV on the throne, and just the year before, in 1399, he has kicked his cousin, Richard II, off of the throne. Him and Henry didn’t get along and long story short, Henry comes over and claims the throne for himself. So he’s a brand new leader, and although a lot of people do support him, a lot of people don’t. And because he’s kicked one person off the throne, they think, well, maybe we can put a person that we like on the throne instead. Right at the start of the century, you’ve got a lot of infighting and factions between all of the nobles who are all vying to control the country. It settles down a little bit towards the middle of the century with Henry V and Henry VI, but the middle is when you start to get the Wars of the Roses, which is a really famous English civil war. And again, this is two different families fighting to be on the throne, and the country split in two on which side people support. All of this factionalism and infighting and vying for the throne is obviously really dangerous territory, and people will do anything that they can to get ahead. Anything that you can use to destroy your enemies, people are trying to use.
Women are actually really prominent at court in this period. We have this idea that medieval women didn’t really do anything and they were just baby makers, but actually, at court, they were really, really powerful. They were queens, they were wives of princes and prominent nobles. When the men are off fighting, the women are there, trying to keep things going. They’re trying to run the country. They’re trying to run their husband’s lands. They are really important, and so women then also become a target in all of these court factions, because in the medieval period, your reputation was intertwined with your family. If your brother, if your daughter, if your cousin had rebelled against the king or committed treason or done something bad, that then puts your own reputation on the line and people will suspect you for things.
Women become really easy targets at court. Because they’re women, they are weaker—they can’t command all these armies, they don’t have official roles in government. If you’ve got a really powerful man that you can’t do anything against, but you want to get rid of him, you look to the women in his life and particularly his wife. If you can bring his wife down, then you can bring him down as a result. That’s where this witchcraft stuff starts to tie in. Because women don’t have official roles at court, although that makes them weaker, it also makes them stronger, because you can’t really accuse them of much. If there’s a man you don’t like at court, you can say he has misled the king or he’s stolen money from the crown or he lost that war. But because women don’t do any of those things, you can’t accuse them of those things.
And so witchcraft becomes an easy accusation to throw, because women are starting to be seen more as partaking in witchcraft and being emotional, being secretive and manipulative. Then it’s more believable that they will have committed witchcraft or been part of a witchcraft conspiracy. And because of its nature, you don’t need much evidence. You just need to maybe find someone who will be willing to say, yes, I saw them doing witchcraft, or they asked me to do some witchcraft. It’s very difficult to disprove because the nature of witchcraft [is that] you don’t stand in public in the middle of the town square doing witchcraft. You’re doing it in secret with no one else around. If no one else is around, it’s really difficult to prove you didn’t do it, because how can you prove you didn’t do something that you would have done in secret? It becomes just this really, really powerful and convenient weapon to use against women to bring the women down and the men around them down.
Is it a cynical form of court politics, or is there an element to what in which something about these women, or what they were doing and the fact that they were powerful—is that seen as unnatural or a problem? When people were accusing these women of being witches, was it just a convenient cynical tool or is there something about these women that is actually, like, unsettling?
It’s a little bit of both, really. Women were allowed quite a lot of power in the medieval period, but they had to do it in a way that was seen to be feminine. A queen had loads of power, but that was okay, because she was the wife of a king. She was a mother to the heirs to the throne. It was expected that she would hold power. She was allowed to hold that power, but she had to use it in a feminine way. She had to support the church. She had to get pardons for criminals because, you know, women are merciful and men aren’t. It’s when you start to get powerful single women that they come more under suspicion—a widow, a single mother. You have to look at people like Margaret Beaufort, who’s the mother of Henry Tudor. She’s this powerful young single woman whose son is a potential claimant to the throne. Even today, people will look back at her and say, she was power hungry, she was greedy. She did whatever she could to get her son on the throne and she was a horrible woman. And that kind of stuff was going on at the time.
And so witchcraft was a very powerful, cynical tool, and it just so happened that it was working better against women. But they were definitely targeted specifically because they were women at the same time, and yeah, some of them were just a bit inconvenient. For example, the first woman in my book, Joan of Navarre, at the time of the accusations against her, she was a widow. She didn’t have a man controlling her. And she was one of the richest people in the kingdom, potentially the richest person below the king himself. And that wealth was needed by the Crown, by the king. So you’ve got this powerful woman with lots of money, and she becomes a target because of that. If she was a man, I don’t think she would have been targeted, because she would have had a lot of power behind her, as a man. She would have been ruling lots of lands, she would have had military support. It’s a lot easier, then, to attack her than if she were a man.
The book is about these four women who tied up with these accusations, and they’re your Royal Witches. Could you tell me a little bit about their position in society and how they ended up being singled out in this way?
All four women married into the English royal family. None of them were born into it. They come from a variety of backgrounds—some of them are foreign born. Some of them are English born. Some have noble or royal blood, and some don’t. So they come from quite a varied background, but there’s lots of similarities between them. As I said, they all marry into the English royal family. At various points in their lives, all four of them marry for love, which obviously is quite unusual for women of their status in that period, that they all had love marriages, which later, for some of them, comes back to haunt them with this idea of love magic: Why would a rich, powerful man marry a woman for love? He must have been under a spell. At various points, they were all the most powerful women in the country.
The first woman is Joan of Navarre, and she marries King Henry IV, that king who had come on to the throne right at the start of the century, and so she was a stepmother to all of his children. As I said, she was a very, very wealthy woman. Her husband, Henry, had given her lots of land, lots of money whilst he was alive. Once he died, she kept all of that money, and Henry’s son would come on to the throne. He wasn’t married, so Joan was the most senior woman in the whole country. She held a lot of authority and respect. The next woman in the book is Eleanor Cobham, and she was actually married to one of Joan’s stepsons, Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester, who was the brother of King Henry V. And again, sort of various circumstances happen where all of his brothers died and he’s the last one standing and his nephew is on the throne, Henry VI. But Henry VI came to the throne when he was just nine months old, so you have a really, really long period of time where you have a child on the throne. So Humphrey is the heir to the throne, and that means that his wife, Eleanor, could potentially become queen. And so, again, she is the most powerful woman in the land. Henry’s mother has died by this point, Joan’s died by this point.
The last two women in the book are somewhat intertwined because they are mother and daughter. You have Jacquetta of Luxembourg, who also marries one of these brothers, one of Joan’s stepsons. Her and Eleanor are sisters in law through marriage. At the point where she marries this brother, you’ve still got several of the brothers alive. He’s the oldest. So she’s married to the heir to the throne, and she could have become queen if things went differently. He dies. They’ve only been married for about two years. He’s a lot older than her, about 30 years. She then scandalously marries this knight who is way below her station. You know, she’s part of the Luxembourg royal family. She’s related to the French crown. She’s got royal blood running through her veins and she marries a knight. But they have a really happy marriage. They have loads and loads of children. They have about 14 children together. And one of them is this woman, Elizabeth Woodville. And again, she scandalously has this marriage to the king of England. She marries Edward IV, who is the king who manages to come on the throne during the Wars of the Roses. She has now become queen. So, like Joan, she is married to the monarch of England and is the most powerful woman in the whole country.
So at various points, they are all queens or married to the heir to the throne and incredibly powerful. These are literally the very top of society. And that’s partly why it’s so interesting that all four of them get accused of witchcraft, because you don’t think of something like witchcraft hitting the very top of society.
You pointed out that they all marry into the royal family. I think Americans have this idea about royal rules as being something like there’s a rule book somewhere and they just check it off a box, like something either happens this way or it doesn’t happen this way. And what’s always really interesting to me is that these things are very contested. You know, you get women who are one status or another and do something that’s in conflict with that status, and then it plays out in this very complicated court politics way about what are going to be the consequences of that. It’s very interesting to me that part of what is tied up in this is questions of status and power and it’s just a hard job marrying into the royal family.
Definitely. You have the fairy tale of meeting the prince and happily ever after, but throughout history, they have had a difficult time because of, as you say, walking that line of acting in the right way. And often it’s acting in quite conflicting ways. You’re meant to show off your status and show your wealth and power to support the country. But at the same time, if you do it too much, then you must be greedy and you only married in for the money and the wealth. There’s all these double standards. It was something that medieval women were taught to do. You have these etiquette books, basically, from a variety of sources. One of the most famous is a French woman called Christine de Pisa. She was writing in the 1300s, and she literally wrote manuals for queens and princesses to teach them how to be good queens and princesses. And she teaches them how to walk this line that they’re supposed to, where they’re meant to be intelligent and clever and pretty. But they’re also meant to be meek and submissive. But they also have to teach that husband to do the right thing and be good Christians. There’s so many conflicting things. A lot of the women in the book did walk that line quite well, but sometimes that wasn’t quite enough to save you, and the tiniest thing could be twisted against you.
What were some of the consequences that these women faced as a result of these accusations? It ends up being a pretty effective attack, right, to neutralize their power?
It’s really effective. Against three of the four women, certainly, it was very effective, even if it was only for a period of time. And really their fates end up being sealed by who is on the throne.
Joan, the first woman, is actually imprisoned for several years, without a trial, partly because the Crown is still kind of on her side. All they want is to get her money off of her, but they can’t ask nicely for it. At the same time, they don’t quite want to ruin her life. So they leave her in this limbo, and eventually the king goes back on her side and says, okay, let’s let her go.
The second woman, Eleanor Cobham, really suffered the most out of all of the women. She manages to flee to sanctuary in Westminster Abbey, so this means that the law courts can’t put her on trial. But because of what I was saying before about how witchcraft is related to the church and Christianity, she is able to be put on trial by the church. A group of bishops put her on trial for witchcraft and she is found guilty. And so, again, she is imprisoned, but she is never set free. The crown never goes back on her side. And so she spends the rest of her life in prison.
And then Jacquetta and Elizabeth, at various points they do suffer, but like Joan, they are restored when the crown is on their side. Jacquetta is accused during this rebellion where her husband and son are killed, and there is a bit of an inquiry about it. She’s not quite put on trial. But there’s a panel of lords set up to investigate whether the charges are true. By the time they’re doing this, the king, who is her son in law, has regained power, and because he’s on her side—she’s his mother in law—it then turns in her favor and she’s found completely innocent and her name is cleared. But the accusations against her come back a few decades later against her daughter, Elizabeth. Elizabeth is in a similar situation to Eleanor, where Elizabeth is hiding in sanctuary because her husband is dead. Her son, who is meant to be king, has been locked up in the Tower of London. And her brother in law, Richard, is looking to claim the throne himself. He claims the throne and he becomes Richard III, and she’s in this really vulnerable position. The crown is against her. And so it is said that she is guilty of witchcraft. She’s not even put on trial because the Crown has said she’s guilty, so she’s guilty. And it’s only then when Richard is taken off of the throne and you have the new king, Henry Tudor, who starts the Tudor dynasty—he then marries her daughter. And so it’s in his interest to say that she’s not guilty of witchcraft, because he can’t be marrying the daughter of a witch. And so then she’s been exonerated. So their fortunes really do depend on whether the crown supports them or not. It really is a mixed bag.
Do you see this echoing into the modern era? I mean, is this something that it’s like, you know, wow, it’s wild that that happened in the 15th century? Or do you sort of see, like, similar dynamics still happening in the modern era?
I think you can definitely see echoes of it. Even if it’s not the witchcraft accusations, certainly this idea that you can attack a woman because she is weaker. You can attack a woman because she’s meant to fulfill all of these standards that aren’t the same for men. If men do certain things, it’s brushed over. Whereas if a woman does it, not necessarily in the same way. And this idea of joint reputation, that you can attack someone’s family to tarnish them. And you do still see that in politics today. You know, politicians’ family members are scrutinized, and if one of their children or one of their partners does something bad, it reflects badly on the politician. The media will bring things up.
Even away from politics, in the modern royal family, you can see it to an extent, with things like the way that Meghan Markle has been treated generally in the media. She fits the same brief as some of the women in my book where, you know, she’s a foreigner, she’s already been married. And some of the women in my book have that, they’ve already been married so they’re tarnished with this brush of, you know, well, they’re not a “pure” person. You know, they’ve got children. They’ve got baggage. She doesn’t necessarily fit the same status. Eleanor Cobham is looked down upon because she is a lower status than her husband and she had been his mistress before they got married. So people are questioning whether he should marry this kind of person. And in the same way, you could see that, you know, Meghan was a celebrity. She was someone who was her own person before coming into the royal family. And so she has this background and baggage, which means that she’s not necessarily looked at in the same way as someone such as perhaps Kate Middleton, who comes from more of a sort of upper class family, who fits the brief, who behaves in the way that is seen to be well received. And it’s not to say that she doesn’t still receive criticism, but you can definitely see that they are treated differently. And as I said, a lot of the tropes that are used in the book to criticize the women in the book, are tropes that are used to criticize women today.