Eleanor Cobham should not have become a duchess; she certainly shouldn’t have been the first lady in Henry VI’s court. She didn’t have the right bloodlines.
She was the daughter of Sir Reginald Cobham of Sterborough but was fortunate that she found a place in the household of Jacqueline, Countess of Hainault as a lady-in-waiting. Jacqueline had fled her husband John, Duke of Brabant – so a bit of a wayward woman by medieval standards. As it turned out young Eleanor had her own fair share of waywardness that would take her all the way to the top of English society before she crashed from grace on a charge of witchcraft and treason.
Of course this all has a back story attached to it. Henry V, the English king died from dysentery contracted during the Hundred Years War. He left a son, Henry VI, as his successor – unfortunately young Henry was still in swaddling clothes. Henry V’s brother, John, Duke of Bedford, governed France as regent, while his youngest brother, Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester, was named protector of England during the young king’s minority. Henry’s two brothers did not get on. In fact if John said it was day, Humphrey would probably have declared it to be night.
Jacqueline was a Countess without a country. She wanted help recovering Hainault from her husband. If that wasn’t enough of a challenge she also sought to recover Holland and Zeeland from her uncle, John of Bavaria. Duke Humphrey, perhaps because his brother was making a marriage with the Burgundians, married Jacqueline. This rather rained on John, Duke of Bedford’s carefully negotiated treaty with the Burgundians and caused some dissent between the new allies because Philip of Burgundy had his own eyes on Hainault.
In October 1424, the Duke Humphrey and his bride landed at Calais. Eleanor Cobham went with them. It was a disaster. Philip of Burgundy was amore popular ruler than Humphrey with the good people of Hainault. So, he did what all sensible men do in an emergency, he deserted his wife and returned home – leaving Jacqueline to be captured by Philip of Burgundy.
Eleanor having no desire to be mired in Jacqueline’s disaster took herself home as well. It wasn’t long before the former lady-in-waiting became Humphrey’s mistress. Gossip soon whispered that Eleanor had inveigled Humphrey into her snare with the help of a witch called Margery Journemayne. The gossip must have buzzed when the duke and his mistress were married. Stow reported that a group of women sent a letter to Humphrey pointing out that it wasn’t very honourable of him to leave poor Jacqueline as a prisoner in the hands of the Duke of Burgundy or for him to carry on in public with Eleanor.
Whatever nobility wives thought of Eleanor she was now a duchess and in 1440 Henry VI made her a Lady of the Garter.
In September 1435, John, Duke of Bedford died. Humphrey was now heir to the throne – the thought of being king seems to have gone to both Humphrey and Eleanor’s heads. Eleanor had gone from being the daughter of a knight to the first lady in the land. The crown was a heartbeat away. The trouble was that Eleanor was not particularly gracious in her new role. One chronicler wrote that she showed off “her pride and her position by riding through the streets of London, glitteringly dressed and suitably escorted by men of noble birth.” So clearly tact and diplomacy were not high on her list of skill sets.
Duke Humphrey was university educated. He loved books. In his collection was one on astrology. Eleanor appears to have had an interest in the topic as well because in June 1441, Eleanor, having dined at Cheapside was informed that three members of her household had been arrested on charges of conspiring against the king. The suspects implicated Eleanor – as must have been the intention all along. Eleanor seeing which way the wind was blowing took herself off to Westminster and into sanctuary.
Eleanor was told to go to Leeds Castle but pretended that she was too ill to go. It was to no avail. She faced trial and admitted that she had turned to witchcraft to get a child with Humphrey and to having the future of Henry VI told. Humphrey remained silent on the matter. He made no move to defend his wife but once she was found guilty his political life was as good as over. Following the trial Humphrey and Eleanor were forcible divorced and Eleanor made to do public penance which was, all things considered, a narrow escape – poor Margery Journemayne was burned at the stake as a witch in Smithfield.
From London, at the beginning of 1442, Eleanor was sent to Cheshire; via Kenilworth and from there to the Isle of Man – a duchess no more.