Monday, June 10, 2013

Eleanor Cobham: The Infamous Duchess of Gloucester


Think Anne Boleyn woman to have a rapid fall from power? Think again! A few decades before Anne Boleyn showed up a woman named Eleanor Cobham was causing a scandal. Since I know Anne Boleyn has such a big fan base (i should know I'm one of 'em!) I thought telling a similar "Anne Boleyn" story might intrege some of you. And she was the Duchess of Gloucester, and don't mean Richard III or Edward III's youngest son Thomas. I'm talking about Henry V's youngest brother, Humphrey.


Eleanor Cobham with her husband, Humphrey Duke of Gloucester

So what is the story of Eleanor? Why is she infamous? Well, let's begin shall we with the logical place to start eh? the beginning!

Eleanor Cobham was a just slightly wealthier than normal common girl who became lady-in-waiting to Humphrey of Gloucester's wife Jacqueline of Hainult. Humphrey had married Jacqueline not for love of her but rather love of her incredible wealth and lands. This was a match that was quite frowned upon. First of all, Jacqueline had first been married a member of the house of Burgundy, and was fighting him for her rightful lands. The English at the time was aligned with Burgundy so married an enemy of Burgundy was a big no. But Gloucester didn't care, he married Jacqueline anyway. And lately he hadn't been too fond of her (and based off my research Jacqueline was quite annoying...)

Instead, Gloucester's attention turned toward his wife's maid, Eleanor. Eleanor was flattered by the attention and naturally this made relations between her and lady Jacqueline strained. And as I guess you could've surmised...Eleanor became Gloucester's mistress. Together they had two children, whether or not the two children were born when they married or not isn't known but they had one girl (Antigone pronounced "Ant-eh-go-nay") and one son named Arthur.

And sure enough, Jacqueline was divorced from Humphrey and went back to Hainult where she was from. Next, Humphrey married Eleanor. This was a much happier match and Eleanor went from being a humble serving maid to being a duchess and the wife of the heir presumptive. (since King Henry VI was still a kid) And as I found from my researching, Eleanor was just as ambitious for a crown as her husband. It's very probable that together they talking about ways of taking the crown. Eleanor also had a interest in witchcraft and apparently practiced it (though it was never successful.)


Eleanor Cobham on her way to her prison.

None of their secret planning came to light until about 1441, Henry VI was now about 18 and thanks to advisers such as his great uncle, the Bishop of Winchester and others Eleanor's witchcraft and plots were brought to light. She was tried and found guilty. Her sentence? 3 days penance (which means she would walk through the streets wearing nothing but a white sheet and carrying a taper or candle. This was the usual punishment for 'mistresses' or women of that nature) and then life imprisonment. This sentence, rather than death, was probably suggested by Henry VI, who hated to see anyone executed.

As for Eleanor's husband? Humphrey turned on her, though secretly I think he was rather upset by her sentence. I can't recall exactly but it may have been that after that they two were divorced. (I don't think it's likely though) A few years later Humphrey himself was rightful accused of treason and died just before his trial (he wasn't murdered like Shakespeare and some historians have claimed) Eleanor clearly survived her husband but, for how long, we don't know.

It can be said without a doubt that Eleanor Cobham died while imprisoned, she was alone and she had brought it upon herself. If Anne Boleyn had ever heard Eleanor's story, it's possible she tried to take lessons from it. Eleanor always tried to show off her new royal status as much as possible at the court, Eleanor also openly discuss treasonous things with her husband. And no doubt, while languishing in the tower Anne would've recall the fate of the infamous Eleanor.

In Shakespeare's "Henry VI" plays Eleanor is shown as being guilty of the witchcraft she is accused of is portrayed as a sort of villain. In this sense he got something right. Unlike Anne Boleyn, Eleanor was going to manipulate her way up the top and wasn't going to stop until the crown was placed on her head at Westminster. Still, I find her story intriguing as she is a very little known character and if I find more info I'll write another post!