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.
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