The witch-hunts that swept across Europe from 1450 to 1750 were among the most controversial and terrifying phenomena in history – holocausts of their times. Historians have long attempted to explain why and how they took such rapid and enduring hold in communities as disparate and distant from one another as Navarre and Copenhagen. They resulted in the trial of around 100,000 people (most of them women), a little under half of whom were put to death.
One of the most active centres of witch-hunting was Scotland, where perhaps 4,000 people were consigned to the flames – a striking number for such a small country, and more than double the execution rate in England. The ferocity of these persecutions can be attributed to the most notorious royal witch-hunter: King James VI of Scotland, who in 1603 became James I of England.
The year 1590 witnessed the largest and most high-profile witch trials in Scottish history. No fewer than 70 suspects were rounded up in North Berwick, on suspicion of raising a storm to destroy King James’s fleet as he conveyed his new bride, Anne of Denmark, across the North Sea. Convinced the tempest that had almost cost his life had been summoned by witchcraft, James was intent upon bringing the perpetrators to justice.
Most of the suspects soon confessed – under torture – to concocting a host of bizarre and gruesome spells and rituals in order to whip up the storm. These included binding the severed genitalia and limbs of a dead man to the legs of a cat, then tossing the bundle into the waves, whereupon “there did arise such a tempest in the sea, as a greater hath not been seen”. On another occasion, Satan himself was said to have appeared to the witches and “promised to raise a mist, and cast the king into England, for which purpose he threw into the sea a thing like a foot-ball”.
James was so appalled when he heard such tales that he decided to personally superintend the interrogations. He had one of the main suspects, Agnes Sampson, brought to Holyroodhouse in Edinburgh so that he could question her himself. When she “stood stiffly in denial” of the charges against her, she “had all her hair shaved off, in each part of her body, and her head thrawn [wrenched] with a rope according to the custom of that country, being a pain most grievous”. All of this continued for an hour, while the king looked on with “great delight”.
There followed the most dramatic moment of the interrogation when James, responding to something that Agnes had said, leapt up in fury and declared her a liar. But she calmly took him to one side and convinced him of her magical powers by telling him certain “secret matters” that had passed between him and his new wife on their wedding night.
James was astounded at her revelation. “The king’s majesty wondered greatly, and swore by the living God, that he believed all the devils in hell could not have discovered the same, acknowledging her words to be most true, and therefore gave the more credit to the rest that is before declared.” From that moment, his interest in witchcraft deepened into a dangerous obsession.
Listen: Historian Ronald Hutton reveals how the witch has been a symbol of fear across the globe for more than 2,000 years
Mesmerised by magic
Known as the ‘cradle king’, James had become the nominal ruler of Scotland at the age of just 13 months, following the enforced abdication of his mother – Mary, Queen of Scots – in 1567. She had subsequently fled to England, where she remained the captive of Elizabeth I for some 20 years, until her execution in 1587.
His mother’s violent death seems to have inspired in James a dark fascination with magic. “His Highnesse tolde me her deathe was visible in Scotlande before it did really happen,” related Sir John Harington, years later, “being, as he said, ‘spoken of in secrete by those whose power of sighte presentede to them a bloodie heade dancinge in the aire’.”
As soon as the North Berwick trials ended, James commissioned Newes from Scotland, a pamphlet that relayed the whole saga in scandalised language aimed at intensifying popular fear of witches. But he did not stop there. With all the passion of a religious zealot, he set about convincing his subjects of the evil that stirred in their midst. In 1597 he became the only monarch in history to publish a treatise on witchcraft. Daemonologie (literally, the science of demons) was the result of painstaking and meticulous work on James’s part, and must have taken years to complete.
The purpose of Daemonologie wasn’t only to convince the doubters of the existence of witchcraft – it was also to inspire those who persecuted witches to do so with new vigour and determination. James described witchcraft as “high treason against God”, which meant that all manner of horrors were justified in wringing confessions from the accused. Though lacking in original or profound ideas, the fact that it had been written by a king made it enormously influential. It is no coincidence that cases of witchcraft in his kingdom multiplied at an alarming rate thereafter.
James’s subjects were not unusually credulous, however. In persuading them of the evils of witchcraft he was, to a large extent, pushing on an open door. Such beliefs had been an integral part of society for hundreds, if not thousands, of years. Until the Enlightenment of the 18th century, and even beyond, the Kingdom of Darkness seemed as real as the Kingdom of Heaven, and ordinary people everywhere believed in devils, imps, fairies, goblins and ghosts, as well as other legendary creatures such as vampires, werewolves and unicorns.
Everyone feared evil portents – a hare crossing one’s path, for example, or a picture falling from the wall. A pregnant woman would avoid gazing at the moon for fear that it could render her baby insane. In one of his tracts on witchcraft, Puritan preacher George Gifford described a number of signs that were believed to augur evil – from salt spilt at a banquet to the sudden onset of a nosebleed.
James’s beliefs had a dangerously misogynistic core. He grew up to scorn – even revile – women. Though he was by no means alone in his view of the natural weakness and inferiority of women, his aversion towards them was unusually intense. He took every opportunity to propound the view that they were far more likely than men to succumb to witchcraft. “As that sex is frailer than man is, so is it easier to be entrapped in these gross snares of the Devil,” he argued in Daemonologie, “as was overwell proved to be true by the Serpent’s deceiving of Eve at the beginning which makes him the friendlier with that sex since then.” He would later commission a new version of the Bible in which all references to witches were rewritten in the female gender.
James was soon to have an entirely new outlet for his obsession. Elizabeth I died in 1603 without any direct heirs, so the Scottish king was named her successor, becoming James I of England. James found his new subjects a good deal more ambivalent than their northern neighbours (and, indeed, the rest of Europe) on the subject of witchcraft.
Though there had been periods of intense witch-hunting during Elizabeth’s reign, the laws were less stringent and punishments less severe. In contrast to Scotland, the use of torture was outlawed, and convicted witches were hanged rather than burned. By the end of Elizabeth’s reign, the number of witchcraft trials and executions had declined significantly. There was also a growing scepticism about the existence of witches. James was determined to change all of that.
Barely a year after his accession, the new king ordered that the Elizabethan statute on witchcraft be replaced by a much harsher version. Until that time, those who practised witchcraft were severely punished only if they were found to have committed murder or other injuries through their devilish arts. In short, it was the crimes caused by witchcraft, not the practice of witchcraft itself, that had been the object of concern.
James, though, wanted the practice of any form of magic to be severely punished, regardless of whether it had caused harm to others. His new statute made hanging mandatory for a first offence of witchcraft, even if the accused had not committed murder. And if the accused was found to have the ‘Devil’s mark’ on their body (a mole or teat-like mark believed to have been made when the Devil sucked on a part of the witch’s body to seal their satanic pact), that was enough to condemn them to death.
James’s new act was quick to take effect. A rash of witchcraft cases were brought before the courts in every part of his new kingdom. Among the most notorious was the Pendle witch trial of 1612. The 12 suspects brought before the court of assizes, all from the area around Pendle Hill in Lancashire, were charged with the murders of 10 people by witchcraft. In total, 10 were found guilty and hanged, one was found not guilty and another died in prison. The account of their trial, written by Thomas Potts, was one of the most popular works of the day and helped secure the Pendle witches’ place in history.
Potts’s account was one of many similar pamphlets aimed at stoking the flames of the witch hunts. James’s Daemonologie had been reprinted twice during the year of his accession, and this had prompted a huge resurgence of pamphlets about witchcraft in England. Filled with hell-fire preaching and gruesome, scandalous and lurid details of the cases in question, these small works were devastatingly effective in whipping up popular fear, anger and hatred towards those accused of witchcraft.
As part of a state-controlled printing industry they became among the most valuable means by which the government could manipulate public opinion. Usually written after the accused had been found guilty and executed, they were a way of convincing the wider public that justice had been done. If the actual facts of a case were unsatisfactory, or did not teach a clear enough moral lesson, then they were enhanced, added to or simply changed.
Miscarriages of justice
A case in point was The Wonderful Discoverie of the Witchcrafts of Margaret and Phillip Flower, Daughters of Joan Flower, neere Bever Castle. Written in the shocked and sententious style typical of many demonological works, it told the story of another controversial witchcraft trial – and one in which the king was personally involved.
In 1613, the Earl of Rutland’s two young sons were stricken by a mysterious illness at Belvoir Castle. The elder of the two died shortly afterwards; the other lingered for a further six and a half years before following his brother to the grave. By the time of the younger’s death, three local women, Joan Flower and her daughters Margaret and Philippa, had been convicted of bewitching the boys. Joan had died in custody and her daughters had been found guilty and hanged at Lincoln Castle in 1619.
The king was, naturally, interested in a case involving one of the most prominent members of his court, but there was another connection. His closest favourite – George Villiers, future Duke of Buckingham – had married Rutland’s daughter, Katherine, shortly after her second brother’s death. As the only surviving child, Katherine stood to inherit one of the richest estates in the kingdom. Her new husband therefore had a vested interest in the health of her sickly brother, and there is evidence to suggest that he may have had the boy murdered. He almost certainly commissioned the pamphlet that was published shortly after the Flower sisters’ trial as a means of quelling any doubts as to their guilt. Most witchcraft trials constituted grave miscarriages of justice, but this was one of the most shocking of all.
By the time of the Belvoir witch trial there was growing scepticism about witchcraft, not just in England but throughout Europe. Even James, the great witch-hunter king, was beginning to have doubts. As one historian put it, he was by this time “more passionate about deer-hunting than ever he had been about witch-hunting”.
During the last nine years of his reign just five people were hanged for witchcraft in England. The growing scepticism was reflected by the almost complete absence of any pamphlets on the subject during the 1620s. Publishers were more reticent about propounding beliefs that were increasingly controversial and had lost a great deal of popularity among the educated and ruling elite. The absence of such publications, therefore, both reflected and helped to accelerate the decline of interest in the subject.
By the time of James’s death in 1625, witchcraft looked set to be consigned to the history books. However, it had not yet run its course. As events in the Civil War and later in North America would show, the late king had unleashed a deadly, unstoppable force that would blight society for decades to come.
Tracy Borman is the author of Witches: A Tale of Sorcery, Scandal and Seduction (2013)