We don’t know much about Margery Jourdemayne; we know she was born around the end of the 14th century; we know she married a man named William Jourdemayne, and we know she had an awful lot of high profile, wealthy friends… which was quite unusual for the wife of a cowherd.
Margery was known in her community for being a cunning woman – someone locals could turn to who could cure ailments and craft tonics. Wealthy women would turn to her for fertility potions, and it’s rumoured that Edmund Beaufort, the 2nd Duke of Somerset, consulted her ahead of the 100 years’ war (Carey 1992).
In 1441 Margery was catapulted into the public eye when she was named by Eleanor, Duchess of Gloucester, while on trial. Why was Eleanor, the uncle of the young King Henry VI, on trial for? Asking astrologers if the King would die soon, as her husband was next in line for the throne. In the 15th century people took astrology very seriously and Eleanor, along with the astrologers Thomas Southwell and Roger Bolingbroke, were arrested for Heretical Witchcraft (Ralley 2010).
Eleanor denied the charges, stating that all she had done was obtain fertility potions from a neighboured cunning woman – who happened to be Margery. Rather than clearing Eleanor of any wrongdoing, the court just arrested Margery as well.
During the proceedings it was disclosed that Margery had been arrested for witchcraft before (Freeman 2004). In 1432 she was imprisoned in Windsor Castle but released on condition of future good behaviour and that she refrained from any more witchcraft. Freeman (2004) argues that this prior conviction ultimately led to her being found guilty of heresy. She was sentenced to death by burning.
Due to the high-profile nature of the case, it has been incredibly well documented, as well as represented in literature; Margery makes an appearance in Shakespeare’s Henry VI, Part 2 and is the focus of many poems from the time:
‘There was a Beldame called the wytch of Ey,
Old mother Madge her neyghbours did hir name
Which wrought wonders in countryes by heresaye
Both feendes and fayries her charmyng would obay
And dead corpsis from grave she could uprere
Suche an inchauntresse, as that tyme had no peere.’
[from a collection of political poems named The Mirror of Magistrates c.1559 (Freeman 2004)]
As the first Witchcraft Act was not enacted until 1542 Margery is not considered to be the first woman to be executed as a Witch in England.
Freeman, J. (2004) ‘Sorcery at Court and Manor: Margery Jourdemayne, the Witch of Eye next Westminster’ in Journal of Medieval History, vol 30. pp 343 – 357.
Ralley, R. (2010) ’Stars, Demons and the Body in fifteenth-century England’ in Studies in History and Philosophy of Biological and Biomedical Sciences, vol 41. pp 109 – 116.
Carey, H. M. (1992) Courting Disaster: Astrology at the English Court and University in the Later Middle Ages. London: Macmillan.