As my blog has been up and running for just over 6 months now, I thought I would return to the topic of my Masters dissertation: Fifteenth-century English royal witches. My first post here was about Eleanor Cobham, the aunt-by-marriage of Henry VI who in 1441 was scandalously tried for using witchcraft, with her accomplices being convicted of treason against the King via sorcery. In my post, I mentioned how Eleanor’s trial was orchestrated for political reasons, to dislodge her husband Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester’s position at the ear of the young Henry VI. However, in a century when ideas about witchcraft were developing in England, this was not the first case in England of a royal woman being accused of witchcraft for political reasons. Thus, I come to Joan of Navarre.
Joan, imagined and illustrated by Agnes Strickland in her ‘Lives of the Queens of England’ (1852), the first (and one of the most comprehensive) accounts of her life written in English.
Joan was certainly a remarkable woman, and I could probably write another dissertation on her life alone (2019 update: I have now in fact written a book about Joan and several other Royal Witches which you can find on Amazon!), so I will try and give some brief background to her so that we can get to the accusation of witchcraft that we are interested in. Born c. 1370, Joan (or Jeanne) was the second daughter of Charles II, King of Navarre, and Jeanne de Valois who was the daughter of King John II of France. She therefore had royal blood through both parents, and great connections to various royal lines and important families. In 1386 she married John IV, Duke of Brittany, with whom she had nine children. When John died in 1399, their son John V became Duke of Brittany, but as he was a minor, Joan became regent. Shortly afterwards, Henry IV of England proposed to Joan. Joan, however, had to put the interests of Brittany and her children first, and said that she needed to first arrange the security of the duchy and her children; she would not be able to take her sons to England, and once married to the King of England she would not be allowed to continue as regent of Brittany.
In 1402, Joan and Henry received a papal dispensation for their marriage, and on 7th February 1403, they were married at Winchester Cathedral. The marriage was one of mutual affection, rather than a political marriage – historians are unsure as to when Joan and Henry first got to know each other, but it is clear they cared for each other deeply, and that Henry threw away the chance for a beneficial political marriage with other kingdoms to marry Joan. Initially, Joan was unpopular in England due to England’s rocky relationship with France, but in time she came to be deeply respected and loved by the people of England, and it is clear she enjoyed a good relationship with Henry’s children from his first marriage, often siding with the future Henry V in arguments with his father.
Image of Henry IV from an illuminated initial letter from the records of the Duchy of Lancaster, 1402. WikiCommons.
In 1413 King Henry IV died, widowing Joan and making his son ascend the throne as Henry V. Joan had a hefty dower left to her by Henry, and her excellent relationship with Henry V meant that she decided to stay in England after her husband’s death, rather than return to Brittany or Navarre. When Henry travelled to France he allowed Joan to use his royal castles, and she was still receiving favours from him in late 1418. However, in a shocking about-face, in August 1419 the goods of her confessor, Brother John Randolph, were seized, but it is clear from the inventory of goods that they actually belonged to Joan. One month later, Randolph accused Queen Joan of trying to procure Henry V’s death by using sorcery. Joan was arrested, her possessions confiscated, and Randolph was sent to the Tower of London. Joan was never officially charged, nor put on trial, but she remained under house arrest in the custody of Sir John Pelham for 3 years. In 1422, on Henry V’s deathbed, he ordered Joan’s release and full restoration to her previous exalted position as Queen Dowager.
So what happened? What is evident to us now is that the whole debacle was orchestrated if not by Henry V himself, by someone close to him in government with his knowledge and assent. When Joan was widowed by Henry IV, she was left with her dower of 10,000 marks (£6600) per annum. This was the largest dower granted to any English Queen up to this point, and at a time when the total revenue of the English Crown was just under £56,000 a year, this was a devastating chunk of royal finance being diverted to Joan. The Crown’s finances were already in a dire situation after disputes with rebellious barons under Henry IV, and especially so after Henry V had renewed the war in France. In Joan’s first year of marriage to Henry IV, her dower immediately fell into £5000 of arrears as the Crown simply couldn’t afford it. By 1419, Henry V was making plans to marry Catherine of Valois, the daughter of the French King Charles VI. This would seal the Treaty of Troyes, where Charles had agreed to disinherit his own son and ordered the succession of the French Crown to pass to Henry V and his heirs upon Charles’ death. It was crucial that Henry marry Catherine at this precise moment of time, and the wedding had to be as luxurious and over the top as possible for political show. Henry did achieve this, as the chronicler Monstrelet described their wedding thusly: “great pomp and magnificence were displayed by him and his princes, as if he were at that moment king of all the world”.
Marriage of Henry V of England to Catherine of Valois. British Library, Miniature from Jean Chartier, Chronique de Charles VII, France (Calais), 1490, and England, before 1494, Royal 20 E. vi, f. 9v.
As noted, however, the royal purse could hardly hope to cover such a lavish wedding. Despite his obvious affection for his stepmother, Henry and his council could not help but cast an eye on Joan’s hefty wealth. This is where the idea of accusing her of witchcraft came from. The previous century there had been numerous examples in European courts of high ranking members of the court being dislodged from a place of power by being accused of using sorcery. Accusing Joan of witchcraft was an easy choice to use – it meant that very little evidence was required (as it’s very difficult to prove you didn’t partake in witchcraft) and so she could be arrested and have her assets seized immediately. Accusing Joan of witchcraft also created the best of both worlds for Henry. He got access to her wealth, but he was also able to protect the woman he clearly held affection for, and this is evident in her lack of trial and punishment. By not formally charging Joan and placing her on trial, it meant that she was not officially tainted by the brush of using witchcraft for treasonous purposes. Moreover, it meant that the Crown could continue to utilise her lands and money for as long as they wanted – if they put Joan on trial, there was always the risk that she would be found innocent, and they would have to return all of her seized possessions.
So what was life like for Joan during her 3 years of captivity? Well, whilst it can’t have exactly been easy knowing your beloved stepson had turned on you, and she was confined to house arrest, she didn’t exactly have a rough time of it. Even in the first three months of her imprisonment Joan was living in great comfort, being allowed at least nineteen grooms and seven pages to wait on her. Many clothes of rich materials were granted to her and her servants, including gowns made from miniver, furs, silk, and Flanders linen. She had many items made of gold and silver bought for her, and Henry IV’s personal physician was appointed to attend on her. Throughout her captivity she had access to a significant pool of money with which to live a life of luxury, and bestowed many gifts on her attendants. She was allowed numerous distinguished visitors, including another of her stepsons by Henry, the Duke of Gloucester – that’s right, Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester, future husband to Eleanor Cobham who just two decades later would be accused of the same charges (but with far more severe consequences than Joan suffered). Joan also had the Bishop of Winchester, one of the richest Englishmen of the time, spend several days with her in 1420, and Lord Camoys, another distinguished Englishman, spent nine months with Joan.
The Entry into Bridport, Dorset, of Joan of Navarre, for her marriage to Henry IV, imagined by Francis Henry Newbery (1855–1946). Image from ArtUK.
So, Joan wasn’t exactly living the life of someone accused of using sorcery to try and murder the King of England (and designated heir of France), and the Crown gained a significant boost to their finances, gaining an extra £8,000 between 1421-22 alone by reducing her expenses. Obviously, this was still an awful thing to do to Joan, particularly by a member of her own family, and the inherent sexism in depriving Joan’s legal rights to gain a bit of cash is a long rant that I won’t get started on today.
However, as mentioned, Joan did eventually get fully restored, and there are no indications that she was at all negatively impacted for the rest of her life as a result of the false accusations. It appears that Henry V’s conscience got the best of him on his deathbed. In his address to Parliament, he wishes that Joan be restored “lest hir shuld be a charge unto oure conscience” and not only was everything she owned to be returned to her, but he ordered that she could have 5 or 6 gowns made of any expensive material she wished, and assuming that she would wish to leave the castle she had been imprisoned in all this time, he ordered that payments be made to provide her with horses and a coach to transport her. In his address, he called Joan his “Moder Quene Johanne”, emphasising her reinstatement, and showing he still held fondness for his stepmother who had done so much for him. All this occurred just six weeks before Henry died.
The tomb effigies of Joan and Henry IV in Canterbury Cathedral.
Joan lived for another 15 years, and enjoyed an esteemed position in Henry VI’s court as was her due. The New Year of 1437, Henry VI gave her an expensive gift of a gold tablet garnished with rubies, pearls, and a sapphire – one of the most expensive gifts he gave that year – and upon her death in 1437 she was buried with honours by Henry VI behind the high altar in Canterbury Cathedral next to her late husband, Henry IV.
Sadly, Joan seems to be a remarkable woman who has slipped by unnoticed by many English historians, and so there is not much published in English to read on her. I have, however, attached some sources I used at the bottom should you wish to read more, and if you can read French then I believe there is a fair amount published on her life in Brittany before she married Henry if you want to look for it! Update: Two years after writing this blog post, I have now published a book on Joan and three other royal women of her century who were accused of using witchcraft. If you want to learn more about Joan’s life and the accusations against her, then you can find my book on Amazon here.
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“The Captivity of a Royal Witch: The household accounts of Queen Joan of Navarre, 1419-21.” In A. R. Myers, Crown, Household and Parliament in Fifteenth Century England, 93-133. London: Hambledon Press, 1985.
Jones, Michael. “Between France and England: Jeanne de Navarre, duchess of Brittany and queen of England (1368-1437).” In Between France and England: Politics, Power and Society in Late Medieval Brittany, Hampshire: Ashgate Publishing, 2003.
Jones, William. “Political uses of sorcery in medieval Europe.” The Historian 35, no. 4 (1972): 670-687.
Rotuli parliamentorum… Tempore Henrici R. V. Volume 4 [1413-1439], 247a-248b.