Jacquetta Woodville and Witchcraft by Susan Higginbotham

Posted By on July 5, 2013

The WoodvillesThe airing of the BBC adaptation of Philippa Gregory’s The White Queen has sparked off many discussions regarding the Woodville women and their use of witchcraft. There has been a lot of confusion about it, particularly as Gregory said in one interview that Elizabeth Woodville’s mother, Jacquetta Woodville, was tried and found guilty of witchcraft, and would have been executed if Margaret of Anjou had not intervened. To clear up the confusion, I asked Susan Higginbotham, author of the forthcoming “The Woodvilles: The Wars of the Roses and England’s Most Infamous Family” to write a guest article on this topic. Thank you so much, Susan.

In 1469, Thomas Wake, esquire, made a shocking accusation against Jacquetta, Duchess of Bedford, the mother of Edward IV’s queen, Elizabeth Woodville. Wake brought to Warwick Castle ‘an image of lead made like a man of arms of the length of a man’s finger broken in the middle and made fast with a wire, saying that it was made by [Jacquetta] to use with witchcraft and sorcery’. Wake also enlisted the aid of John Daunger, the parish clerk of Stoke Brewerne, to say that Jacquetta had made two other images, ‘one for the king and one for the queen’. The Duchess of Bedford was arrested and brought to Warwick Castle.

Wake brought the allegations against Jacquetta at a time when she was most vulnerable. Her son-in-law, Edward IV, had been taken captive by Richard Neville, Earl of Warwick, an enemy of the Woodville family who had just executed Jacquetta’s husband and her son John. Wake himself was clearly a follower of Warwick. His son and heir had died fighting for Warwick at the recent battle of Edgecote, and Wake was one of the men Jacquetta would later attempt to prosecute for her husband’s death.

Despite the fact that she must have been still laboring under the shock of the deaths of her husband and her son, Jacquetta did not panic. Instead, on 31 August 1469, she called in a favor by writing a letter to the mayor and aldermen of London, whom she reminded of the service she had done the city in 1461 by begging Margaret of Anjou to spare the city from Lancastrian destruction. The city officials readily agreed to assist her—it helped that the current mayor, Richard Lee, had held the same position in 1461—and forwarded the letter to Warwick’s ally, George, Duke of Clarence.

In the event, although the captive Edward IV dutifully appointed lords to examine the witnesses, the case against Jacquetta collapsed once the king shook off Warwick’s control. On 19 or 20 January 1470, Jacquetta went before the king’s great council, where she accused Thomas Wake of being of a ‘malicious disposition’ toward her ‘of long time continued, intending not only to hurt and impair her good name and fame, but also purpos[ing] the final destruction of her person’. After the witnesses against Jacquetta vigorously backpedaled and the council acquitted her, Jacquetta insisted that its exoneration of her be made part of the official record. On 10 February 1470, the king and his council, including the Earl of Warwick, agreed to Jacquetta’s request. Jacquetta also let it be known that she had always ‘truly believed in God according to the faith of Holy Church, as a true Christian Woman ought to do’.

Jacquetta’s exoneration, however, did not spell the end of the allegations against her. The witchcraft story was revived in 1484, when Richard III’s only Parliament declared Edward IV and Elizabeth Woodville’s marriage invalid, partly on the ground that it had been made by sorcery and witchcraft committed by Elizabeth and Jacquetta ‘as the common opinion of the people and the public voice and fame is through all this land; and hereafter, if and as the case shall require, shall be proved sufficiently in time and place conveniently’.

So were Jacquetta or Elizabeth witches, or at least dabblers in witchcraft?

Much has been made, to begin with, of Jacquetta’s mythical descent from Mélusine, a ‘serpent woman’ who was the supposed ancestor of the House of Luxembourg. There is little evidence, however, that Jacquetta took a special interest in the Mélusine legend, and none that Elizabeth did. (In 1474 at a pageant at Coventry, it was Elizabeth’s supposed descent from the Magi, not that of Mélusine, that was pointed out.) Jacquetta owned a copy of the ancestral romance Mélusine, but only as part of a collection of treatises and histories of the crusades and the Holy Land. Mélusine was, in fact, a popular fifteenth-century text, owned by other high-born ladies besides Jacquetta. Just as owning the Harry Potter books does not make a modern reader a wizard, owning the Mélusine romance did not make a medieval lady a witch.

Aside from Jacquetta’s ancestor Mélusine, those eager to find truth in the allegations that Elizabeth’s marriage to Edward was procured through witchcraft have pointed to the date of the wedding given by the chroniclers—1 May, the day after the witches’ Grand Sabbath of Walpurgisnacht. One author has suggested, in complete seriousness, that Edward IV arrived at Grafton the evening before the wedding and attended a witches’ Grand Sabbath rite—despite the complete lack of evidence that any such rite was held in Grafton on 30 April, much less that Edward or any of the Woodvilles attended it. Another posits that Edward was given a love potion by the queen and her mother. While this scenario is not as far-fetched as the other, it is still rather implausible. Unless the potion was exceptionally long-acting, it would have surely worn off well before Edward himself announced his marriage at Reading in September 1464. Are we really to believe that a man who had fought his way to the throne at age eighteen was incapable of disentangling himself from a marriage he had been tricked into making?

The fact remains that there is simply no evidence, other than the unproven assertions of Jacquetta’s and Elizabeth’s enemies, that Elizabeth used anything other than conventional means – beauty and a winning personality – to lure Edward into marriage. (After all, no fewer than four commoners appealed sufficiently to Edward’s grandson Henry VIII for him to marry them – all without benefit of witchcraft or sorcery.) Thomas Wake’s ‘evidence’- which, it should be remembered, involved images, not Grand Sabbaths or elixirs of love – crumbled in the face of Edward IV’s recovered power, and Jacquetta vigorously denied his charges. As for the 1484 accusations against mother and daughter, Richard III’s Parliament put forth no evidence at all to support the claim that Jacquetta and Elizabeth had practiced witchcraft to bring about Elizabeth’s royal marriage. By that time, Jacquetta was dead and could not defend herself. While Elizabeth never denied the allegations, she was hardly in a position to stand up to Richard III, who had executed her brother Anthony and her son Richard Grey and who had her royal sons in his power (if they had not already been disposed of). Indeed, to publicly challenge the accusations at that point would have been to question Richard III’s very right to the throne – a dangerous undertaking. When Henry VII came to power and ordered the destruction of the act of Parliament invalidating Elizabeth’s marriage to Edward, there was no longer any need for Elizabeth to defend the validity of her marriage, especially when Henry tacitly affirmed the legitimacy of Elizabeth’s children by marrying her eldest daughter.

It is not inconceivable, of course, that Jacquetta and Elizabeth employed, or tried to employ, supernatural means to lure Edward into marriage or to accomplish some other purpose with the images that were supposedly in Jacquetta’s possession. Just a few years before, Eleanor, Duchess of Gloucester, the wife of Henry VI’s uncle Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester, had admitted to employing Margery Jourdemayne, known as ‘the witch of Eye’, to help her bear a child by Humphrey. The fact that a high-ranking lady such as the Duchess of Gloucester, whose husband was next in line for the throne at that time, could mingle with the likes of Margery shows that high status was no bar to one’s dabbling in witchcraft. But because the allegations against Jacquetta and Elizabeth came solely from their enemies in times of turmoil, and were vigorously denied by one of the ladies in question, we should at the very least regard the accusations against them with the greatest of skepticism.

Note: References for this post can be found in my forthcoming book The Woodvilles, from which this post has been adapted.

Susan Higginbotham’s “The Woodvilles: The Wars of the Roses and England’s Most Infamous Family” is due out in October in the UK and in January 2014 in the US. It can be pre-ordered now on Amazon.com or Amazon UK.

On this day in history, 5th July…

  • 1535 – Sir Thomas More, who was imprisoned in the Tower of London and awaiting execution, wrote his final letter. It was to his beloved daughter, Margaret Roper, and it was written in coal. Click here to read the letter.

Comments on
"Jacquetta Woodville and Witchcraft by Susan Higginbotham"

22 Responses to “Jacquetta Woodville and Witchcraft by Susan Higginbotham”

  1. Azaria says:

    “Just as owning the Harry Potter books does not make a modern reader a wizard, owning the Mélusine romance did not make a medieval lady a witch.”

    - I love this – that’s my new favourite analogy.

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    Claire Reply:

    I loved that bit too. I do remember the debate that was going on when Harry Potter first became popular, as to whether Christians should read the books.

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    Carly Reply:

    I find her sweeping comments arrogant, and her um “biography” teeth grittingly pompous…

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  2. Just found my way here from Historum. An absolutely fascinating post about an equally fascinating subject. I have a feeling a heard a radio play about the Woodvilles about 10 years ago, I think I need to find it again!

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  3. Esther says:

    Great article … I thought, though, that Richard III claimed the throne on the theory that Edward had been pre-contracted to Lady Eleanor Talbot before he married Elizabeth. Would the the witchcraft mention have any more force than did Henry VIII’s comment that he thought his marriage to Anne Boleyn was null because of sorcery? (Sorcery being used in both cases to explain “I don’t know why the king married her”)

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    Ann Reply:

    John Ashdown-Hill explains this in detail in a chapter of ELEANOR, THE SECRET QUEEN. As Susan says, the Richard III Act cites the precontract [which meant "first marriage" in reference to a Second marriage — not at all the "let's think about going steady" flavor the word suggests to the modern-day mind]. Edward, bachelor, and Eleanor, widow, were both unmarried and unbetrothed, with no commitments elsewhere. Edward is alleged to have promised to marry Eleanor ["I will"] and then had sex with her. By canon law — in the days before marriage licenses or registration — that was it; they were Really Married. He then went on to pastures new without acknowledging Eleanor. He then, without arranging to formally end his relationship with Eleanor — which would have been expensive and public, since he’d have needed a religious annulment — secretly married Elizabeth Woodville.

    According to Ashdown-Hill. the secrecy was a serious part of the legal problem. IF Edward had married Elizabeth publicly, with advance public notice, THEN Eleanor or her family would have been expected to speak up “or forever hold your peace.” WHEN he married Elizabeth secretly, he made that impossible; according to John Ashdown-Hill, it couldn’t be subsequently fixed by anyone, even after Eleanor died in 1468.

    I think the “assent of the lords of the land” was part of the advance public notice Edward had skipped. It reinforced the secrecy problem, since if any of the lords knew about Eleanor, Edward hadn’t given them an opportunity to speak up in advance. After all, since Eleanor was the first cousin of Anne and Isabel Neville, the sister of the Duchess of Norfolk, and the daughter of John Talbot, Earl of Shrewsbury, the most famous soldier of the Hundred Years War, she must have been known to many members of Parliament.

    So three of the four are essential to the legal argument being made. And the sorcery, as you say, probably owes more to “why on earth did our good King commit BIGAMY, for heaven’s sake?” than to serious concerns about the supernatural.

    FWIW, although some accounts claim that Bishop Stillington witnessed the promise Edward made to Eleanor, it’s something of a stretch to actually place him with them at the time (and you’d think a Bishop in the room would be a trifle discouraging to the libido). I think it’s at least possible that the importance of the Bishop’s involvement in the precontract issue is that he provided the expertise in canon law. Most of the MPs would probably not have been involved in multiple secret marriages, one hopes, and not been familiar with the finer points of canon law on the subject.

    A Tudor Act of Parliament simplified marriage issues somewhat, which we owe to Catherine Howard. It’s pretty clear from her confessions that she had exchanged “I will” promises with Francis Dereham and then slept with him. But since canon law wasn’t part of her education at all, she doesn’t seem to have known whether this precluded marriage to Henry VIII. After her fall, an act was passed which clarified this point somewhat.

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    Ann Reply:

    Sorry — this was longer than I should have made it AND wandered off-topic! I have, however, pre-ordered THE WOODVILLES, due out here in October.

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  4. Olga says:

    I’m really looking forward to yopur next book Susan :) Thanks for an excellent article. I’ve been really interested in Jacquetta since I read the Cousins War series but there is so little information about her.

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    Susan Higginbotham Reply:

    Thanks, Olga! There’s been a very good article about Jacquetta published in the Ricardian, the journal of the Richard III Society, by Lucia Diaz Pascual, who has also written the entry for Jacquetta for the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.

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  5. Susan Higginbotham says:

    Esther, Richard did claim the throne in 1483 based on allegations of a precontract. When Parliament confirmed his title to the throne in 1484, the precontract allegations and the witchcraft allegations were two of four grounds given as reasons why Edward IV’s marriage to Elizabeth were invalid (the other two were secrecy and the fact that it was made without the assent of the lords of the land).

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  6. Susan Higginbotham says:

    I wasn’t aware that PG was still suggesting that Margaret of Anjou intervened on Jacquetta’s behalf, so I didn’t address it in my article. (Thanks for hosting me, by the way, Claire!) That is utterly untrue. At the time the charges were brought against Jacquetta, Margaret was an impoverished exile with no say whatsoever in English affairs. It was not until the summer of 1470–months after Jacquetta’s exoneration–that Warwick formed an alliance with Margaret and restored Henry VI to the throne.

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    Claire Reply:

    I don’t know, but she certainly said it in the video that was released when The White Queen was released as a book. I think PG is a talented writer but I don’t like her sweeping statements and the way that she runs with an idea and presents it as fact.

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  7. Anne Barnhill says:

    Susan, great article! Can’t wait to get the book! All Best luck!

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  8. Lisa Davis says:

    Personally, I do not like PG’s style of writing and how she says she is a historian. The Harry Potter books were far more entertaining and so were The Hunger Games. I read 3 of her novels and got rid of all of them. I like fantasy books that stay in the realm of fantasy. PG books just annoy me.

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  9. Carly says:

    Someone should email this to Philippa Gregory. I appreciate her throwing a spotlight on these people, but I cannot stand her as a um… historian

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  10. BanditQueen says:

    Thank you for an excellent article. First thing to say is that Gregory is a fiction writer and a good one, but she does have an agenda: to highlight the scandals of the past rather than the facts of the past. That is fine: it is what fiction writers do: they take a juicy theme, add some cream and suger to it, spice it up an bit and write an entertaining peice of literature, drama or fiction. As long as people realise that and it is clear from the outset, I am all for that. I do enjoy her books, but I have the intelligence to realise they are fiction.

    The Jacquetta points about her owning some mythical literature and having some stange ancestors does not make the lady or her daughter a witch. I know nothing about her being found guilty, I was always sure she was cleared and the article points that out very well. But of course political changes played a great deal in the fate of the men and the women of the Wars of the Roses: and Richard IIi certainly had good reason to blacken the name of these two ladies once more. Elizabeth stood in his way to the crown: her children stood in his way to the crown: he seems to have had some personal feud with her brothers and sons by the Rivers family, and he believed or wanted others to believe that her marriage to Edward was flawed. If he could not prove a pre contract: then he could claim she bewitched his brother. Sounds a little mad: but people did believe in such nonsense in those days: as the witchtrials of later centuries show.

    Why would he blacken the name of Jacquetta again? Well one can only guess that if you accuse the daughter of being a witch then you may as well claim she came from a witches household: that is her mother was a witch. By blackening both ladies Richard makes his case stronger and the marriage is declared null and void. Then of course Richard is declared King as now there is no alternative. A rather neat arrangement. But not to blacken Richard’s name without too much proof: having declared his nephews as bastards, why would he then kill them? But that is another story.

    I am sure that Elizabeth and Jacquetta and every other woman with any form of education knew something about healing and herb law, but that does not make them witches. There is no evidence that they used any curses or spells to do any harm, cause a storm, or place a child in the womb or determine its sex. The whole thing might make good drama, but even then it is over done, as well as being nonsense. I am glad it has sparked a debate: and am looking forward to the book above when it comes out.

    [Reply]

    Ann Reply:

    You have reminded me that Jacquetta and one or two of her gentlewomen were the only witnesses to Elizabeth and Edward’s marriage. So that may have been a reson to discredit her, even posthumously.

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  11. Dawn 1st says:

    Your book sounds as if it will be an enlightening look at other characters in history that have been dogged by rumour Susan, look forward to it.

    I have read the White Queen, and I thought is was a good novel, P.G. paints a good picture, though I did found it difficult to relate the story to real people from history, as it came across very mythological to me, Arthurian like…
    I am enjoying the series too, and I am quite surprised how like the book it is, though I believe it’s a combination of the Red Queen and the Kingmaker’s daughter. I have the other two books but not read them yet, so they must be quite similar, are they? Does anyone think like me that Margaret Beauford is played a little sinister, almost wicked witch of the west like…and a bit lustful towards Tudor, for someone who was incredible devout it seem terribly out of character. Is this P.G. vivid imagination working over time again!

    It seems that if you have high rank, are disliked and a female, the sure way to breed doubt and suspicion about who you are, and hopefully bring your downfall is to use the ‘Witch’ word. No matter if the Lady in question is cleared by every court in the land, the suspicion is still there, festering away, and sticks like mud to a blanket, to be revived when ever it suits someone’s purpose, i.e. a justification in part by Richard III parliament for him to be the rightful King..

    It’s true what you say Susan, it’s not impossible that the supernatural was dabbled in, but it puts you in a very dangerous position in those times to get involved with necromancy.

    Two Swallows does not a summer make, there fore a little lead figure and a story book, or a mole (as in Anne’s case, I’ll not mention the 6th finger!! :) ) does not a witch make.
    It’s all down to raging hormones and lust in wayward Kings, but as they can not be seen to be at fault, lets blame the object of these Kings desires, and in this case the mother too…

    Its a good job they didn’t remember this story when Henry wanted rid of Anne, poor Elizabeth Boleyn might have been a suspect in Anne’s hold over the King!

    Thanks for the article Susan, it was a great insight into your coming book.

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  12. BanditQueen says:

    I think that when Elizabeth Woodville lost her power as Queen on the death of her husband, King Edward she was placed in a vulnerable spot and was an easy prey for opposition members of her late husband’s family who never liked her to begin with. Jacquetta by the time of the denouncement in 1483/4 was of course dead, but still she was vulnerable as a woman from a house that was disliked by Richard and by the Neville clan. Originally the Rivers had been Lancastrian supporters and Jacquetta was also from Luxemborg, a rival house to France. She seems to have been particularly vulnerable after her husband was killed and her own power base diminished. Through more losses of other male members of her family, even though she was a feisty lady, she was left with less and less protection. The only protection she had was that of the King and her daughter the Queen, who was herself under attack. Fortunately at the first time she was accused she was able to clear herself and gain something from royal protection. But that did not stop her enemies having a go at her.

    Elizabeth in 1484 was in hiding in sanctuary yet again, her sons had been lost to her and she was not named as the protector or the regent for her son. She could not even rule in his name, even though she attempted to do so in the few weeks following Edward IV’s death in 1483. But Richard, named protector to the young Edward V, intercepted him, took him into his care and custody and took all those closest to him from him. The Queen Mother found herself under attack with the death of her brother Anthony and Lord Hastings, her husbands friend was also executed on trumped up charges. She feared for the safety of her children and herself and went into sanctuary in Westminster. Richard took full advantage of all of this and had his nephews declared bastards.

    One of the accusations that was made against Elizabeth was that she had beguiled Edward into marriage and used her powers to keep a hold over him. In short, the vulnerable Elizabeth was accused of witchcraft. This was also tied into the alleged precontract with Eleanor Butler and I believe it was a device to accuse her so as her marriage to Edward could be nullified without proof of this contract being produced. Richard was her enemy and he made these accusations for his own ends. Had Elizabeth gained power and maintained control over her sons, she could not have been thus accused. Like so many other women involved in these wars she lost a protector and with his death her lawful power. It is a wonder that given the ups and downs of the Wars of the Roses that the women on both sides where not all accused of the same thing. They would certainly have found themselves in a vulnerable enough position to have made such a false charge possible.

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  13. Melanie says:

    It seems Ms. Gregory believes that both Henry VIII and Henry VII would rape their soon to be wives. I am currently listening to The White Princess, which is about Elizabeth of York. The book says that Elizabeth was firstly in love with Richard III and secondly that Henry VII forced her to consummate their engagement in a private room during a party thrown by her mother. I seems Ms. Gregory thinks very lowly of the two Tudor kings. I am not saying they were not capable of such activity but I find it interesting that she would put that in both The Other Boleyn Girl in reference to Henry VIII and in The White Princess about Henry VII. What do you guys think?

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  14. Lisa says:

    PG also does the same thing in the Red Queen with Margaret and Edmund Tudor. Maybe it says more about her personality than anything else.

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  15. Ems says:

    I loved reading about Jaquetta Woodville in PGs book Lady of the rivers. I do appreciate it is mainly fiction but I loved the book and This article was interesting.

    [Reply]

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