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The Secret Diary of Eleanor Cobham

By Tony Riches All Rights Reserved ©


July 1450 ~ Arcanum

Whoever reads this, my secret journal and only true companion, should know I am unjustly condemned to end my days within these castle walls. I am forgotten by the world and my poor beloved husband, once Regent and the Lord Protector of all England, is dead these past three years. My hope is, through these words, people of a time so far away I cannot comprehend will know the truth of how my good and loyal friends were most cruelly tortured and murdered by my enemies.

Loneliness is the worst of my punishment, as though this castle is in a beautiful place it is my prison. I am held as prisoner of Sir William Beauchamp, Constable of Beaumaris, and know Sir William receives my allowance. It is a hundred marks each year, from the dues for fishing on the River Dee and is supposed to cover my expenses. Little of that money finds its way to me. When first at Leeds Castle I had my own allowance and servants to help me. They left one by one and were not replaced. Now I have only the cook who brings my food and the maids who come to clean my room and wash my clothes. They speak to me in the Welsh language and are afraid to look at me. I fear they have been told I am a sorceress and will put some curse on them.

My only company most days are the rough soldiers who have the duty of guarding my prison and the elderly priest who sometimes visits me. Less welcome are the visits from my jailor, William Bulkeley, the Serjeant-at-Arms here at Beaumaris. Bulkeley is an educated man, although ambitious and disliked by the men he commands. He is well married though. Bulkeley’s good wife Lady Ellen is the daughter of a powerful Welshman Gwilym ap Gruffydd. She is kind to visit me and the closest I have to a friend in this castle.

It was after one of the visits from the priest that I confided to him I needed to occupy myself more fully, as I have been imprisoned here some three months now, with little else to do apart from dwell on my memories. When the old priest first came to visit he would not look me properly in the eye, a sure sign he believed the stories of my witchcraft. A good man, with white hair and a stubble of grey beard, he leans heavily on a stick to walk.

Slowly, over the weeks, he has come to know me a little better. At Easter he kindly brought me an old Latin prayer-book, illustrated with brightly-coloured pictures of the saints. The priest put the leather-bound book solemnly in my hands with the suggestion that I may use it to find answers in God. It has been many years since I studied Latin and I care less for praying for salvation, but as I studied the little book I saw it was a version of the Christian devotional Book of Hours, probably copied by monks in the nearby priory.

I am grateful to the priest as it has uses for me. You may imagine it is better not to note the passing of the months, yet I find time passes more quickly if I do. The little book contains a calendar of the feast-days, helping me to keep track of the year and also serves as a bridge between me and one of my few visitors, the priest. It offers a small way to show I am not entirely as evil as people would have him believe.

I amuse myself by translating excerpts from the gospels and the seven Penitential Psalms. My imprisonment has given me the one thing I never had in excess, the time to study and reflect on such things. I am surprised to find unexpected comfort in the sixth of the psalms of confession. The neatly written Latin of the last line read Erubescant et conturbentur vehementer omnes inimici mei; convertantur et erubescant valde velociter.’ This means ‘May my enemies be put to shame and come to ruin. May they be turned away and be swiftly put to shame’. As fitting a spell for any witch to curse her enemies.

On the days I am granted permission to visit the chapel tower, I kneel and devoutly recite psalm six from my Book of Hours. I pray for the eternal damnation of the souls of those who killed my husband by their wicked plots and would have me end my days forgotten here on this island of Anglesey. I was not a witch but they have made me one.™

My eyes are also opened to an opportunity by my book of prayers. I contrived my plan to keep this journal. It will be my best company and maybe one day help to correct lies that are written of me. I asked the priest if he would kindly request a small payment from Sir William Bulkeley for some parchment, a quill and ink, so I may translate and copy out the prayers to pass the long summer days. The priest seemed pleased with my new-found religious conviction. He smiled at me for the first time in four long months and promised to help me improve my Latin. I believe there is a softening of his previously cold manner towards me, so perhaps I do still have some powers over men after all.

On his next visit I could see the priest had brought me no parchment. I concealed my disappointment and asked what reply he had from William Bulkeley. The priest explained that my jailor had refused his request, as he is under orders to provide me with nothing that could be used for the purposes of witchcraft or necromancy. He had also informed the priest he is concerned I would write letters that could by some means find their way to supporters outside the castle. I had to hide my disappointment and listened carefully as the priest began to help me with my Latin texts.

It was some weeks before my next walk in the castle grounds with Lady Ellen but I reasoned that Sir William Bulkeley would listen to the opinion of his wife. I carried my Book of Hours and showed it to her, explaining my wish to occupy my time more usefully by translating the Latin. I had to share with her my request sent by the priest and her husband’s concerns, yet I am able to say in truth that after nearly nine long years of incarceration any supporters I had were either dead or have long since forgotten me. Ellen was at first reluctant to intervene on my behalf yet could see the virtue of my planned religious study. I know she feels sorry for my dreadful imprisonment. She promised to speak to her husband but warned me he could be a stubborn man.

I know William Bulkeley was already a wealthy landowner in Cheshire before he married Ellen and has ambition to one day become the Constable of Beaumaris Castle. He is in the habit of coming to see me as a jailer not as a friend. He is not an unkindly man but apart from checking I am properly fed and not unwell, he rarely speaks to me. When he does, his manner is one of professional detachment. I suspect he justifies his role in the knowledge that I am a traitor, even though I am certain he knows I was never convicted of treason. William Bulkeley would not be easily persuaded to risk his reputation by agreeing my request.

When I next saw the priest, I pleaded with him to reassure Lady Ellen my intentions were sincere. It seemed he had taken to heart his role as my reformer, for on the following Sunday he greeted me with a parcel of parchment of fine quality. He told me it had been provided by the Augustinian friars of St Seiriol's Priory at Penmon. The quill he provided is also new and holds a sharp point. I shall take good care of it, as I cannot be certain if it will be replaced when it is worn. The ink is good and black iron gall, probably also made by the monks at the priory from oak galls and vinegar, with iron to make it so black. They have given me a good quantity in a pottery flask with an airtight stopper, which I must be most careful not to break.

The priest was unsure if the guards would object but he also let me have a small blade to trim the end of the quill. He showed me how it could be kept sharp on the stone sill of my window and how to score the parchment for trimming into folded pages, which I can sew with my needles to bind together. Although my mother taught me to read and write in French and Latin from an early age, I am out of practice and happy to let the priest act as my tutor, a role he does seem comfortable with. I shall take care to have some verses to show him when he visits so he is also less likely to ask questions about other uses I may have for his materials.

I have found a secret place to hide my writing, where it will be safe. My room is on the second floor of the tower and follows its circular shape, with a high, vaulted ceiling that gives a sense of space. I have little furniture, just my wooden cot with a straw mattress and rough blankets, my table and one wooden chair. I am grateful my room has a large hearth to keep me warm and a window which looks out across the inner ward. The heavy oak door is always bolted on the outside and has an iron grill near the top through which the guards can check on me. I wait until I am certain they have gone, then prise up the loose floor board which can be lifted to reveal a dry space beneath.

My guards are unable to read and have no reason to search but before I started writing I determined to use this cipher, taught to me by a princess. I must prevent my jailors from discovering my work as it is my wish to speak freely of the events of my life, without fear of recrimination while I still live. I believe the only other people who knew this encoded writing are long since dead and I am certain it will be beyond the wit of even William Bulkeley to read. My hope is that whoever understands this journal will also take the time to ensure it is used to ensure the truth of my story is not forgotten.

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