‘Royal Witches: From Joan of Navarre to Elizabeth Woodville’ Interview with Gemma Hollman

Gemma Hollman is the author of ‘Royal Witches: From Joan of Navarre to Elizabeth Woodville’ which was published by The History Press in 2019.

Gemma also runs the Just History Posts blog.

Buy ‘Royal Witches’:


The History Press

(c) Gemma Hollman

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Many thanks to Gemma for answering my questions.

(c) The History Press

Why did you choose this subject for your book?

Back when I was in University, I did a module on England’s Empire in France in the fifteenth century. For one seminar we had to read up about the “Three Princes” who held it together during Henry VI’s minority, and one of these was Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester. I was reading his biography page and there was just a sentence or two that casually mentioned that his wife was accused of using witchcraft to try and kill the king, and this eventually led to Humphrey’s downfall. I was so shocked to hear of such a story, and that I had never heard of it before, and that it was such a high profile case – and also how casually it was mentioned! I wanted to learn more about Eleanor and found her life fascinating, but was saddened by how there was such little material on her. I had remembered reading the White Queen by Philippa Gregory when I was in school, and that she had portrayed Elizabeth Woodville and her mother Jacquetta as using witchcraft. I wondered if there was any truth in this, so did some digging and saw that they too had been accused of using witchcraft. After a bit more research, I found Joan’s story as well. I thought this was so fascinating – I had never really heard much about magic in the medieval period, let alone that four women who were part of the Royal Family had been accused of using witchcraft! I was convinced that all of these cases were intertwined, and I felt sad that these fantastically interesting women had such little written about them. I decided I wanted to do the job!

What does your book add to the existing works covering these women?

Well, firstly, Elizabeth Woodville is the only one of the four women to have her own dedicated book. All of the women in the book, even Elizabeth, are so often referred to only in footnotes in the biographies of the men around them, and so I hope the book adds a fuller picture of each of their lives. Joan has only really been written about in separate accounts of her life in Brittany, and her life in England, and so this book pulls the two strands together to give a more whole picture of her life from start to end. Eleanor has mostly been written about in biographies of her husband, and I found that historians were constantly jumping on the propaganda put out in chronicles after her trial. They were blaming her for everything that happened to her, and often agreeing that she was a scheming, greedy, immoral woman. When I dug into it, I found no sources prior to her trial that seemed to suggest this, and so I hope I have been able to give a more balanced view of who the real Eleanor may have been.

Out of Joan, Eleanor, Jacquetta and Elizabeth, who was the most difficult to write about?

That’s a tough one as they all had their own challenges. Eleanor’s early life was tricky, as nothing is known about her before she was about 24 years old, and even then there are very few surviving sources about her life before her trial in her early 40s. However, Jacquetta was probably the most difficult. So much of her life was spent giving birth that again she is really elusive in the records, and so in trying to portray her story I was worried she could get lost in amongst all the politics that were happening during her life. She really comes to the fore when her daughter Elizabeth married King Edward IV, and during the tumultuous early years of his reign, but once her daughter’s position is more secure she again fades somewhat from the records. As her and Elizabeth’s stories are so intertwined, I had to tell them at the same time, and when so much was happening in Elizabeth’s life it was again a challenge to make sure I kept bringing Jacquetta back in and didn’t lose her.

What surprised you most researching this book?

I think probably what surprised me was actually how much material there was about these women. Yes, there are huge gaps in our knowledge about their lives, but as so little had been written about them I presumed there was more of a reason why – that they were difficult to trace beyond their trials, which is what everybody does write about them. I found so many over-looked sources, and was surprised how much about their lives before their trials I could actually piece together.

Which woman was the most interesting to write about??

Again, I loved them all in different ways, but Eleanor always wins the soft spot in my heart. She has the most incredible life out of all the women, really. She began life as the daughter of a lesser noble, and became mistress to a Prince of England. Then, amazingly, they married for love and had this really successful marriage, and for years her husband was in line for the throne and there was a very real chance she could have become Queen of England. Then these horrid accusations of witchcraft get thrown against her, and there is nothing anyone can do to save her. She is the only one of the women to have a trial of any sorts, and she spends the rest of her life imprisoned. The changes that she lived through, the highs and the lows, are just so fascinating to me, and it was so interesting to be able to pull the threads together.

Are there any members of the family whose stories deserve to be better known?

I particularly liked Cecily Bonville, wife of 1st Marquis of Dorset. She was one of the greatest heiresses in England, but being an heiress had a high price – dissent in her family over money, and constant efforts to keep everyone happy that could never succeed. Another interesting woman I’d like to know more about, although whether anything more can be found is doubtful, is Lady Elizabeth Grey, Countess of Kildare – she married without her family’s consent, and found herself in the maelstrom of Irish politics.

Did being royal grant them any protection against the accusations?

Yes and no, and that’s a big part of what I explore in the book. They were accused specifically because they were royal, because they were important political players, and so in that regard it certainly didn’t protect them! But in other ways it did. Jacquetta was protected by Edward because he was married to her daughter, and so once he regained control he was able to defend her and quash the accusations. Elizabeth was also protected because of her status. She was an anointed Queen of England, and Richard III would have been hard pressed to have her executed as there was no precedent. And, in fact, her royal status could benefit him if he could get her support for his regime. So for these reasons, he never really wants to push a trial against her for her alleged witchcraft. Joan and Eleanor were really the ones who suffered because of their statuses, as being royal was what gave them all of their power and wealth, both of which their enemies wanted. On the other hand, Eleanor’s status may have saved her to some extent. Although they couldn’t put her on trial secularly because she was in sanctuary, they realised after her case that they would have struggled to put her on trial anyway, as there was no precedent for trying a woman of her rank. A person was to be tried by a jury of their peers, but a woman of her rank didn’t have any peers – they had to change the law afterwards in case of any future cases! So being royal may have helped her to some extent.

Eleanor, Jacquetta and Elizabeth had the benefit of the experience faced by their predecessor. Did they learn anything from it and if so, what?

Eleanor would have struggled to learn anything from Joan as they were in such different positions. Joan was an anointed Queen, and the king wanted to protect her from harm, whereas Eleanor knew her enemies were out to destroy her. Jacquetta certainly had learnt from Joan and Eleanor, however, as she had seen from both cases how successful and thus how dangerous these accusations could be to women of her rank. After she is cleared of her alleged witchcraft, you can see in the official records that Jacquetta personally makes sure that the verdict is written down in the records for posterity, and that it is spread across the land. She wants to get rid of any chance of it coming back against her. Elizabeth’s actions were far more guided by her own previous experiences of the tumult of the Wars of the Roses than by the accusations of her predecessors, and yet the same elements can be seen, as both she and Eleanor claimed sanctuary.

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Another book with a Jane link to look forward to…

28th February – A Hidden History of the Tower of London: England’s Most Notorious Prisoners by John Paul Davis

(c) Pen & Sword History

‘Famed as the ultimate penalty for traitors, heretics and royalty alike, being sent to the Tower is known to have been experienced by no less than 8,000 unfortunate souls. Many of those who were imprisoned in the Tower never returned to civilisation and those who did, often did so without their head! It is hardly surprising that the Tower has earned itself a reputation among the most infamous buildings on the planet. There have, of course, been other towers. Practically every castle ever built has consisted of at least one; indeed, even by the late 14th century, the Tower proudly boasted no less than 21. Yet even as early as the 1100s, the effect that the first Tower had on the psyche of the local population was considerable. The sight of the dark four-pointed citadel – at the time the largest building in London – as it appeared against the backdrop of the expanding city gave rise to many legends, ranging from the exact circumstances of its creation to what went on within its strong walls. In ten centuries what once consisted of a solitary keep has developed into a complex castle around which the history of England has continuously evolved. So revered has it become that legend has it that should the Tower fall, so would the kingdom. Beginning with the early tales surrounding its creation, this book investigates the private life of an English icon. Concentrating on the Tower’s developing role throughout the centuries, not in terms of its physical expansion into a site of unique architectural majesty or many purposes but through the eyes of those who experienced its darker side, it pieces together the, often seldom-told, human story and how the fates of many of those who stayed within its walls contributed to its lasting effect on England’s – and later the UK’s – destiny. From ruthless traitors to unjustly killed Jesuits, vanished treasures to disappeared princes and jaded wives to star-crossed lovers, this book provides a raw and at times unsettling insight into its unsolved mysteries and the lot of its unfortunate victims, thus explaining how this once typical castle came to be the place we will always remember as THE TOWER.’

From Amazon.co.uk

Further details – Pen and Sword History

Further details – Amazon.co.uk

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Service from St Peter ad Vincula at the Tower of London

On Sunday 12th January, the BBC Radio 4 Sunday Worship programme came from the Chapel of St Peter ad Vincula at the Tower of London. The Chapel is celebrating the 500th anniversary of its foundation this year.

The service mentioned Lady Jane.

‘It wasn’t long before this chapel of St Peter-ad-Vincula took on another role, other than regular worship for the local community. All those who were condemned to death and executed on Tower Hill were to be buried inside this chapel, without the rites of the church, and often without their head. It didn’t take long under King Henry’s rule, for the place to start to fill up, this included two of his wives, Queen Ann Boleyn and Queen Katherine Howard – his second and fifth wife respectively. He also had Thomas More and John Fisher executed and then buried here; today they are saints of the church. But perhaps saddest of all amongst those who found themselves condemned to death and buried in the chapel, was the 17 year old Lady Jane Grey – Queen for just nine days. Well, I’m pleased to say that we have moved on from those sad old days. Today the chapel has thousands of visitors who come for the Tower experience; when they visit the chapel, they hear the Beefeaters tell the stories of those who lie beneath the floor, they light their candles, say their prayers and wonder at the simple beauty of a Tudor chapel built to the glory of God 500 years ago.’

From BBC Radio 4

You can listen to and also read the text of the service at:

BBC Radio 4 – Sunday Worship.

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Another book to look forward to in 2020…

30 January – The Man Behind the Tudors: Thomas Howard, 2nd Duke of Norfolk by Kirsten Claiden-Yardley

(c) Pen and Sword History

‘Thomas Howard, 2nd duke of Norfolk, lived a remarkable life spanning eighty years and the reigns of six kings. Amongst his descendants are his granddaughters, Anne Boleyn and Catherine Howard, and his great-granddaughter, Elizabeth I. The foundations of this dramatic and influential dynasty rest on Thomas’ shoulders, and it was his career that placed the Howard family in a prominent position in English society and at the Tudor royal court. Thomas was born into a fairly ordinary gentry family, albeit distantly related to the Mowbray dukes of Norfolk. During the course of the fifteenth century, he and his father would rise through the political and social ranks as a result of their loyal service to Edward IV and Richard III. In a tragic turn of events, all their hard work was undone at the Battle of Bosworth and his father was killed fighting for King Richard. Imprisoned for treason and stripped of his lands and titles, Thomas had to start from the beginning to gain the trust of a new king. He spent the next thirty-five years devoting his administrative, military and diplomatic skills to the Tudors whilst rebuilding his family fortunes and ensuring that his numerous children were well-placed to prosper.’

From Amazon.co.uk

Further details – Amazon.co.uk

Further details – Amazon.co.uk

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A new book to look forward to in 2020…

30th January – Edward II’s Nieces: The Clare Sisters: Powerful Pawns of the Crown by Kathryn Warner

(c) Pen and Sword History

‘The de Clare sisters Eleanor, Margaret and Elizabeth were born in the 1290s as the eldest granddaughters of King Edward I of England and his Spanish queen Eleanor of Castile, and were the daughters of the greatest nobleman in England, Gilbert the Red’ de Clare, earl of Gloucester. They grew to adulthood during the turbulent reign of their uncle Edward II, and all three of them were married to men involved in intense, probably romantic or sexual, relationships with their uncle. When their elder brother Gilbert de Clare, earl of Gloucester, was killed during their uncle’s catastrophic defeat at the battle of Bannockburn in June 1314, the three sisters inherited and shared his vast wealth and lands in three countries, but their inheritance proved a poisoned chalice. Eleanor and Elizabeth, and Margaret’s daughter and heir, were all abducted and forcibly married by men desperate for a share of their riches, and all three sisters were imprisoned at some point either by their uncle Edward II or his queen Isabella of France during the tumultuous decade of the 1320s. Elizabeth was widowed for the third time at twenty-six, lived as a widow for just under forty years, and founded Clare College at the University of Cambridge.’

From Amazon

Further details – Pen and Sword History

Further details – Amazon

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