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?

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