Princess Diana and Meghan Markle have both struggled with the downsides of marrying into the British royal family, but at least no one ever arrested them on accusations of treasonous witchcraft. Astoundingly, that really happened to four royal women in a 70-year period some six centuries ago, in a burst of bizarre prosecutions.
The Wars of the Roses, the dramatic 15th-century struggle over the English crown, have attracted writers from Shakespeare on. More recently they’ve inspired both "Game of Thrones" and the White Queen saga. Now author Gemma Hollman provides a new lens on this period in Royal Witches: Witchcraft and the Nobility in Fifteenth-Century England.
The four women—Joan of Navarre, Eleanor Cobham, Jacquetta of Luxembourg and Elizabeth Woodville—were far from the witchy stereotype of solitary village women. They were all intelligent and cultivated, the wives or widows of powerful men: two kings and two kings' brothers. It was too dangerous for these men's enemies to attack them directly, so their adversaries undermined them by targeting the women.
Hollman expertly re-creates their courtly world—the lavish clothes, jewels and palaces that inspired so much envy. Their personalities necessarily remain elusive, but all four chose unusual paths to marriage, so their sense of agency is clear.
In the 15th century, belief in magic blended easily with nascent science; even serious scholars pursued alchemy. These women may indeed have turned to “love potions” or fortunetellers—but was it treasonous conspiracy against the king? The likes of Cardinal Beaufort and Richard III did their best to make that case.
The accused women were smart and lucky enough to escape the axe. But this was not a game: Eleanor’s supposed accomplices were tortured and executed. Eleanor herself, the beloved wife of popular Duke Humphrey of Gloucester, was forced to walk unhooded across London on three separate days in “penance,” her humiliating fall visible to all.
Even readers familiar with the basic history of the Wars of the Roses will see aristocratic skulduggery in a strikingly fresh way in Royal Witches, as we continue to grapple with the treatment of women who rise to important positions even in our own time.