Review: Royal Witches by Gemma Hollman

Gemma Hollman, Royal Witches: From Joan of Navarre to Elizabeth Woodville (Cheltenham: The History Press, 2019), 320pp.

I was very excited when I first heard about Gemma Hollman’s book Royal Witches, since cases of political sorcery at the English court are hardly a popular field of study; after all, my book Magic as a Political Crime (2017) was the first book-length treatment of the subject since 1928, and I eagerly follow any further developments in the field. Hollman’s study is even more specific, focussing on the fifteenth century and on four royal women in particular: Joan of Navarre, the stepmother of Henry V; Eleanor Cobham, Duchess of Gloucester; Jacquetta of Luxembourg, mother of Elizabeth Woodville; and Elizabeth Woodville herself, the Queen of Edward IV. As Hollman rightly observes, the stories of all these women were interconnected, and they were also linked by the fact that they were all the subject of accusations of sorcery or ‘witchcraft’ (a slippery and controversial term when applied before the early modern period).

Royal Witches is written for a popular audience, and Hollman carefully navigates the path between adequately elucidating the subject matter and communicating it without the burden of excessive scholarly explanation. It is undeniable, however, that explaining what ‘witchcraft’ meant in fifteenth-century England is no easy business. Although she devotes a short chapter to this question, Hollman also allows the sources to speak for themselves, although the focus of the book is very much on reconstructing as much as possible about the lives and intellectual worlds of the four women rather than on fifteenth-century magic itself. All historians, of course, come at this material from different angles and with different priorities; for me, as a historian of magic, what matters is trying to reconstruct the sort of magical procedures that these women and people close to them were accused of attempting. This is not something that Hollman spends much time on, but she reaches the judicious conclusion that we cannot be certain that any of the things the ‘royal witches’ were accused of doing or sponsoring actually happened. A strength of the book is the consideration it gives to cultural portrayals of the four women as well as the conventional primary sources.

Hollman is undoubtedly right that accusations of sorcery were a way of discrediting powerful women, and there was a distinctly misogynistic tone to the accusations considered in the book – particularly the idea that the women had ensnared their husbands by the use of love magic. Many more men than women were subject to accusations of political sorcery, but accusations against women had a distinctive character. However, direct accusations of malicious supernatural intent must be weighed against the possibility that the purpose of accusations was to portray powerful women as superstitious and enticed by the lure of magic done by learned men – and therefore unfit to rule. For example, no-one ever accused Eleanor Cobham in her own lifetime of actually being a witch; the accusation was that she employed magicians and made use of the services of a cunning-woman. The book’s title, while an understandable choice, could potentially be misleading for those who do not take the trouble to read it – creating the impression that all of these women were accused of malefic witchcraft as a political strategy. The accusations against them were certainly highly political, but they were more complex than just the slur of witchcraft. Yet Hollman is right that any accusation that smelt of sorcery was particularly pernicious, and put a person in the awkward position that their guilt was presumed unless they could demonstrate their innocence. Yet fifteenth-century England remained a place where, generally speaking, witchcraft was considered a very minor issue that barely moved the dial of official concern – unless it occurred within the context of the royal court.

I welcome Royal Witches because it highlights that accusations of sorcery were central, not peripheral, to court politics of the fifteenth century (and indeed the late Middle Ages) – a fact that is far too often overlooked by conventional political historians. The book also invites us to consider the evolution of thought about witchcraft/sorcery over the course of the fifteenth century. The book is engagingly written and thorough in its engagement with the sources, and I was delighted by the quality of the index (an essential feature of any book). This is stimulating and entertaining narrative history, although the reader interested in theoretical questions about the nature of how sorcery and witchcraft were understood over time may come away a little disappointed. In a book aimed at a popular audience this is understandable, and I hope that Hollman’s book introduces many people to late medieval court sorcery and encourages them to delve deeper into this still little studied field.

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