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EDWIN AUSTIN ABBEY

THE PENANCE OF ELEANOR, DUCHESS OF GLOUCESTER, 1900

About the Artwork

The painting depicts Eleanor, former mistress and now wife of the Duke of Gloucester, performing penance after being convicted of the crime of consulting with sorcerers to help the Duke gain the throne. Her penance is to walk barefoot through the public square wrapped in a sheet. Soldiers keep an angry mob at bay, and her husband, the duke, clad in mourning black with a royal purple interior exposes his face to her.

Eleanor Cobham, Duchess of Gloucester is featured in William Shakespeare’s play Henry VI, Part 2, which was the inspiration for this painting. In real life, when Eleanor was around 22 years old she became a lady in waiting for Jacqueline d’Hainault, a divorcee who would marry Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester a year later. When Eleanor was 25, Duke Humphrey took her to be his mistress, and three years later he annulled his marriage to Jacqueline to marry her. Jacqueline was disinherited, and died three years later. When Eleanor was 35, the duke’s older brother died making Humphrey the next heir to the throne of England. At age 41, Eleanor was accused of using an astrologer and witch to seek plans to have her husband assume the throne. She denied everything except buying a potion from the witch to help her become pregnant. Eleanor was found guilty of treasonable necromancy (the supposed practice of communicating with the dead, especially in order to predict the future), and the astrologer and witch were publicly tortured to death. Eleanor, being an aristocrat, was made to serve a public humiliation before being sentenced to life in prison. Considering the ambition of Duke Humphrey, it is possible that Eleanor did nothing wrong and was merely used as an example to other aristocrats who might try to wrest power from the king. Duke Humphrey died a free man, but Eleanor spent the rest of her life in prison until dying at the age of 52.

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