“There shall not be found among you anyone who practises divination or tells fortunes or interprets omens, or a sorcerer or a charmer or necromancer.’
The Secret Diary of Eleanor Cobham
by Tony Riches
History and historians have been unkind to women, giving them at best a minor role, at worst demonising them and even, at times, excising them from history altogether. [My thoughts on the savage and inhuman treatment of women in the name of religion is perhaps something I will leave for another day.] Things are better now than they used to be, but I think that maybe the best portraits of historical women still come from the pages of fiction.
In his recent 2014 novel, Tony Riches has taken a little-known woman and brought her to life by means of a fictional diary.
Eleanor Cobham, mistress and later wife of Humphrey Plantagenet, Duke of Gloucester, falls foul of the mediaeval church, is charged with witchcraft and sentenced to imprisonment by an ecclesiastical court. Her alleged accomplices fare much worse and are executed in the most barbaric way. Moved from prison to prison, not all of them unpleasant, Eleanor finally arrives at Beaumaris Castle on Anglesey, off the coast of Wales, where she begins writing a diary – the story of her life, her marriage and her flirtation with ‘necromancy’. All her previous attempts at escape have been thwarted and eventually, having given away all her jewels, she gives up of ever joining her beloved daughter in France and resigns herself to her fate.
‘As our ship manoeuvred into the castle dock my eyes were drawn to the brightly coloured royal standard flying proudly from the top of the gatehouse and I knew this was where I would end my days.’
‘Slowly, over the years, I have learned to replace my anger with understanding.’
This is a period in English history with which I am not too familiar and, at first, I found the timeline difficult to follow. Eleanor jumps frequently from present to past as she contrasts her old life of wealth and splendour with her drab and tedious imprisonment. However, as I got into the story, I found it entertaining, if depressing. Eleanor comes over as a sad, rather foolish woman who uses her position and her friends in a plan to capture the king’s favour by ‘necromancy’. While the ‘diary’ is probably fiction, there were moments when I felt the rest of Eleanor’s story would be best read as straight history. Sometimes, for a history buff like me, the plot seems to meander along without purpose, yet in other places it is alive and moving.
Tony Riches writes some very fine prose and has really managed too to get inside his character’s head. In his notes at the end, he tells us of his discovery that his wife is descended from Antigone Plantagenet, the daughter of Humphrey of Gloucester, which gave him the motive to tell this story. There would appear to be no firm historical evidence that Eleanor was Antigone’s mother, nevertheless for a family historian like myself this information adds a nice touch to a very readable piece of historical fiction.