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James I and Witchcraft

In Episode 091 of the Renaissance English History Podcast we talk about James I, and his bizarre obsession with witchcraft.

(Remember, if you like this show, there are two main ways you can support it. First (and free!) you can leave a review on iTunes. It really helps new people discover the show. Second, you can support the show financially by becoming a patron on Patreon for as little as $1 episode. Also, you can buy some amazing gifts like Tudor inspired jewelry, Anne Boleyn leggings and bags, and the Tudor Planner at the Englandcast Tudor Shop!)


King James VI of Scotland




Transcript on James I and Witchcraft

(Remember, if you like this show, there are two main ways you can support it. First (and free!) you can leave a review on iTunes. It really helps new people discover the show. Second, you can support the show financially by becoming a patron on Patreon for as little as $1 episode. Also, you can buy some amazing gifts like Tudor inspired jewelry, Anne Boleyn leggings and bags, and the Tudor Planner at the Englandcast Tudor Shop!)

Hello and welcome to the Renaissance English History Podcast, a part of the Agora Podcast Network. I’m your host, Heather Teysko, and I’m a storyteller who makes history accessible because I believe it’s a pathway to understanding who we are, our place in the universe, and being more deeply in touch with our own humanity. This is episode 91 – James I and witchcraft. I wanted to get this done in time for Halloween, but I didn’t, and instead I released a few other Halloween themed episodes I’d done for my podcast network, Agora. Speaking of Agora, how many of you are smart, savvy, and want to reach the thousands of people who download Agora member podcasts every month? If our listeners would fit your ad goals, I’d invite you to check out AgoraPodcastNetwork.com to learn more about advertising with us.

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Many of us are familiar with the idea of witchcraft trials during the 16th and 17th centuries, both in Europe as well as America with the Salem witch trials. Europe was in a full on panic about witchcraft in this period, and no one represents this more than James I, who was obsessed with all things relating to witchcraft, even writing the famous Demonologie – literally the science of Demons – to warn his subjects of the dangers in their midst.

The idea of demons and witchcraft wasn’t new. People had been afraid of evil signs since pre Christian times. This is a period when superstitions became medical treatments, and as I’ve talked about before, scientists like John Dee had a conjuring table. This is a period when monarchs have their own personal astrologers to tell their future, and pregnant women are told not to look at a full moon because it would make their child insane.

During the middle ages most towns had wise healing women; herbalists and midwives who were at risk of being accused of being a witch, especially if they had no family to protect them as they got older. But in general, healing witches were often accepted and left alone.  There was a whole world of magic and supernatural that was simply part of life in this time period. Wise women or men were called Cunning Folk, and you would go to them for healing, or, if you had perhaps been bewitched, to get a counter spell. There were men as well. One cunning man was John Wrightson – Old Wrightson the Wise Man of Stokesley – was an expert in telling whether your horse had been betwitched, and then curing it.

Part of the Protestant Reformation, though, centered on the idea of personal responsibility of a person with their God. The idea of salvation by faith, of a personal relationship with the divine. Well, that could be flipped around to apply to the devil as well – the idea that an individual could make a pact with Satan in order to achieve something here on earth. In a sense, a new shadow theology dealing with the darker side of personal relationships with God sprang up, and most theologians agreed that these dark witches did not act alone. In the past, even if a woman had been accused of being a witch, and had been killed, that would have been it. Witch gone, community happy. Now people demanded more witches. You could never have just one. You needed a coven.

Also, the distinction between healing magic, and darker magic ended, and all suspected witches were punished, even those wise women that younger women in communities had looked up to in the past. Arresting one witch invariably would lead to the arrest of others because suspects were tortured, and encouraged to name their partners. Torture was actively encouraged on women during this period.

This is a period when witchcraft becomes officially illegal. The first witchcraft act in England was passed in 1542, and it defined witchcraft as a felony, a crime punishable by death and the forfeiture of the convicted felon’s goods and chattels. It had been repealed five years later, but then restored under Elizabeth in 1562.

So that brings me to James I. James was just a toddler when his mother, Mary Queen of Scots, abdicated and escaped to England where she was held for nearly 20 years before being killed. Apparently James had a premonition of her execution before it actually happened, seeing her floating head in his dreams. He was a child who was apparently quite fearful of monsters, and things that go bump in the night, which isn’t surprising given what his childhood was like. Scotland at this time was also filled with factions, and was a difficult place to govern.  King James formally assumed power in Scotland in 1583 at the age of seventeen.

The King was the head of the church, which was Protestant, but the religious differences were still strong, stoking the king’s paranoia of the possibility that he could be overthrown. In February 1589 he found out that one of his most influential lords, George Gordon, was part of a Catholic group that secretly promised to provide support to Spain if they chose to invade Scotland. This is an important element in the witchcraft history, as it provided the context of why James was so worried about witches, especially if it involved an element of treason.

James ran full steam ahead on witches in 1590. Prior to this year, witches weren’t really prosecuted that much in Scotland. In fact, in 1583 the General Assembly complained that witchcraft seemed to carry no penalty despite being outlawed in 1563. The Scottish act of 1563 established witchcraft as a crime punishable by death, but it did not give a complete definition for what was considered a crime. Was healing a crime? No one knew for sure. The act condemned witchcraft, sorcery, and necromancy, but what did that really mean?

In 1590 James had an experience that would forever change him, and direct his actions for a good decade.

The marriage between James and Anne of Denmark took place by proxy on August 20, 1589, at Kronborg Castle in Elsinore, Denmark. James was not present, but he was represented by George Keith, the Fifth Earl Marischal. Shortly after the marriage, Anne took ship to Scotland to be with her new husband, but terrible weather and a series of mishaps forced the ship to take shelter in a port on the coast of Norway. The young Queen traveled overland with her retinue to Oslo. When James heard of the great storm that had driven back Anne’s ship, he sailed from Scotland to Norway to rescue his bride personally.

His own crossing back to Scotland was also stormy. Mixed with the trouble Anne had encountered as she tried to reach Scotland, the storm must have seemed very odd to the superstitious James. Yet a third storm struck his ship and almost wrecked the vessel as he was bringing his bride home to Edinburgh in the spring of 1590. It confirmed James in his conviction that the Danish royal family and nobility, which he had met with in Kronborg Castle over the Christmas season, had been correct—witches were working black magic to keep Anne out of Scotland. Denmark had a much greater prevalence of witchcraft than in Scotland during this time. This contributed to the king’s beliefs and ideas on witchcraft. Soon after Danish authorities arrested, tried, and executed of six witches for causing the storm that had stopped Anne from reaching Scotland initially.

Back home in Scotland, a man named David Seton accused his servant, Geillis Duncan, of being a witch because of her history of “miraculously” healing people of ailments. Through the use of torture, Duncan confessed, and gave the names of alleged accomplices. One of the accused witches, Agnes Sampson, then confessed under pressure to conspiring with many other witches, and mentioned raising a storm for the “queen’s coming home.” This caught the king’s attention and further heightened his interest in witchcraft to the point where he became directly involved in the trials, and interrogated suspects himself.

Very soon more than a hundred suspected witches in North Berwick were arrested, and many confessed under torture to having met with the Devil in the church at night, and devoted themselves to doing evil, including poisoning the King and other members of his household, and attempting to sink the King’s ship.  They were also accused of performing perverted rituals in a church in Berwick.

It is possible that James’ fears were solidified in a near death experience in December 1591 when a treasonous group of political dissenters trapped the King in a remote tower, and set fire to his home. A group of people from Edinburgh stopped the rioters, but the king’s was terrified for his safety, and he saw the event as proof that people were trying to hurt him.

The King was involved in the pamphlet that outlined all of these events, which became known as the North Berwick Witch Trials, in a pamphlet News from Scotland. According to a pamphlet, James was initially skeptical of Agnes Sampson’s claims until she repeated the conversation he and Queen Anne exchanged on their wedding night. She would have not had any opportunity to hear that conversation, and it convinced James that she really was a witch.

More than a hundred people were arrested, and many of them subjected to tortures to get confessions to a a range of crimes, including treason. The worst of these tortures was the boot, which involved driving wedges between boards strapped to the legs until the boards crushed the bones in the feet and shins. The trials dragged on for two years. By the time they ended, seventy men and women were convicted of witchcraft and treason. Among the charges was the claim that they had tried to take the life of King James with poison and black magic. It is not known how many were executed, but the form of execution for witches was burning at the stake. Usually the condemned were first strangled to death before being burned—this was considered an act of mercy.

James took so great a role in the interrogations of the accused witches and in their trials that when a Scottish jury acquitted one of the accused, Barbara Napier, due to lack of evidence, James used his power as monarch to void their verdict, and ordered her execution. He even ordered that the jury members themselves be put on trial for acquitting a witch! As it happened, Napier had influential friends. She was able to avoid execution by pretending that she was pregnant, and eventually was released.

The North Berwick Witch Trials greatly influenced Shakespeare as he wrote Macbeth, which contains many references to the trials. This leads me to a question about why anyone would plead guilty to witchcraft and confess, for the fact is, some of these women did actually believe they were witches. It’s likely that when you are oppressed, and not in control of your own destiny, that the idea that you could actually have had a bond with the supernatural – even the evil side – would be appealing. So for some of these women, dabbling in witchcraft was a form of rebellion, and something they took pride in.

The publicity of the North Berwick trials grew belief in and fear of witches in Scotland. Interest in witchcraft spanned all classes during the 1590s. Each group looked for explanatoins for the economic challenges they faced. Between 1594 and 1599, the harvest failures plagued the country and sometimes resulted in mass starvation. This was not directly attributed to the work of witches, but it did contribute to social tensions. Ultimately, the combination of these factors resulted in a massive witch-hunt in 1597. It is important to note that this witch-hunt differed from the North Berwick trials in that it did not begin from one particular trial. Instead, individual trials throughout various localities became “conspiracy” cases, with interrogators pressing for the names of accomplices. However, much like his role in the North Berwick trials, King James became fervently involved after an accused witch confessed to attempting to harm him.

It is unclear when exactly King James began work on his most famous work, the treatise Daemonologie, but he published it in 1597 following that year’s witch-hunt. The book gave insight into the king’s experiences in both the North Berwick trials and the 1597 hunt. In Daemonologie, James explained the crimes of witchcraft and the crime of necromancy, discussing both witches and magicians. He writes a large amount on the relationship between necromancers and witches emphasizing that, despite fundamental differences, both groups of people had strict, sole allegiance to the devil.

He also provided a description of the practices that witches would engage in. He stated again the importance of the devil’s pact writing, “they then beginne to be wearie of the raising of their Maister, by conjuring circkles; being both so difficle and perilous, and so commeth plainelie to a contract with him, wherein is speciallie conteined forms and effects.”

He also explained gatherings of witches as ceremonies of inversion of Protestant rituals where the new witches would renounce their baptism and receive a devil’s mark. These practices became part of the common script in witchcraft confessions throughout the next century.

Not only did King James describe the practices that witches participated in, but he also suggested ways to physically identify guilty witches in Daemonologie. He argued that one of the most important aspects of the inversion process was the denunciation of one’s baptism. The king pressed his belief in the devil’s mark, which would be warranted when a witch denounced its baptism. The Devil’s mark, also known as the Witch’s mark, was thought to be the initiating mark the Devil placed on the body to seal their pledge of obedience to him.

This was a predominant belief during the witch-hunt trials. Usually the mark, blue or red, was believed made by the Devil’s claw raked their flesh, or by an ht iron. At times he left his mark by licking the body. The Devil supposedly branded witches at the end of the initiation rites, never held on nocturnal Sabbats.

The marks were in secret places such as in armpits and body cavities. Such marks were considered proof that the person was a witch–all witches and sorcerers were considered to have at least one. People accused of witchcraft in trials were thoroughly searched for these marks. Scars, birthmarks, natural blemishes, and insensitive patches of skin that failed to bleed qualified as Devil’s marks. Experts firmly held that natural blemishes and marks were clearly distinguishable from Satan’s mark, but this was often not adhered to; victims’ protests that found marks on their bodies were natural were often ignored.

Records show that from torture victims confessed to having Devil’s marks. The women were stripped of their clothes in front of the inquisitors. They were shaven of all body hair so no mark could remain hidden. Pins, in the process of pricking, were driven deeply into scars, calluses, and thicken areas of the skin. Often the pricking was less painful since it was done in front of a jeering crowd. Remember this was commissioned by the Church that upholds modesty. Frequently the Devil’s mark appeared if not at first; pins were driven into the body over and over again until an insensitive area finally was found.

King James argued that the mark was a crucial element for identifying a witch and the process of “pricking” should be widely implemented and highly regarded in the trial process. Although the process of pricking a devil’s mark was used even before the North Berwick trials, his endorsement of the test catalyzed its widespread use in Scotland throughout the next century He also suggested the swimming test as a way to identify a witch. His description of rituals experienced at witch gatherings became part of the script for confessions throughout the next century. Looking for and pricking a devil’s mark became a principal test in the examination process. The king’s position of authority allowed his ideas to be highly regarded and widely accepted. Also, the vagueness of the Scottish act of 1563 made it necessary for someone to step in and outline how to properly deal with witches.

So there we have it. Links for everything including the books I’m using this month are coming at Englandcast.com. Remember to check out TudorPlanner.com to see the gorgeous 2018 Tudor Planner, and consider supporting the show on patreon. And you can get in touch with me through the listener support line at 801 6TEYSKO or through twitter @teysko or facebook.com/englandcast. Thanks so much for listening, and I’ll be back next week to talk about James I and witchcraft in a belated Halloween show.

(Remember, if you like this show, there are two main ways you can support it. First (and free!) you can leave a review on iTunes. It really helps new people discover the show. Second, you can support the show financially by becoming a patron on Patreon for as little as $1 episode. Also, you can buy some amazing gifts like Tudor inspired jewelry, Anne Boleyn leggings and bags, and the Tudor Planner at the Englandcast Tudor Shop!)