The Penance of Eleanor, Duchess of Gloucester

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The Penance of Eleanor, Duchess of Gloucester, 1900.

The Penance of Eleanor, Dutchess of Gloucester is an oil painting by Edwin Austin Abbey, finished in 1990. The painting is quite large, at 85" wide and 49" tall. It depicts Eleanor, former mistress, and now wife of the Duke of Gloucester, performing penance for her 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 who wish to kill her, and her husband, the Duke, clad in mourning black with a royal purple interior exposes his face to her.

Eleanor Cobham, Dutchess of Gloucester is featured in the Henry VI, Part 2, which is the basis of this painting, but her real life is even more interesting. At around age 22, she became a lady in waiting for Jacqueline d'Hainault, a divorcee who would marry the Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester, a year later. When she was 25, Duke Humphrey took Eleanor to be his mistress, and three years later he annulled his marriage to Jacqueline to marry Eleanor. 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, and the astrologer and witch were publicly tortured to death, but Eleanor, being an aristocrat, was only made to serve a public humiliation before being sentenced to life in prison. Considering the ambition of Duke Humphrey, it is possible that Eleanor didn't do anything 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.


I first saw this painting in the Carnegie Museum of Art in Pittsburgh in April, 2010 and immediately loved it. The bright red clothes of the bureaucrats make a prefect contrast the to bright white sheet of Eleanor, and the royal purple hood of the hideous Duke makes his terrifying face stand out. Eleanor's look to him appears to convey a message of "I'm not ashamed," but his look back is one of loathing. One thing I appreciate about this painting is that Eleanor is not sexualized in her humiliation the way she would be were Abbey a Pre-Raphaelite.