Was Richard III really threatened by witchcraft?

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On October 31, the northern hemisphere of Planet Earth finds itself halfway between autumnal equinox and winter solstice. In this week of the solar year, depending on our relationship to various western traditions, the supernatural and the related proximity of our own world to the souls of the dead may touch lightly or rest heavily on our minds. Celebrations and commemorations include Samhain, Halloween, All Saints’ / All Hallows, All Souls’, Día de los muertos, and probably a few more I’m not aware of. While contemporary commercialism amplifies our awareness of some of these holidays, at the same time, they have been associated with the themes of religion, magic, and witchcraft at least since the Celts. This week on King Richard Armitage, we’ll take a combination of historical, cultural, literary, fanciful and humorous approaches to the connections between Richard III and the supernatural realm.

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Common wisdom discounts the preoccupation of the late medieval and early modern worlds with supernatural matters as the product of deficient knowledge. People acquainted with science, the story goes, reject magic. Most current professional historical scholarship rejects that view, pointing out the persistence of the irrational in contemporary life, but however we feel about their reasons, Richard III and his contemporaries lived in a world permeated with supernatural influences and occurrences. In that world, the miracle of the Eucharist — in which the communion host was transubstantiated by the words and actions of a priest into the actual, physical body of Jesus Christ — counterposed the manifestations of the Devil seen all around in disease, crop failures, and misfortunes great and small. The learned magician and the untutored witch or cunning woman acted as counterparts to the priest in offering people a chance to interact actively with the supernatural. Spells, charms, potions, and amulets as well as sacraments, rituals, and sacramentals offered technologies not only for explaining their circumstances, but influencing them.

Because most of us no longer believe in magic or witchcraft, we may tend to read their regular appearance in the political dramas of English history as pretext. On this view, people accused enemies of witchcraft in order to eliminate them, which could be said to explain why Shakespeare, whose Richard III was heavily influenced by propagandists sympathetic to the Tudor monarchs, was so willing to take up stories we today find politically motivated because we can’t imagine anyone believed them. But such views are anachronistic in light of the near-total absence of religious skepticism in Europe before the mid-seventeenth century. Shakespeare, too, probably believed in witchcraft, magic, and prophecy, along with his audiences — not only the plot, but also the appeal, of Macbeth are hard to understand without such sympathies. Moreover, accusations of undue supernatural influence would have carried little political weight had they been widely seen solely as pretexts. Contemporaries did not choose between witchcraft OR politics to explain situations they did not like, but rather saw them as intertwined. Bad politics was the result of evil manipulation of the supernatural.

Seen from this perspective, sorcery posed a serious threat to the English throne in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. Henry IV’s wife, Joan, was imprisoned at the accusation of her stepson (the future Henry V) for using witchcraft — which explained her problematic influence, as “French,” at a time when Henry V was trying to reassert claim on the throne of France. Henry VI became the object of a plot by Eleanor Cobham, Duchess of Gloucester, when her own husband became heir presumptive — she consulted astrologers who predicted illness for Henry, and purchased potions, allegedly to help it along. When Henry heard this story, he also consulted astrologers — so the maleficence here involves not the use of the supernatural, but rather the malefactor’s impulses. Underlining the absolute normality with which everyone involved acted, Eleanor’s fellow accused were a cleric / learned astronomer, her personal confessor (i.e., a priest), and her personal physician (also a beneficed cleric), along with a witch who came from the ranks of the prosperous yeomanry and frequented the Gloucester court. Everyone except the witch was highly educated and all of them were acting in ways that everyone at the time understood.

Finally, the example most likely to interest Richard III fans: Elizabeth Woodville, accused of maneuvering Edward IV into marriage by witchcraft in Titulus Regius, the parliamentary document that declared her sons illegitimate and permitted Richard to take the crown is said in this text to have achieved this result by means of witchcraft accomplished with her mother as “the publique voice and fame is thorough all this Land.” In other words, in the troubled years of Edward’s reign, when tension over favors granted to the Woodvilles promoted a factionalism threatening to the peace of the realm, which a French marriage might have prevented, everyone had already spoken of the possibility that this was the case. Elizabeth was not a villain who was accused of witchcraft to discredit her influence. Rather, the document suggests, she had engaged in witchcraft, as a consequence of which she obtained an influence over Edward that brought ruin to the country, which meant that she was a villain. Such associations would have been obvious not least because love potions were a central part of the stock in trade of witches and cunning women — sought out by people of all ranks — so that Elizabeth’s personal attractiveness to Edward could also be explained with reference to witchcraft.

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And yes — a Richard III film will have to deal with this complex of themes. How were the different types of the supernatural tied together in the fifteenth century? So the answer to my question — was Richard III really threatened by witchcraft? — is: Yes. Because everyone in the fifteenth century was. They knew they were; beliefs in such matters were not excuses for other, less polite sentiments, or the refuge of the uneducated — they were matters that constituted the nature of temporal life just as certainly as gravity does for us. And the people who mattered in England for the previous century.

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If Richard was indeed under threat from witchcraft, the question is what he could have done about it. I’ll pick up there in a future post. I actually wanted this one to be humorous, but I got preoccupied by reading Titulus Regius. Bl–dy Internet! Now that is an interesting document. So I may go there, next. Or not. Any preferences among the readership? Anything you want to know?

16 Responses to Was Richard III really threatened by witchcraft?

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  • fitzg says:

    Please do expand on Titulus Regius. It is a fascinating and controversial document.

    As a teen, I was fascinated by Margaret Murray – “Divine King in England” “The God of the Witches” etc. No matter how practical/common-sensical we be, there is always a faint thought that maybe, perhaps, there are magical elements at work. Do you sometimes throw salt over your left shoulder? Tap wood? Avoid walking under a ladder?

    The second wife of Henry IV (one more usurper) is rather troubling. Joan of Navarre was generally accounted a very good lady. The actions of her stepson, Henry V (who might be reminiscent of the “Lion-Heart”) were not to his credit. Joan survived, fortunately.

    • servetus says:

      I think all of these stories are troubling. I teach a class on this material and students are always asking me, are you saying this was okay? No, I’m emphatically not saying that. I’m just saying that it didn’t happen for the reasons that we are inclined to think it did, and in understanding history that’s an important factor to keep in mind.

      And witchcraft accusations, it has been argued by anthropologists, are actually a symptom of a modernizing society — explaining why they became so widespread in Europe in early modernity and are exploding now in different parts of Africa.

  • CDoart says:

    Servetus, you got me really curious now, what King Richard could have done to defend himself against the omnipresent witchcraft.
    I am already curiously awaiting your further explanations!
    A film with the deep background story and witchcraft embedded, I really see that Mr. Armitage needs an extensive series, to do all the aspects about King Richard III justice.

    • servetus says:

      The whole question of how an actor can portray a reaction to a sort of belief that doesn’t exist anymore has always intrigued me.

  • Leigh says:

    Great post! Please expand on Titulus Regius. It is a fascinating document to be sure.

  • Fanny says:

    Brilliant post! A tv series could only cover these multi layered topics.
    Faith in the intangible & fear of God and the unknown is so foreign in modern culture except in fantasy & fiction. Interesting the interest in the paranormal these days.
    We easily forget how electricity (or first gas) has changed our lives and views / fears of the dark.

    • servetus says:

      Well, it depends on which part of modern culture you mean, I think — there’s still plenty of real fear of G-d even in the U.S.

  • Pingback: “See how I am bewitch’d”: Interpreting witchcraft accusations in Shakespeare’s “Richard III’ | King Richard Armitage

  • Pingback: Protecting Richard: Fifteenth-century remedies against witchcraft, part 1 | King Richard Armitage

  • Pingback: Fifteenth-century remedies against witchcraft, part 2 | King Richard Armitage

  • Very interesting post, thank you! I explained this mindset to my editor who wasn’t buying my protagonist Cecily Neville’s belief that the Virgin was sending her signs. She thought 21st century readers wouldn’t buy into it either, or that Cecily thought she saw visions of Joan of Arc long after the Maid was dead. But it was part of medieval people’s every day beliefs. I was interested to read in the blog that religious skepticism didn’t arise until 17th century. I have a few of my characters in my books question superstitions, just to satisfy readers’ modern-day sensibilities, and I don’t think that was implausible–there have always been “scientists” in society no matter what the era.

    • servetus says:

      Thanks for the comment.

      I don’t know if Cecily Neville would have had visions of Joan specifically; I suspect not. But the possibility that she might have felt she was witnessing Marian apparitions is absolutely not off the table (especially smaller ones — there are a lot of regional or even local saints in late medieval Europe whose shrines and pieties were destroyed by the Reformation). The answer would depend a lot on when the cult of Joan of Arc became well known and where Cecily could have encountered it. From what I can tell, looking around quickly, Cecily would have had to have been in Orléans to have personally seen the pieties associated with Joan in the fifteenth century; Joan’s cult became more important after the Reformation, when she became a symbol of the Catholic League, and she wasn’t canonized until the twentieth century. There may have been unofficial pieties, of course — this would require research. If I were advising a historical novelist on this matter, I’d have suggested to look for pre-Reformation Marian shrines in the regions where Cecily grew up for information / indications of local cults that she might have associated with as a girl or young woman. However, I would also advise against the “she appeared to me and told me (to do) this” kind of element. Those stories were really rare. If you look at miracle books of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, they suggest that what people typically experienced was a feeling of the presence of the Virgin after they had appealed to her, and then an expression of the Virgin’s help concretely (healing, e.g.).

      Re skepticism, the standard work is Lucien Febvre, The Problem of Unbelief, which starts with Rabelais and moves onward. As far as I know the major conclusions of this book have not been contradicted in any major scholarly work since then. Febvre does stress that skepticism may take different forms in different periods. I would caution, however, against setting up science as a foil to religion before the eighteenth century at least. The big “chemists” of the Middle Ages were alchemists, and they certainly were not religious skeptics. Insofar as there were people who were skeptical in the fifteenth century, they were more likely to have been skeptical of the church (anti-clerical), a sentiment that comes to clear expression in the second post on the Malleus malleficarum in this series.

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