What was life like for Queen Joanna, widow of King Henry IV, imprisoned for Witchcraft in Leeds Castle?


In its beautiful setting, surrounded by water, Leeds Castle in Kent was one of our medieval Queens’ dower properties, and as such became one of Joanna of Navarre’s estates.  It was here that Joanna, when accused of ‘compassing the death and destruction of our lord the king in the most treasonable and horrible manner that could be devised’  (sorcery and necromancy), was incarcerated.  She began her years of imprisonment at Rotherhithe, a royal castle on the Thames.  From there to Pevensey, one of the castles of the man set over her to be her Governor, Sir John Pelham, but finally in 1419 she was sent to Leeds, where she remained until her ultimate release two years later in 1421.  Joanna is unique as a Queen of England imprisoned on the charge of sorcery.  But was she indeed a witch?


Leeds Castle in its tranquil setting


In all those years, Joanna was never put on trial and the detail of the accusations against her by her father confessor John Randolf, a Franciscan Friar, and two members of her household, were never made plain.  Nor was Randolf charged or punished with being complicit although he was shut up in the Tower of London.  He ultimately died in 1429 in a brawl with a mad priest.


What was Joanna’s lifestyle, as a prisoner in Leeds Castle?  We are fortunate indeed to have some of her account books from 1419 to 1421 which give us a clear indication.

Entrance to Leeds Castle


What is very clear, from the detail of the income allowed to her and how she spent it, is that she was permitted a very soft imprisonment.  Here was no dungeon with deprivation.  Here was no harsh treatment for a woman accused of plotting to kill the king, under threat of punishment for treason and witchcraft.  In the initial weeks when she was taken into custody, Joanna’s possessions were confiscated and her household dismissed so that we might presume that this penury and isolation would be the order of the day.  It was not to be so.


It all makes for interesting reading.  The Royal Council, in ultimate control of Joanna in Henry V’s absence in France, made her a substantial allowance, not as great as when she was Queen, but enough to keep her in luxuries.  She was also provided with her own clerk to administer her revenue, Thomas Lilburne.  Her allowance enabled her to appoint a new household, and a very extensive one, of 19 grooms and 7 pages.


Forbidding walls at Leeds


So what did she spend her money on, apart from an extensive array of servants to answer her every need?  Does not every woman have an interest in what she wears?  We have detail of fine garments and cloth and fur, of silk and fine linen from Flanders.  We have the information of black cloth and black silk loops for a gown, black satin for a cape to be trimmed with grey squirrel fur.  Also 3 dozen shoes at 6d a pair, purchased for her household.


Of a more personal nature, Joanna bought a rosary and a girdle in gold, a silver gilt ewer, a silver buckle, table-knives, a candlestick, as well as medicines from her Portuguese physician Pedro de Alcobaca with whom she was allowed to keep contact.  He had been physician to Henry IV, and the fact that she needed medicines might give some clue to her state of health.  Joanna also needed repair of a harp, a birdcage for her popinjay, the purchase of books, payments to Nicholas a minstrel, to buy rosewater and cinnamon.  Furthermore Joanna was allowed to ride beyond the immediate confines of the castle walls, using the horses of Sir John Pelham, with money to pay for the upkeep of her stables.


And then there are the needs of a large household for food and wine and fuel.  Fine wine from Gascony and the Rhine.  An array of fresh foodstuffs of meat and fish of every type.  A personal stock of aqua vitae.  A pot of green ginger.


Perhaps not as tranquil as it first appears


Nor was Joanna completely isolated.  It is noted in the accounts what food was needed when the Archbishop of Canterbury came to visit.  There were frequent visits from Henry Beaufort, Bishop of Winchester and Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester, members of her adopted family.  Most interesting of all, Lord Thomas de Camoys, a friend of long-standing to both Joanna and Henry, a notable soldier who fought at Agincourt alongside Henry V, moved to live in Leeds Castle to keep her company for nine months until his death in 1421.


What can we learn from these accounts?  It would seem to be a lifestyle that would not be a burden on Joanna, but we have to understand that the charge of witchcraft hung over her through all these years.  We might have the benefit of hindsight but Joanna did not.  We know that this was a temporary incarceration and that she would be released, but Joanna would not know this.  Moreover she would be aware of the harsh punishment of her contemporaries for treason and witchcraft.  Joan of Arc was burned at the stake.  Eleanor Cobham, Duchess of Gloucester, was to be humiliated publically and imprisoned for life.  Joanna was in no position to be complacent about her own future, when freedom would not have been on her personal horizon.


A magnificent cellar, one of the few remaining ‘medieval’ parts of Leeds Castle that Joanna would recognise.


Joanna was finally released in 1421.  In the weeks before his death in France, when he made provision for the government of England with a Regency for his baby son, Henry V turned his thoughts to Joanna.  Her release was ordered: ‘lest it should be a charge on our conscience.’


It is difficult to have any finer feelings towards Henry for his treatment of his mother by marriage.


Perhaps surprisingly Joanna, on her release, chose to remain in England rather than return to either Navarre or Brittany, but she did not live in Leeds Castle again, however beautiful the surroundings.  Instead she made her base at Havering-atte-Bower, another of her dower properties, where she lived in semi- retirement, enjoying occasional visits to court and the affections of the young king Henry VI who gave her gifts at Christmas, one of them a gold tablet garnished with rubies and pearls and a great sapphire.  He obviously held her in high regard.  Some of her dowry income was restored to her as well as estates, but not all that she had previously owned.




Joanna died in July of 1437 at the age of  69 years and was buried next to Henry IV in Canterbury Cathedral, unique as the Queen of England to have been imprisoned for treason by means of witchcraft.  Here on her tomb is the only image we have of her appearance, carved in marble.  A serenity that perhaps she did not enjoy in life.


So was Joanna guilty of witchcraft?  For those who have not read The Queen’s Choice, I will say no more, but it is difficult to think that the evidence points to any level of guilt.  How much did Henry V benefit from her ignominy?  It has to be said, considerably.  What an intriguing layer Joanna’s predicament added to her story.


If you would like to read more about this remarkable and strong-willed woman, here is the link for The Queen’s Choice which is on offer on Kindle for a mere £2.99 :






75 responses to “The Witch of Leeds Castle.

  1. Can’t wait to read this book, I have just started reading your novels, and i enjoy reading about different periods of history, not just the tutor period which I have always read before.

  2. Looking forward to reading the Queens Choice – as with all your books bringing these wonderful people and women to life – sad when the book is finally finished.

  3. Interesting article, would enjoy reading more of Joanna`s story. Would love to add this book to my collection. Thank you for the chance.

  4. Not having read the Quuens Choice just yet, I suspect Joanna was highly intuitive which could have been misunderstood as witchcraft in the times in which she lived, I am intrigued to learn more ❤️

  5. All of your historical novels are brillant, I’ve read all of them more than once. My favourite is “The forbidden Queen”.

  6. Very interesting! I haven’t heard of this lady or any of this, guess I need to do some studying. Thanks!

    1. I don’t know much of her at all to be honest,but soon will with the brilliance of Anne and her books,thank u for our joy,reading u along with Sharon penman ,Elizabeth Chadwick,r my joy in life

  7. Oh, to be able to be a fly on those walls!
    What an interesting tale to be told.
    Thank you for bringing such an interesting tale to light.

  8. One of the most beautifully crafted books I have read, fascinating attention to detail that brings the queen to life.

  9. The charges of Witchcraft could prove very useful in Medieval times. It was useful charge for husbands and even fathers to rid themselves of women who wouldn’t conform. Joan name must have always been aware of how dangerous her position was. I don’t think her life was ever in danger, but she didn’t know this, for some reason she needed to removed from court. Her life, wasn’t too restricted but she must never have felt safe. I feel I must read more about Joanna to try understand the events that shaped her life.

  10. In Anne’s novels,history comes to life,the characters and their lives are so real you are right there with them. Fantastically realistic. x

  11. Karen ….I find this period of history fascinating as its really not covered well at school .I look forward to your view of it.thanks for the chance

  12. I can understand why she left Leeds Castle after her imprisonment, no matter how beautiful it was the castle was still her prison. I can’t imagine wanting to live somewhere ,no matter how beautiful, not knowing my fate.

  13. Wonderful Article! Would most certainly love to read & learn more about the details of Joanna’s life & the REAL reason that her own father turned on her! Loved the photo’s of Leed’s Castle also. Thank you!

  14. Fascinating article about an equally fascinating Queen. I believe that she was no witch, but certainly had a fey personality with perhaps a leaning towards what we would call today, a psychic ability. A wonderful if potentially dangerous gift. Great reading Anne. Thank you. ☺

  15. I would love to read about her. I love all things that pertain to my Ancestry. Being Welsh, Irish, Scottish and English, I am now getting books to make my own reference library of sorts.

    I’m looking forward to reading your books, anything about History is a perfect read for me!!

  16. I loved every one of your books that I’ve read so far, so am really looking forward to reading this. Such an interesting article about a Queen I hadn’t heard of until your mentions on your Twitter account.

  17. I enjoyed the queens choice , because I had not read much about this queen , I did read up on her, but your blog that I have just read was the most interesting that I have read and it gives food for thought too , I do hope that you will write more about the lesser known queens too , they have a story to tell too , thank you.

  18. Thank you for the blog , I found it very intresting as I did the novel , I do hope you will write more about the lesser known queens too.

  19. Without historical fiction I would not have the love I have for history today. I read many of Anne OBriens books and always did further reading on the main characters and their family tree, this lead to my love of history and to me taking a history degree starting in September!
    Thank you for writing perfect books Anne

  20. Living in Edinburgh surrounded by Wicken history Joanna’s interment as a witch will be fascinating reading.

  21. Strong woman in history are negected, paper binds them to a future. Joanne sounds like a interesting lady i would like to know more

  22. I was very excited to see this book, as Joanna was grandmother-in-law to one of my great-grandfathers, Guy de Laval!
    I look forward to reading this book, as I love to glean information about my personal ancestors when reading about their contemporaries.

  23. I bought this book 2 weeks ago, and have already read it twice lol. I loved reading about a Queen that I never knew much about, and have found it very fascinating. She was an amazing woman.

  24. Look forward to reading this and Leeds castle is an amazingly beautiful castle ,not far from where I live.fabulous .

  25. A very interesting article- leaves one salivating over the prospect of a whole novel about this lady. Would love to read this book and will- whether I win it or not. Thank you for writing in such an intriguing and interesting way. You make history come alive.

  26. Love history of any period, would certainly enjoy this book !thank you for the above information .

  27. Would love a copy. This is new to me but have read a lot about witchcraft during Tudor times and found it very interesting. Will definitely do some research, either way. Kind regards

  28. Another great tale of one of England’s Queens, from the Queen of story tellers. A writer who writes about real people, as if she has hidden in their closet for years, and speaks from actual experience.
    Since we cannot of been there, this is as near as you can get without a time machine.
    Time itself has to adjust, once you open one of her books.

  29. Another wonderful glimpse into the past by our talented Anne O ‘Brien! Your books just keep getting better and better.

  30. I have read a lot of your books and am looking forward to reading this , it sounds interesting. I usually buy from charity shops but would love to have a brand new one that no one else has read and you having signed it would be the icing on the cake.

  31. What an interesting blog! Thank you so much ? I would love to have a copy of this book and very much look forward to reading it!

  32. So enjoy your books love going on journeys with your words and learning about such amazing times

  33. I so enjoy your books Anne! The Queen’s Choice looks like another fascinating read! And I’m loving your book covers!

  34. What a great story She must have been terrified about being accused of witch craft Have read the story about Eleanor Cobhan and would lone to read all about Joanna I have a few of you wonderful books but having one sign by you would be the best ever .

  35. What fascinates me, is that the documents about Joanna are still available and that you have had access to them. It certainly sounds an intriguing story. She obviously wasn’t a witch! Perhaps she knew something about Randolf, the Franciscan monk! Why would he accuse her of witchcraft? She must have been loved to have had so many notable visitors! I have not heard of Lord Thomas de Campus….another fascinating delve into history! I can’t wait!

  36. I find it very interesting that she was buried next to the King. I can’t wait to read this book. My library doesn’t have it yet.

  37. Women and their lives. A story repeated through the ages of men and convenient truths. Joanna of Navarre resonates with Juana of Castille and an echo of freedom at stake.

  38. I am so looking forward to reading this book. Joanna sounds so different to any other queen in history,a character that I would have loved to have met. The settings of Rotherhithe are where I come from and I know the ruins of the Manor House on the Thames so well and I now live in Royal Tunbridge Wells in Kent just up the road from Leeds Castle. So after reading this book which I know will be great- Anne’s books always are with thorough research followed by an awesome tale I shall be visiting both settings to see if I can ‘see’ Joanna in situ in both.

    1. I am also looking forward to reading this book, and find it amazing for you to live so close to Leeds castle, i would love nothing more than to see what you have seen or are able to see. I live in Oregon, very far from Leeds castle thats for sure! To be able to walk the grounds the people from this book have walked would be fascinating.

  39. A story of real escapism I am looking forward to reading it as I dont think there are many stories about her and being accused of witchcraft, facinating. I love your books and this would be a great holiday read this summer. I was born near Rotherhithe my great great grandfather lived there so I am hoping I can relate to the story of the dear old Thames. Love Leeds Castle and to think there are still records of what she went through. I know I would really enjoy this story, you are one of my favourite historic writers. Just keep them coming, I love them.

  40. Fantastic post. Gorgeous cover for a book that sounds like a brilliant read. Thank you for the chance to win your book.

  41. Each time I read one of your books I decide ‘this is my favourite’. I can’t pick one I enjoyed them all so much

  42. Fascinating reading!! Even though I adored visiting Leeds Castle, I would not want to be a prisoner there…lol

  43. We love Leeds Castle and the grounds and visit multiple times a year but I never knew this. We call the hut by the weeping willow the ‘witches hut’ and although I guess it wasn’t there at Joanna’s time, it now makes sense. I’d love to read more about her so I can show off next time we visit.

  44. I’m looking forward to reading The Queen’s Choice and I’ve just finished The King’s Sister which was a great read!

  45. I am a member of a book club (10 people) and we chose this book because we are going to stay at Leeds Castle in October for a long weekend so thought it would be a great way to really ‘live’ Joanna’s experiences! We’re thinking of dressing for dinner in period costume so hoping to get some inspiration! Haven’t ordered my own copy yet but very excited!! Will send pictures.

    1. Hi Carol-Ann. What a fantastic idea, to stay at Leeds Castle. I spoke there on an evening in May and stayed over – it was a wonderful experience. I am sure that you will all enjoy it. There are some costume pics on my pinterest page for The Queen’s Choice that may give you some ideas for late fourteenth and early fifteenth centuries. The link is below. I would love to see the pics. All best wishes – I am quite envious – Anne.

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