Wednesday, 4 September 2013

James VI: The Paranoia of a Prince

Portrait of James VI by John de Critz




James VI of Scotland was an intelligent and politically astute monarch who became king after his mother, Mary Queen of Scots, abdicated when he was just thirteen months old. Some have described him as 'the most effective ruler Scotland ever had' on account of his shrewd management of factions at the Scottish court and his patronage of the arts. But for all his wisdom this ruler was plagued by the same fear of witches that ravaged illiterate peasants, pagans, priests and children across Europe.

In the sixteenth and seventeenth century Europe was experiencing a great rise in witch hunts that flared up in different localities leaving devastation in their wake. Scotland was a country that experienced a particularly volatile spate of witchcraft persecutions so that by the beginning of the eighteenth century some 2000 witch trials had been held. The rise of witch persecutions in Scotland was largely down to James' personal fear of witches. Prior to 1590 witchcraft was not considered to be a 'hot' topic by Scottish theologians and writers and it was only after James' personal experience with witches in 1590 that there was widespread Scottish theological condemnation of witchcraft, and following that a rise in persecutions in Scotland.


Anne of Denmark c. 1605 by John de Critz

The incident that convinced James of the reality of witches occurred after his marriage to Anne of Denmark. The original agreement between the Scottish and Danish rulers stated that Anne would sail to Scotland in order to marry James but severe storms forced her fleet to land on the Norwegian coast. In response to this James embarked on the 'one romantic episode of his life' and set out with his own ships to escort his bride to Scotland. Once they were married they visited the Danish court at Copenhagen and then set out to return to Scotland but their journey was blighted by a thick fog and treacherous storms that threatened to shipwreck them. Shaken by the experience, James was further disturbed when rumours began to spread that the storm had been conjured by witches that were intent on using their diabolical powers to kill him.



Evidence of witchcraft then seemed to emerge from the coastal town of North Berwick when the suspicious behaviour of a local servant girl, Gilly Duncan, led to her being confronted and then tortured by her master. Under torture she confessed to witchcraft and implicated many others, including Agnes Sampson an elderly 'cunning-woman' known locally as the 'Wise Wife of Keith' (Keith being a local district). Agnes was taken to the palace of Holyrood in Edinburgh where she was suspended using ropes and forced to wear a witch's bridle. James' personal interest in this case is clear as he personally interrogated the old woman until she confessed, and her confession shook the him further as she accused the Earl of Bothwell of trying to enchant James with a mystical ointment. Agnes also confessed to meeting with a great number of witches in the North Berwick church where they kissed the Devil's buttocks and conjured a storm to sink the king's ships by throwing a cat into the sea and shouting 'hola'. Agnes, Gilly and many of the other unfortunate people implicated were imprisoned and executed by hanging and burning at the stake, one of the few to escape death was Bothwell who went into exile.

The North Berwick witches being
examined by James VI

A witch's bridle. It was a method of torture
where a heavy metal cage was placed
on the witch's head and a spike was
placed into their mouth 

The Daemonologie

With James' belief in witches strengthened by the North Berwick trials he wrote an influential book in response to witch hunt critics and sceptics such as Reginald Scot. This book was 'The Daemonologie' published in 1597, it helped to introduce continental beliefs about witchcraft to England and it also provided background material for Shakespeare's 'Macbeth'.

Therefore the popular beliefs concerning witches affected people from all backgrounds in the early modern period and in the case of the Scottish witch hunts James VI's strong personal belief in witches was influential in sparking the hunts that occurred in Scotland from the 1590s to the late 1600s.

Further reading: 

  • Witch Hunts in the Western World by Brian A Pavlac 
  • A History of Witchcraft by Jeffrey Russell and Brooks Alexander 
  • The Witch Hunt in Early Modern Europe by Brian Levack 
  • The European Witch Craze of the 16th and 17th Centuries by H R Trevor-Roper


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