In the fifteenth century, four women who were part of the English Royal Family were scandalously accused of engaging in witchcraft to try and influence or kill the King. These accusations all came about as a result of political machinations at court, and all were successful – even if temporarily – in curbing the power of these women and the men around them. But where did the idea of using witchcraft as a political weapon come about, and why was it successful?
Ideas about magic have circulated for thousands of years in cultures all across the world, but in fourteenth-century Western Europe ideas began to develop and solidify around what was possible with magic and who used it. There were numerous plots at courts across the Continent, some of which would have been true instances of people engaging in magic but nefariously some were clear political conspiracies to bring down rivals.
Whilst both men and women were accused of using magic during this period, a gendered split in accusations became evident towards the end of the era. Women started to become associated with emotional magic such as love magic, as many believed women to be more tempestuous and succumb to their emotions more readily than men. Some people, such as the German author of the Malleus Maleficarum, even went as far as to suggest the overwhelming majority of witches were women for this precise reason, their temperament making them more vulnerable to the wiles of the devil who gave them access to their magical powers.
At court, powerful women found themselves particularly vulnerable to accusations of using magic by their political rivals. Men at court could be discredited for plotting against the king with hints of raising an army, or from carrying out their job in a way that would damage the king, or for using his position for his own gain such as stealing money from the treasury. But as women were at court in a personal capacity, either as a member of the ruling family or one of their servants or ladies-in-waiting, they were not supposed to be engaged in these kinds of activities. If a woman was deemed to be getting too powerful, there was little that could be done to remove her. This was where the idea of using evil magic became a convenient weapon. It required little evidence, was something that could be done in a personal capacity, and was something that women were known to engage in. It was also an easy way to explain something that did not make sense to contemporaries in other ways.
One such example was Valentina Visconti, the wife of the Duke of Orléans. In the late 14th century, the French King Charles VI began to suffer from mental illnesses which, amongst other symptoms, made him believe he was made of glass. Having a King suffer in such a way naturally fractured the French court, with different factions vying for power. The Duke of Orléans was the king’s brother and as such was one of the most powerful voices in the country. Those who wished to see him lose his power looked to discredit his wife, Valentina, for it had been noted by many that Charles’ mental illness would often calm when she was in his presence. This led to suspicions that Charles was under a spell caused by Valentina. This was a case of contemporaries trying to rationalise something they did not understand,
but it was also clearly political. By suggesting Valentina had something to do with the King’s ill-health, Orléans’ enemies could justify reducing his role at court.
As powerful women were weaker politically than men and did not have the same authority or protection afforded to them, when powerful factions at court wanted to get rid of a male rival it could be easier to target the women in their life. Trust and loyalty had strong familial ties during this period and if a female family member could be shown to have broken the King’s trust by using magic against him, then her other family members would automatically be viewed with suspicion as well. This can certainly be seen in Valentina’s case, but another example from the next century was Eleanor Cobham, Duchess of Gloucester.
Eleanor was married to Duke Humphrey who was the uncle of King Henry VI of England, but there was a group of powerful men at court headed by Cardinal Beaufort and the Duke of Suffolk who wanted Humphrey’s influence over the young king eliminated so that they could enjoy sole power at court. Humphrey was the heir to the throne and had a huge popular support base, and to attack him directly would be too unwise. By attacking his wife, however, they hoped to emulate the suspicion placed on Valentina and her husband.
In 1441 Eleanor was accused of hiring priests and a witch to carry out necromancy and witchcraft on her behalf in order to kill Henry VI, thus placing her husband on the throne and making her Queen. Her associates were executed, Eleanor was placed in lifetime imprisonment, and Henry never trusted his uncle again. Humphey’s influence at court was demolished, and he too fell under suspicion of treason just a few years later. Eleanor’s case demonstrates just how successful these political accusations of witchcraft could be against even the most powerful women in the country.
Eleanor was just one of four women in the English Royal Family accused of using witchcraft this century. Two decades before Eleanor’s downfall, Humphrey’s step- mother Queen Joan had been accused of using witchcraft against King Henry V. This was a ploy by the Crown to confiscate Joan’s enormous wealth to fund their war against France. Two more women would be accused after Eleanor; Jacquetta of Luxembourg, Eleanor’s sister-in-law, and Jacquetta’s daughter Elizabeth Woodville who married King Edward IV. Both Jacquetta and Elizabeth were accused on two separate occasions of using love magic on Edward to make him marry Elizabeth. The first accusation was designed to destroy the influence of their family at court, and the second time was to justify the usurpation of Edward’s brother, King Richard III. All of these cases show that there was a growing pattern at the end of the medieval period to use accusations of witchcraft and magic as a political weapon against powerful, inconvenient women. Some would recover their positions, others would not. But all show how dangerous it was to be a woman at court in this tumultuous period.
This article first appeared in our WITCHCRAFT & FOLKLORE issue which is available from our online store.
Gemma Hollman is the author of Royal Witches: From Joan of Navarre to Elizabeth Woodville. You can get your copy below.