The Real Witches Behind Game of Thrones
For over 900 years, people have been telling stories of wicked witches who have used Black Magic to overthrow kings. Morgan Le Fay in Arthurian legends of the early 12th century is thought to have inspired Melisandre in George R.R. Martin’s Game of Thrones. But has there ever been a real-life historical model for such a person?
In England, the prime candidate was Margery Jourdemayne, better known as the Witch of Eye, who in 1441 was accused of heretical witchcraft as part of a larger plot against King Henry VI. In fact, Margery’s case was so notorious she even features in William Shakespeare’s play History of Henry VI, Part II. However, before we meet Margery Jourdemayne, let’s first set the historical scene…
When a Baby Ruled All of England and France
The time was the mid-15th century and the location was England. On the throne was King Henry VI—the only child of Henry V, a monarch who had created an empire (during the long-running Hundred Years’ War AD 1337-to-1453) in which the kings of England controlled more of France than the kings of France. Following the unexpected death of King Henry V at the age of 36, his son acceded to the throne in 1422 when he was just nine months old. A few weeks later, he was also declared the king of France; not that any of this did young Henry any good as he was still an infant and all the powers of the state were exercised by a Regency Council comprising the leading dukes and earls of the realm.
Predictably, the nobles were more interested in what they could personally gain from being associated with the Regency Council, and very quickly dynastic splits began emerging as rival families vied for power and influence over the king. Among the most influential was the late King Henry V’s youngest brother Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester, who held the position of Lord Protector and Defender of the Realm.
In 1428 Humphrey had his first marriage annulled so he could marry his mistress Eleanor Cobham (sometime between 1428 and 1431) a woman variously described as “beautiful, intelligent, and ambitious…” “a woman distinguished in her form…” and “beautiful and marvelously pleasant.” Over the next few years, Humphrey and Eleanor lived at La Plesaunce, their own palace at Greenwich which rivaled the Royal Court in terms of its luxury. Then in 1435, Humphrey’s elder brother John, Duke of Bedford, died. This not only made Humphrey the most influential member of the Regency Council but also the ‘heir presumptive’ to the English throne.
The key point here is King Henry VI was still a minor, unmarried, and had no children so if he were to die, the crown would then pass to the late Henry V’s surviving brother Humphrey and, in turn, his wife Eleanor, (now the Duchess of Gloucester) would become queen. But, King Henry didn’t die, and in 1437 he was declared of age, assumed the reins of government and began making decisions that clashed with the views of his uncle, the Duke of Gloucester.
Necromancy and the Black Arts Against the King
It was against this background, when the Duke’s fortunes were at their lowest, that Eleanor began consulting astrologers to try to divine what the future held; both for her – and the king. The astrologers cast two horoscopes: one for the Duchess and the other for Henry VI, the latter predicting the King would suffer a life-threatening illness during the twentieth year of his reign (1441 to 1442).
Unfortunately, rumors of the prediction reached both the king and his advisers and, in due course, they were traced back to a trio of clerics and scholars: Roger Bolingbroke (or Bolyngbroke), John Hume (or Home), and Thomas Southwell, who were all members of the Duke of Gloucester’s household.
The three men were arrested and both Southwell and Bolingbroke were charged with ‘treasonable necromancy’. In this instance, necromancy meant the practice of what we’d now call the Black Arts, and it was deemed treasonable because merely suggesting the king was in poor health (whether physically or mentally) “destroyed the cordial love that existed between ruler and his subjects”.
Bolingbroke in turn named Eleanor as the instigator, saying she had “first stirrd himme to know to what astate she sholde come” so she too was arrested. Eleanor immediately denied having anything to do with casting the horoscopes although historians have subsequently located correspondence between Bolingbroke and her indicating she did have a practical interest in the occult and magical arts. However, she did concede she had “longe tyme used” the services of “the Witch of Eye,” who had provided her with “medicines and drynkis” to force the Duke of Gloucester “to love her and wedde her.”
Taking down the Witch of Eye
This confession inevitably resulted in the arrest of Margery Jourdemayne (or Margaret Jourdain as it was also written) who now found herself implicated in this intrigue. (Incidentally, the ‘Eye’ in this instance was Eye-next-Westminster, a former manor in London that belonged to Westminster Abbey and incorporated an area now known as Ebury, Pimlico and Hyde Park.)
As to who Margery was… over a period of ten years she had become well known within royal court circles as one of several women specializing in ‘love magic’, dispensing potions, charms and cosmetics to help women secure husbands, fall pregnant and, where necessary, terminate pregnancies. That such people were apparently openly, if discreetly practicing witchcraft might seem unusual to modern readers but in fact, the authorities in 15th century London “were neither eager nor willing to prosecute practical magicians” (which included sorcerers and witches) providing they were not trying to harm or defraud anyone.
This pragmatic view very much accords with the modern perception many so-called witches were merely herbalists, cunning-men, and wise-women practicing white or hedge magic in an era when medical science was in its infancy and unavailable to most people. In fact, some studies suggest patients of hedge witches had a better survival rate than those treated by ‘qualified’ physicians and surgeons.
Facing charges of witchcraft and treason, Margery Jourdemayne and her fellow accused Thomas Southwell also joined Bolingbroke in claiming Eleanor was the “causer and doer of all these deeds.” Unfortunately, the evidence was building up against the Witch of Eye.
Attacks on the King with Magic Rituals?
The first problem was Bolingbroke was supposedly arrested with a wax effigy (or ‘poppet doll’) of the king in his possession that Eleanor was alleged to have made with the assistance of Margery. As a rhyme at the time explained:
How she in waxe by counsel of the witch,
An image made, crowned like a king,
which dayly they did pytch
Against a fyre, that as the wax did melt,
So should his lyfe consume away unfelt.
In other words, it was a ‘sympathetic’ (or imitation) magic ritual using an object (the wax poppet) resembling or symbolically associated with the person over which influence was sought. Thus, as the wax poppet melted, so the life of the king would melt away. In fact, poppets were also used in fertility magic and Eleanor argued its purpose was entirely innocent and she’d had this poppet made by Margery in the hope of having a child by the duke “forto have borne a child by hir lord, the duke of Gloucestre”.
What ultimately doomed Margery was the discovery that in 1432 she had previously been accused of sorcery but released on condition of her future good behavior and her promise she would use no further witchcraft or necromancy. Yet now there she was, a decade later, once more engaged in witchcraft! She had relapsed and in the eyes of the Church, this was inexcusable.
Margery was arrested at some point between late July and early September 1441 and was imprisoned in the Tower of London. In late October she was found guilty in the ‘Bishop of Canterbury’s Court’ of heresy and the longtime practice of witchcraft, and sentenced to death by burning. (This was an ecclesiastical court which had no authority to consider whether she was also guilty of treason.) And, on 27th October she was burned at the stake at Smithfield in the City of London. In case you were wondering, the usual method of executing people convicted of witchcraft in England was death by hanging and only those convicted of heresy (as Margery was) were burned at the stake.
A History Like Game of Thrones
But was Margery Jourdemayne really guilty of using witchcraft against King Henry? In Shakespeare’s version of events (notably, he was not a historian but a playwright with an audience to entertain) Margery, along with Bolingbroke, Southwell, and Hume, with Eleanor watching from a gallery, all worked together to summon a demon to answer their questions.
The reality is Margery probably did know Bolingbroke and Southwell because they all moved in the same circles, and it is also quite clear she had helped Eleanor with love magic for many years. But as for the actual intrigue? If anything, Margery was guilty by association, dragged in and implicated when Eleanor tried to save herself by admitting she’d engaged in witchcraft but only the harmless love magic variety rather than black magic.
However, as already explained, Margery was doomed once the authorities realized she had an earlier conviction for sorcery and had relapsed. Still, her fame (or infamy) lived on after her death.
There was a Beldame called the wytch of Ey,
Old mother Madge her neyghbours did hir name
Which wrought wonders in countryes by heresaye
Both feendes and fayries her charmyng would obay
And dead corpsis from grave she could uprere
Suche an inchauntresse, as that tyme had no peere.
But what about everyone else involved in this cause célebre? Here history does echo fiction, in fact, it reads like a particularly bloody series of Game of Thrones—with everyone dying!
A Shakespearean Tragedy Where Everyone Dies
The same day Margery Jourdemayne was burned at the stake, Thomas Southwell “died of sorrow” in the Tower of London, although a more likely explanation is he committed suicide by poisoning himself. Roger Bolingbroke was not so fortunate. He was found guilty of treasonable felonies and executed on the 18th November by being hanged, drawn and quartered, with his head subsequently impaled on a spike on London Bridge, and his four quarters displayed at Oxford, Cambridge, Hereford and York.
Turning to Eleanor Cobham, she was initially charged with attempting to encompass the king’s death through sorcery and witchcraft— charges she denied—however on 9th November, as a result of what may have been an early form of plea bargain, the charges of heresy and treason were dropped and she was found guilty of just sorcery and witchcraft. By way of punishment, she was required to do public penance in London, followed by imprisonment for life. In addition, her marriage to Duke Humphrey was annulled, because she had effectively admitted using love magic to trick him into marrying her.
Eleanor’s penance, a popular subject for paintings in the 19th century, required her to walk, bareheaded and carrying a wax taper (candle), from Temple Bar to St Paul’s Cathedral (and on subsequent occasions to two other churches) where she offered the taper at the high altar. Not quite Cersei’s ‘Walk of Shame’ in Game of Thrones but a sufficient public humiliation for a woman who was once so close to becoming the Queen of England.
That said, her imprisonment was not as grim as it could have been as she was granted a pension of 100 marks a year and allowed to keep a household of 12 servants. She eventually died at the age of 52 at Beaumaris Castle in Anglesey (of the coast of Wales) in 1452.
As for her now ex-husband Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester, the Witch of Eye affair totally discredited him. Eleanor’s relatively lenient treatment may have been tacit acknowledgment she was just a pawn in a larger game to destroy her husband’s political career. But worse was to come when in 1447 Gloucester was accused of treason by King Henry’s wife Margaret of Anjou (they married in 1445). He was arrested but three days later, before he could be brought to trial in London, he died. The official version is he died of either a stroke or a heart attack but there were contemporary rumors (echoed by Shakespeare) that he was poisoned by his enemies.
That just left the king – Henry VI – and his later years also turned into a tragedy. The war against France came disastrously off the rails and by 1453, when the Hundred Years’ War finally ended, England had lost all its French territories, some of which it had held for nearly 400 years, with the exception of the port of Calais. Curiously, until as late as 1800, English monarchs still included ‘King (or Queen) of France’ among the titles they claimed.
The Bloody Wars of the Roses and the Final ‘Conspiracy’
King Henry suffered a mental breakdown from the shock (there is a suggestion he was suffering from a form of schizophrenia) and his wife Queen Margaret (also known as the ‘She-Wolf of France’ but that’s a story for another time) began to rule on his behalf with the assistance of various nobles belonging to the Lancastrian branch of the royal House of Plantagenet.
This created friction with the rival Yorkist faction and in 1455 the dispute turned violent with the first battle in what would subsequently be called the Wars of the Roses, a civil war that rocked England until 1485 when the first of the Tudors – King Henry VII – seized the throne after the Battle of Bosworth Field.
As for King Henry VI’s role in the civil war, he was primarily a passenger swept along by events and not helped by recurring bouts of mental illness. He was captured in battle in 1460, deposed in 1461, restored to the throne in 1470, deposed again in 1471, then imprisoned in the Tower of London where he “died of melancholy” in May of that year (at still a young age of 49). Contemporary rumors and a subsequent forensic report on his remains suggest he, too was murdered by his enemies.
And what of the final conspirator John Hume, you may ask? He was pardoned in 1442 and subsequently returned to his old job as a canon (cleric) at Hereford Cathedral, eventually outliving everyone and dying in his bed in 1473. He could have been just very lucky, or it may have been, as Shakespeare suggests, he was actually an agent provocateur working for one of the Duke of Gloucester’s enemies!