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Ask the author: Gemma Hollman on Royal Witches


When we think of witch trials throughout British history, it’s usually James VI and I or Matthew Hopkins who come to mind. Historian Gemma Hollman, however, proves that women were also subjected to accusations of witchcraft in medieval England in her book, Royal Witches – often when they were deemed too powerful or influential by the men around them. We spoke to Gemma about her fascinating research.

There’s so much we don’t know and will never know about medieval women, but books like Royal Witches shed a real light on history that’s often glossed over. What drew you to the four women covered in your book and their stories?

What initially drew me in was the fact that invariably these women were the most important women of their time in England, and had faced incredible things, and yet very few had heard of them! As I read more I found they usually turned up as a few lines in amongst biographies of men, and I really wanted their stories to be told. I didn’t really know that there had been accusations of witchcraft before the Early Modern period, so to see them used in such a public way against such important women in the medieval period was fascinating and I had to learn more!

All four women in your book – Joan of Navarre, Eleanor Cobham, Jacquetta of Luxembourg and Elizabeth Woodville – are fascinating, but did any one of them become a particular favourite during your research and writing process?

I have to say that I have a real soft spot for Eleanor Cobham. She came from humble beginnings and rose up to the heights of power, and by all accounts that I could find she was a very genuine woman. Later propaganda derided her as greedy and haughty, and yet it is so clear from records before her downfall that she and her husband were deeply in love, a perfect match for each other, and I think she was just a woman who loved a man and got unwillingly thrust into court politics. She suffered the most vicious downfall of all the women and her story just brings such sympathy, that I feel very protective over her!

What were the most difficult and most rewarding parts of the research process for Royal Witches?

The most difficult part of research was the frustration at the gaps in the records. Because it is so long ago, most of the records that survive are chronicles or government records. When you’re trying to research the private lives, thoughts and feelings of these women, then these aren’t reflected in the surviving documents. Sometimes I could spend days trying to chase sources and find something to fill a gap in knowledge and it could be incredibly frustrating and disheartening. The most rewarding part, though, was as I was nearing the end of writing and could see everything I had spent so much time on coming together into something cohesive and that made sense. It was so satisfying to see their lives laid out on the page in a way I hadn’t seen before, and knowing that their stories were sitting and waiting to be read.

Why were witchcraft accusations such an effective tool against women in power in medieval Europe?

The reasons for this are twofold: women were vulnerable, and witchcraft was powerful. Women – even Queens – didn’t really have a specified official role in government, even though there were plenty of women working behind the scenes getting things done. Because of this, and because of their gender, they were vulnerable to attack. Men were powerful – they had money, followers, soldiers – and so to attack a man at court was very difficult unless you had backing. Womens unofficial roles made them suspicious, and they had less resources to pool from. They were therefore easier targets. However, the precise fact that they didn’t have official positions made them strong. You couldn’t say they were ruining the running of the country, because technically they were not involved in it. You couldn’t say they were giving the King bad advice, because officially they were not advice-givers. Witchcraft became such a successful weapon because it was something that women could have done which would have affected the country, and moreover because it was incredibly difficult to disprove. Witchcraft was done in secret, and so it’s hard to prove you didn’t do something no one would have seen anyway. It was the perfect solution.

It’s been 600 years since Joan of Navarre was accused of witchcraft, but with reboots like Charmed and Chilling Adventures of Sabrina witches still aren’t old news. What do you think it is about witches and witchcraft that continues to fascinate us?

I think magic is always going to be a source of intrigue for humans. We are determined to understand things we cannot, and often we look to science to explain things, but at the same time there is such an allure in the idea that magic is behind things. The idea that there are fairies at the bottom of the garden, or mermaids swimming in the ocean – all are part of a fascination with how little we know about our universe, and even our own planet. Therefore, the idea that there could be humans who are a part of this magic is even more exciting. I think also for women, witchcraft has had an enduring appeal. For so long, women were often confined to the social sphere and did not have huge control over their own destinies. It is easy to see why the idea of magic and witchcraft, something where an individual is stronger than those around them, would appeal as a fantasy. I think there is something as well in the reclamation of history for women. Although at one time men were as likely to be accused of witchcraft as women, in more recent times it has definitely become associated with female power. Although in the past calling a woman a witch was derogatory, many now feel a connection to the women of the past through witchcraft, and stories like those of the women in my book. I certainly think witchcraft is here to stay.

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