23 August 2021

Inspiration to write The Secret Diary of Eleanor Cobham

England, 1441:  Lady Eleanor Cobham, Duchess of Gloucester, hopes to become Queen of England before her interest in astrology and her husband’s ambition leads their enemies to accuse her of a plot against the king. Eleanor is found guilty of sorcery and witchcraft. 

Rather than have her executed, King Henry VI orders Eleanor to be imprisoned for life. 

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My wife was researching her family tree and discovered Antigone Plantagenet of Gloucester was her 19th great grandmother. Further research revealed Antigone was the daughter of Humphrey of Lancaster, Duke of Gloucester and younger brother of Henry V, who became Lord Protector of England.

There proved to be much debate about the identity of Antigone’s mother, although historian and author Alison Weir suggests both Antigone and her brother, Arthur, could have been the children of Humphrey and his mistress Eleanor Cobham, whom he later married. In her book Britain's Royal Families: The Complete Genealogy Alison Weir notes, ‘Eleanor Cobham became Humphrey's mistress sometime before their marriage and might have borne him two bastard children’. 

Curious, I looked into this and discovered the tragic details of Eleanor Cobham’s life in the course of my research. It is a fact that Humphrey of Lancaster acted as a father towards Antigone and was definitely with Eleanor Cobham since at least 1425, if not earlier (records were seldom kept of mistresses), marrying her in 1428. 

Alison Weir’s suggestion is therefore plausible but I found no positive evidence to support it. The only sure way to settle the question of whether Eleanor was Antigone’s mother would be if some new documentation comes to light. That is how the idea for my novel, The Secret Diary of Eleanor Cobham came about.

I was struck by the injustice of how it seems Duke Humphrey’s enemies used Eleanor’s interest in astrology to bring him down. Her good friend Margery Jourdemayne was burned as a witch – and Eleanor came very close to the same. Instead she was imprisoned for life, at first in royal palaces, then in worse conditions until her death.  

Beaumaris Castle - Lady Eleanor's Chapel

There are many accounts which state important details incorrectly, most notably that Eleanor died at Peel Castle. It is well documented that her final two years were at Beaumaris. 

Lady Ellen and Sir William Bulkeley

My wife and I spent a summer afternoon searching the churchyard of St Mary and St Nicholas, within sight of Beaumaris Castle. Inside the church lie the medieval ornate tombs of Lady Ellen and Sir William Bulkeley. We found no sign of Eleanor’s grave, although she will never be forgotten.

Tony Riches

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