Lives of the Necromancers, by William Godwin

Revival of Letters.

While these things were going on in Europe, the period was gradually approaching, when the energies of the human mind were to loosen its shackles, and its independence was ultimately to extinguish those delusions and that superstition which had so long enslaved it. Petrarch, born in the year 1304, was deeply impregnated with a passion for classical lore, was smitten with the love of republican institutions, and especially distinguished himself for an adoration of Homer. Dante, a more sublime and original genius than Petrarch, was his contemporary. About the same time Boccaccio in his Decamerone gave at once to Italian prose that purity and grace, which none of his successors in the career of literature have ever been able to excel. And in our own island Chaucer with a daring hand redeemed his native tongue from the disuse and ignominy into which it had fallen, and poured out the immortal strains that the genuine lovers of the English tongue have ever since perused with delight, while those who are discouraged by its apparent crabbedness, have yet grown familiar with his thoughts in the smoother and more modern versification of Dryden and Pope. From that time the principles of true taste have been more or less cultivated, while with equal career independence of thought and an ardent spirit of discovery have continually proceeded, and made a rapid advance towards the perfect day.

But the dawn of literature and intellectual freedom were still a long time ere they produced their full effect. The remnant of the old woman clung to the heart with a tenacious embrace. Three or four centuries elapsed, while yet the belief in sorcery and witchcraft was alive in certain classes of society. And then, as is apt to occur in such cases, the expiring folly occasionally gave tokens of its existence with a convulsive vehemence, and became only the more picturesque and impressive through the strong contrast of lights and shadows that attended its manifestations.

Joan of Arc.

One of the most memorable stories on record is that of Joan of Arc, commonly called the Maid of Orleans. Henry the Fifth of England won the decisive battle of Agincourt in the year 1415, and some time after concluded a treaty with the reigning king of France, by which he was recognised, in case of that king’s death, as heir to the throne. Henry V died in the year 1422, and Charles VI of France in less than two months after. Henry VI was only nine months old at the time of his father’s death; but such was the deplorable state of France, that he was in the same year proclaimed king in Paris, and for some years seemed to have every prospect of a fortunate reign. John duke of Bedford, the king’s uncle, was declared regent of France: the son of Charles VI was reduced to the last extremity; Orleans was the last strong town in the heart of the kingdom which held out in his favour; and that place seemed on the point to surrender to the conqueror.

In this fearful crisis appeared Joan of Arc, and in the most incredible manner turned the whole tide of affairs. She was a servant in a poor inn at Domremi, and was accustomed to perform the coarsest offices, and in particular to ride the horses to a neighbouring stream to water. Of course the situation of France and her hereditary king formed the universal subject of conversation; and Joan became deeply impressed with the lamentable state of her country and the misfortunes of her king. By dint of perpetual meditation, and feeling in her breast the promptings of energy and enterprise, she conceived the idea that she was destined by heaven to be the deliverer of France. Agreeably to the state of intellectual knowledge at that period, she persuaded herself that she saw visions, and held communication with the saints. She had conversations with St. Margaret, and St. Catherine of Fierbois. They told her that she was commissioned by God to raise the siege of Orleans, and to conduct Charles VII to his coronation at Rheims. St. Catherine commanded her to demand a sword which was in her church at Fierbois, which the Maid described by particular tokens, though she had never seen it. She then presented herself to Baudricourt, governor of the neighbouring town of Vaucouleurs, telling him her commission, and requiring him to send her to the king at Chinon. Baudricourt at first made light of her application; but her importunity and the ardour she expressed at length excited him. He put on her a man’s attire, gave her arms, and sent her under an escort of two gentlemen and their attendants to Chinon. Here she immediately addressed the king in person, who had purposely hid himself behind his courtiers that she might not know him. She then delivered her message, and offered in the name of the Most High to raise the siege of Orleans, and conduct king Charles to Rheims to be anointed. As a further confirmation she is said to have revealed to the king before a few select friends, a secret, which nothing but divine inspiration could have discovered to her.

Desperate as was then the state of affairs, Charles and his ministers immediately resolved to seize the occasion that offered, and put forward Joan as an instrument to revive the prostrate courage of his subjects. He had no sooner determined on this, than he pretended to submit the truth of her mission to the most rigorous trial. He called together an assembly of theologians and doctors, who rigorously examined Joan, and pronounced in her favour. He referred the question to the parliament of Poitiers; and they, who met persuaded that she was an impostor, became convinced of her inspiration. She was mounted on a high-bred steed, furnished with a consecrated banner, and marched, escorted by a body of five thousand men, to the relief of Orleans. The French, strongly convinced by so plain an interposition of heaven, resumed the courage to which they had long been strangers. Such a phenomenon was exactly suited to the superstition and credulity of the age. The English were staggered with the rumours that every where went before her, and struck with a degree of apprehension and terror that they could not shake off. The garrison, informed of her approach, made a sally on the other side of the town; and Joan and her convoy entered without opposition. She displayed her standard in the market-place, and was received as a celestial deliverer.

She appears to have been endowed with a prudence, not inferior to her courage and spirit of enterprise. With great docility she caught the hints of the commanders by whom she was surrounded; and, convinced of her own want of experience and skill, delivered them to the forces as the dictates of heaven. Thus the knowledge and discernment of the generals were brought into play, at the same time that their suggestions acquired new weight, when falling from the lips of the heaven-instructed heroine. A second convoy arrived; the waggons and troops passed between the redoubts of the English; while a dead silence and astonishment reigned among the forces, so lately enterprising and resistless. Joan now called on the garrison no longer to stand upon the defensive, but boldly to attack the army of the besiegers. She took one redoubt and then another. The English, overwhelmed with amazement, scarcely dared to lift a hand against her. Their veteran generals became spell-bound and powerless; and their soldiers were driven before the prophetess like a flock of sheep. The siege was raised.

Joan followed the English garrison to a fortified town which they fixed on as their place of retreat. The siege lasted ten days; the place was taken; and all the English within it made prisoners. The late victorious forces now concentred themselves at Patay in the Orleanois; Joan advanced to meet them. The battle lasted not a moment; it was rather a flight than a combat; Fastolfe, one of the bravest of our commanders, threw down his arms, and ran for his life; Talbot and Scales, the other generals, were made prisoners. The siege of Orleans was raised on the eighth of May, 1429; the battle of Patay was fought on the tenth of the following month. Joan was at this time twenty-two years of age.

This extraordinary turn having been given to the affairs of the kingdom, Joan next insisted that the king should march to Rheims, in order to his being crowned. Rheims lay in a direction expressly through the midst of the enemies’ garrisons. But every thing yielded to the marvellous fortune that attended upon the heroine. Troyes opened its gates; Chalons followed the example; Rheims sent a deputation with the keys of the city, which met Charles on his march. The proposed solemnity took place amidst the extacies and enthusiastic shouts of his people. It was no sooner over, than Joan stept forward. She said, she had now performed the whole of what God had commissioned her to do; she was satisfied; she intreated the king to dismiss her to the obscurity from which she had sprung.

The ministers and generals of France however found Joan too useful an instrument, to be willing to part with her thus early; and she yielded to their earnest expostulations. Under her guidance they assailed Laon, Soissons, Chateau Thierry, Provins, and many other places, and took them one after another. She threw herself into Compiegne, which was besieged by the Duke of Burgundy in conjunction with certain English commanders. The day after her arrival she headed a sally against the enemy; twice she repelled them; but, finding their numbers increase every moment with fresh reinforcements, she directed a retreat. Twice she returned upon her pursuers, and made them recoil, the third time she was less fortunate. She found herself alone, surrounded with the enemy; and after having enacted prodigies of valour, she was compelled to surrender a prisoner. This happened on the twenty-fifth of May, 1430.

It remained to be determined what should be the fate of this admirable woman. Both friends and enemies agreed that her career had been attended with a supernatural power. The French, who were so infinitely indebted to her achievements, and who owed the sudden and glorious reverse of their affairs to her alone, were convinced that she was immediately commissioned by God, and vied with each other in reciting the miraculous phenomena which marked every step in her progress. The English, who saw all the victorious acquisitions of Henry V crumbling from their grasp, were equally impressed with the manifest miracle, but imputed all her good-fortune to a league with the prince of darkness. They said that her boasted visions were so many delusions of the devil. They determined to bring her to trial for the tremendous crimes of sorcery and witchcraft. They believed that, if she were once convicted and led out to execution, the prowess and valour which had hitherto marked their progress would return to them, and that they should obtain the same superiority over their disheartened foes. The devil, who had hitherto been her constant ally, terrified at the spectacle of the flames that consumed her, would instantly return to the infernal regions, and leave the field open to English enterprise and energy, and to the interposition of God and his saints.

An accusation was prepared against her, and all the solemnities of a public trial were observed. But the proofs were so weak and unsatisfactory, and Joan, though oppressed and treated with the utmost severity, displayed so much acuteness and presence of mind, that the court, not venturing to proceed to the last extremity, contented themselves with sentencing her to perpetual imprisonment, and to be allowed no other nourishment than bread and water for life. Before they yielded to this mitigation of punishment, they caused her to sign with her mark a recantation of her offences. She acknowledged that the enthusiasm that had guided her was an illusion, and promised never more to listen to its suggestions.

The hatred of her enemies however was not yet appeased. They determined in some way to entrap her. They had clothed her in a female garb; they insidiously laid in her way the habiliments of a man. The fire smothered in the bosom of the maid, revived at the sight; she was alone; she caught up the garments, and one by one adjusted them to her person. Spies were set upon her to watch for this event; they burst into the apartment. What she had done was construed into no less offence than that of a relapsed heretic; there was no more pardon for such confirmed delinquency; she was brought out to be burned alive in the market-place of Rouen, and she died, embracing a crucifix, and in her last moments calling upon the name of Jesus. A few days more than twelve months, had elapsed between the period of her first captivity and her execution.

Eleanor Cobham, Duchess of Gloucester.

This was a period in which the ideas of witchcraft had caught fast hold of the minds of mankind; and those accusations, which by the enlightened part of the species would now be regarded as worthy only of contempt, were then considered as charges of the most flatigious [Errata: read flagitious] nature. While John, duke of Bedford, the eldest uncle of king Henry VI, was regent of France, Humphrey of Gloucester, next brother to Bedford, was lord protector of the realm of England. Though Henry was now nineteen years of age, yet, as he was a prince of slender capacity, Humphrey still continued to discharge the functions of sovereignty. He was eminently endowed with popular qualities, and was a favourite with the majority of the nation. He had however many enemies, one of the chief of whom was Henry Beaufort, great-uncle to the king, and cardinal of Winchester. One of the means employed by this prelate to undermine the power of Humphrey, consisted in a charge of witchcraft brought against Eleanor Cobham, his wife.

This woman had probably yielded to the delusions, which artful persons, who saw into the weakness of her character, sought to practise upon her. She was the second wife of Humphrey, and he was suspected to have indulged in undue familiarity with her, before he was a widower. His present duchess was reported to have had recourse to witchcraft in the first instance, by way of securing his wayward inclinations. The duke of Bedford had died in 1435; and Humphrey now, in addition to the actual exercise of the powers of sovereigny, was next heir to the crown in case of the king’s decease. This weak and licentious woman, being now duchess of Gloucester, and wife to the lord protector, directed her ambition to the higher title and prerogatives of a queen, and by way of feeding her evil passions, called to her counsels Margery Jourdain, commonly called the witch of Eye, Roger Bolingbroke, an astrologer and supposed magician, Thomas Southwel, canon of St. Stephen’s, and one John Hume, or Hun, a priest. These persons frequently met the duchess in secret cabal. They were accused of calling up spirits from the infernal world; and they made an image of wax, which they slowly consumed before a fire, expecting that, as the image gradually wasted away, so the constitution and life of the poor king would decay and finally perish.

Hume, or Hun, is supposed to have turned informer, and upon his information several of these persons were taken into custody. After previous examination, on the twenty-fifth of July, 1441, Bolingbroke was placed upon a scaffold before the cross of St. Paul’s, with a chair curiously painted, which was supposed to be one of his implements of necromancy, and dressed in mystical attire, and there, before the archbishop of Canterbury, the cardinal of Winchester, and several other bishops, made abjuration of all his unlawful arts.

A short time after, the duchess of Gloucester, having fled to the sanctuary at Westminster, her case was referred to the same high persons, and Bolingbroke was brought forth to give evidence against her. She was of consequence committed to custody in the castle of Leeds near Maidstone, to take her trial in the month of October. A commission was directed to the lord treasurer, several noblemen, and certain judges of both benches, to enquire into all manner of treasons, sorceries, and other things that might be hurtful to the king’s person, and Bolingbroke and Southwel as principals, and the duchess of Gloucester as accessory, were brought before them. Margery Jourdain was arraigned at the same time; and she, as a witch and relapsed heretic, was condemned to be burned in Smithfield. The duchess of Gloucester was sentenced to do penance on three several days, walking through the streets of London, with a lighted taper in her hand, attended by the lord mayor, the sheriffs, and a select body of the livery, and then to be banished for life to the isle of Man. Thomas Southwel died in prison; and Bolingbroke was hanged at Tyburn on the eighteenth of November.

Richard III.

An event occurred not very long after this, which deserves to be mentioned, as being well calculated to shew how deep an impression ideas of witchcraft had made on the public mind even in the gravest affairs and the counsels of a nation. Richard duke of Gloucester, afterwards Richard III, shortly before his usurpation of the crown in 1483, had recourse to this expedient for disarming the power of his enemies, which he feared as an obstacle to his project. Being lord protector, he came abruptly into the assembly of the council that he had left but just before, and suddenly asked, what punishment they deserved who should be found to have plotted against his life, being the person, as nearest akin to the young king, intrusted in chief with the affairs of the nation? And, a suitable answer being returned, he said the persons he accused were the queen-dowager, and Jane Shore, the favourite concubine of the late king, who by witchcraft and forbidden arts had sought to destroy him. And, while he spoke, he laid bare his left arm up to the elbow, which appeared shrivelled and wasted in a pitiable manner. “To this condition,” said he, “have these abandoned women reduced me.”— The historian adds, that it was well known that his arm had been thus wasted from his birth.

In January 1484, the parliament met which recognised the title of Richard, and pronounced the marriage of Edward IV null, and its issue illegitimate. 188 The same parliament passed an act of attainder against Henry earl of Richmond, afterwards Henry VII, the countess of Richmond, his mother, and a great number of other persons, many of them the most considerable adherents of the house of Lancaster. Among these persons are enumerated Thomas Nandick and William Knivet, necromancers. In the first parliament of Henry VII this attainder was reversed, and Thomas Nandick of Cambridge, conjurer, is specially nominated as an object of free pardon. 189

188 Sir Thomas More, History of Edward the Fifth.

189 Buck, Life and Reign of Richard III.

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