15th Century Witchcraft & The Witch of Eye
The Witch Of Eye
She was a wise woman of some renown who meddled with powers beyond her control. Her charms, incantations, salves, and elixirs had been sought by those in need, including those within the Royal Court.
In the 14th and 15th century communities, practitioners of folk magic in England were known as 'White Witches' or 'Cunning Folk '. They were believed to be able to cure disease, counter ill luck, foretell the future, and locate lost property, They were free to offer their services in these areas for a fee and unmolested.
Margery Jourdemayne is most well known for her involvement with Eleanor Cobham, Duchess of Gloucester. The Duchess, who it was said, came to the Witch of Eye for years to acquire potions for her health and creams to preserve her beauty.
At the time of her trial the Duchess claimed that she " had consulted her friend on the simplest of women’s matters; she wanted to become pregnant to provide her husband with an heir." That began a chain of events that would cascade into a river of doom!
Margery was not a doleful, old village witch living on the goodwill of neighbors. She met a demand for love potions, folk medicines and charms; in a practice that was usually tolerated by the authorities.
Her husband William came from a prosperous Middlesex yeoman family. He held his office as a manorial official on Westminster Abby's Ebury (Eye) estate for some twenty years, whilst his family was respected and prospered.
In 1441, one of the highest ladies in the realm, Eleanor Cobham, Duchess of Gloucester, was arraigned for conspiring with a clerk, Roger Bolingbroke, “the most famous scholar in the whole world in astrology in magic” *, to procure the death of the young monarch by sorcery, so that the Duke of Gloucester, Henry’s uncle and guardian, might succeed to the crown. In this plot were further involved Canon Thomas Southwell, and a “relapsed witch” *. Eleven years before, Margery Jourdemayne had been incarcerated upon grave suspicion of black magic.
Bolingbroke, whose confession implicated the Duchess, was hanged; Canon Southwell died in prison; and the witch in Smithfield was “burn’d to Ashes”.
And this same tyme was take a womman callid the wicche of Eye, whoos sorcerie and wicchecraft the said dame Alienore hadde longe tyme usid; and be suche medicines and drynkis as the said wicche made, the said Alienore enforced theforsaid duke of Gloucestre to love her and to wedde her. * The Mirror for Magistrates
Her skills in seeing ones path continued beyond her demise. She is predominantly known for her involvement in the case regarding Eleanor Cobham, Duchess of Gloucester.
However she showed her worth predicting the death of Edmund Beaufort, Duke of Somerset some years later:
The Duke of Somerset consulted Margery Jourdemayne, the Witch of Eye, with regard to his fate during the impending conflicts. She told him that he would be defeated and slain at a castle: but as long as he arrayed his forces and fought in the open field, he would be victorious and safe from harm. Shakespeare represents her familiar spirit saying:
'Let him shun castles.
Safer shall he be on the sandy plain
Than where castles mounted stand.'
After the first battle of St. Albans, when the trembling monks crept from their cells to succour the wounded and inter the slain, they found the dead body of Somerset lying at the threshold of a mean alehouse, the sign of which was a castle. And thus,
'Underneath an alehouse' paltry sign,
The Castle, in St. Albans, Somerset
Hath made the wizard famous in his 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."
From The Mirror for Magistrates (1560)
It was disclosed at her arrest in 1441 that Margery had spent many months in royal custody at Windsor Castle ten years previously for an unspecified offence concerning sorcery. It may be a coincidence, but in 1430 seven witches from different parts of England had been arrested in London accused of plotting the young king Henry’s death, and then imprisoned in Fleet.
A subsequent writ directed payment to the lieutenant of Windsor Castle, John Wintershull, for his costs for keeping Friar John and Margery Jourdemayne, and their two gaolers, from 18th November 1430 to 9th May 1432. Another writ of July 1432 authorized payment to Wintershull for his costs not only for keeping Margery and Ashwell, called ‘le priour de Sent Cross’, i.e. the Crutched Friars, but for an unnamed clerk of St Margaret’s, Westminster, probably John Virley. His connection, if any, with Margery, remains undiscovered. **
Margery’s imprisonment at Windsor ended when on 6th May 1432 the constable of the castle was directed to bring three prisoners to Westminster: Margery, friar Ashwell and Stephen Urly [sic]. Three days later Ashwell, Margery and John Virley, clerk, were examined before the Council on charges of sorcery. Ashwell and Virley were then discharged from prison on their own security but Margery’s freedom was made conditional upon her future good behaviour and a promise that she would use no further sorcery nor witchcraft, an undertaking of crucial significance in later events. ** PRO, E 404/48/255 and 47/330.
The charges brought against Margery in 1441 included treason, heresy and witchcraft; it was most likely the latter two that resulted in her demise. She had already sworn to renounce the practice of sorcery in 1432.
15th Century Witchcraft & The Witch of Eye
The Brut chronicle states that the ‘wicche of Eye’ was ‘brent for hir fals beleve and wicchecraft that she had used of longe tyme’, whilst The English Chronicle considered that it was not just sorcery and witchcraft, but also ‘for cause of relapse’ that she was burnt. This agrees with the fact that Margery was not named on the surviving London and Middlesex indictments, but was sentenced by a church court.
If Margery had ‘refrained from mingling in high society’ at a time of dynastic anxiety and intrigue, she might well have died in her own bed, rather than in the smoke and flames of Smithfield.
I want to add that I am left with a query. While researching for this blog one thing has been perturbing me in regard to the Duke of Somerset. Margery Jourdemayne died in October of 1441 and the Battle of St Albans was on 22 May 1455, almost 14 years later, when was her prophecy of his destiny made?
- Witchcraft in New and Old England , George Lyman Kittredge
- The Mirror for Magistrates, ed. L.B. Campbell (New York, 1960)
- Witchcraft in Old and New England (Cambridge, Mass., 1929)
- The Brut, ii, 480; English chronicle, 58-9.
- English Chronicle, 57; ‘Wilhelmi Wyrcester Annales’, 763
- The Book of Days: A Miscellany of Popular Antiquities in Connection with the Calendar, Including Anecdote, Biography, & History, Curiosities of Literature and Oddities of Human Life and Character, Volume 1
Anne Marie Bouchard
30 January 2015