The Royal Witch of Leeds Castle

James Lloyd visits Leeds Castle, near Maidstone, once the palace reserved to the Queens of England, but for one of those Queens a prison.

Leeds Castle, as the author has had to explain carefully in conversation before now, is not in Yorkshire. The village of Leeds is in Kent, just outside the county town of Maidstone and it is dominated by a castle dating back to the thirteenth century, though, like all castles, it has bits and pieces from every century since then. It is also reputed to be the prettiest in the world. That is quite a claim but not one that those who have visited Leeds Castle are inclined to dispute. Built on two islands in a lake and surrounded by three thousand acres of well-kept garden, the castle presents an enchanting and somehow feminine aspect. This is not a coincidence. It was bought by Edward I in 1281, who granted it to his Queen, Eleanor of Castile, first in a succession of queens consort to be given Leeds. The following blog concerns one of those consorts, though one who was not always a willing resident.

Joan of Navarre was born in Normandy in 1369, the daughter of King Charles II of Navarre and the maternal granddaughter of King John II of France. Her father, like most medieval monarchs, used his daughter as an asset in his diplomatic calculations and, after several other projected marriages fell through, fobbed her off on John de Montfort, quasi-sovereign Duke of Brittany.

Despite the political nature of the marriage, they were a happy couple and Joan bore John nine children. In 1398, she accompanied the Duke to England, where he was to be made a Knight of the Garter by King Richard II. It was on that occasion that Joan first set her eyes on the dashing, thirty-one-year-old, ex-Crusader Henry Bolingbroke, Earl of Derby, now on the market again after the death of his first wife four years earlier. Joan herself was back on the shelf the following year, when her husband died and their eldest son, another John, became Duke. Only a month before, Henry Bolingbroke had enjoyed a little promotion of his own, deposing his cousin King Richard and becoming Henry IV.

Although Joan undertook the duties of regency for her infant son, she had set her heart on King Henry. In 1402, totally out of the blue, she sent a Welshman in Breton service, Anthony Rhys, to England to open negotiations for a marriage with the new King, which was completed, by proxy, just a month later. The two had evidently made quite an impression on each other at their previous meeting, because, when his new bride’s ship was diverted to Falmouth by a storm, Henry rushed to Exeter to meet her and get on with the business of consummation.

Not everyone, however, was as happy as the new couple. The Bretons in particular disapproved and Joan was compelled to relinquish the regency. The English started to go off their new Queen too when she was given the record dower of 10,000 marks a year, along with the usual panoply of castles. These included, as was customary, Leeds. Joan did not neglect her political duties, however. In 1405, she interceded with her husband for the release of Breton pirates captured in Devon and, imitating her father’s example, she arranged marriages for her children.

Her own voluntary and very happy marriage with Henry IV, however, was childless and was brought to an end in 1413 by his death of a skin complaint. Her stepson Henry V initially had a positive relationship with the Dowager Queen, though this was tested by his war with France: Joan’s younger son Arthur was wounded on the French side at Agincourt. In 1416, she was accorded the rare honour, even for royalty, of being made a Lady of the Garter and in 1417 she brokered a truce between England and Brittany.

In 1419, however, there was a sudden frosting of relations between Queen Joan and King Henry. Her chaplain, John Randolph, was arrested and her goods, in his custody, searched. To the astonishment of everyone, especially Joan herself, the priest accused his erstwhile mistress of being a witch and of plotting to kill the King by sorcery.

Joan’s assets were sequestered and the woman who had been Queen of England was placed under house arrest and moved from one residence to another, finally ending up at Leeds Castle in 1420, where she would remain for the next two years. She was never, however, tried. Indeed, she was not even treated as a prisoner, instead being allowed to entertain guests lavishly, among them King Henry’s brother, Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester, with whose wife, Eleanor, Joan struck up a friendship. The truth, of course, is that the charges were a complete fabrication, enabling the King to free some resources for his war-emptied treasury. After two years of confinement at Leeds, Joan was released by order of the mortally sick Henry V, still fighting in France. He died only six weeks later.

Joan would live for another fifteen quiet years. She herself died at Havering, another of her estates, in 1437 and was buried in Canterbury Cathedral, next to her second husband King Henry IV. Appropriately, however, for a suspected witch, death was not the end of Joan’s story. She had donated her chapel to Eleanor, Duchess of Gloucester, who would continue the royal tradition of witchcraft.

In 1440, rumours circulated in London that an astrologer had predicted the young King Henry VI’s imminent death. The men responsible, three priests and one of them Eleanor’s chaplain, were arrested and named the Duchess as having commissioned the horoscope. Although astrology was considered a respectable science at the time, an enquiry into the King’s own future was always dangerous and Eleanor, as wife of the heir presumptive, had a particular interest in the prospective death of the childless sovereign.

She was arrested and tried for treasonable necromancy, along with the astrologers and an old, notorious witch of Westminster named Margery Jourdemayne. They were all found guilty and even Eleanor confessed to some of the charges. The commoners were all put to death but Eleanor, being the King’s aunt, would not be treated quite so crudely. She was ordered to do public penance, walking barefoot to three London churches on three days in a row. That done, she was divorced from Humphrey and imprisoned. Like Joan, she was moved from castle to castle, including a spell at Leeds, before ending her days at Beaumaris on Anglesey in 1452.

Leeds Castle was alienated by Edward VI and passed through various families. Its last private owner was Olive, Lady Baillie, an American socialite and ex-wife of a baronet who left her the castle as part of the divorce settlement. Upon her death in 1974, she left it in trust to the nation. It is one of the gems of Kent, at once beautiful and beguiling, both a palace for queens and a prison for witches.


Photo credit: Leeds Castle (Christine Matthews) / CC BY-SA 2.0

Leeds Castle and Moat (Paul Gillett) / CC BY-SA 2.0


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