The North Berwick Witch Trials
In September 1589, a 14-year-old princess, Anne of Denmark, was eagerly preparing to travel from the Danish coast to Scotland. She had just been married, by proxy, to her long-term suitor, the 23-year-old King James VI of Scotland, and was reported by English spies to be delighted with the match. However, ferocious storms at sea saw her vessel, the Gideon, so badly damaged that it had to anchor in Oslo for repairs. When her sailors refused to make the crossing until Spring, her anxious new husband had to make the crossing himself, marrying her in the city on 23rd November.
Some would put the delay to their formal marriage as bad luck, but James blamed the storms on witchcraft, and so began the most notorious witch hunt in Scottish history. The first to be arrested was Geillis Duncan, who was known to practice healing, who under torture implicated three others in the plot to raise storms to kill the new queen through sorcery. In all, more than 100 witches from across Scotland were accused and tortured, some confessing more readily than others. James personally interrogated a stubborn old woman, Agnes Sampson, who refused to confess, and oversaw her horrific torture.
Sampson was completely shaved, stripped naked, and tied to her cell wall with a scold’s bridle (an iron muzzle enclosing the head). She was prevented from sleeping for days, and unsurprisingly then confessed to the 53 charges against her. Another who refused to confess was Dr. John Fian, who had his fingernails removed with pliers and iron pins pushed into his fingertips, his thumbs crushed in thumbscrews, and his legs broken in the boot. Fian also confessed to being a witch. Both had been implicated by Geillis Duncan, and were burned at the stake for their crimes with unnumbered others.
In 1597 James VI wrote a pamphlet on witchcraft called Daemonologie, making him the only king in history to be a published demonologist. In this work, James describes the nature of witchcraft, and how to discover witches, extract confessions, and the best way to execute those convicted. ‘The fearefull aboundinge at this time in this countrie, of these detestable slaues of the Deuill, the Witches or enchaunters, hath moved me (beloued reader) to dispatch in post, this following treatise of mine’, he explains in the Preface. Included in the first edition was a pamphlet detailing the North Berwick Witch Trials.
Daemonologie was an important treatise, second in importance only to the Malleus Maleficarum to witch finders. James later became King of England, and Shakespeare wrote Macbeth to win royal favour, basing the Weird Sisters on descriptions from Daemonologie. There were many other witch trials in Scotland besides the North Berwick Witch Trials, and it has been estimated that between 3 and 4, 000 people were executed between 1560 and 1707. All were tortured (or at least threatened with it) to extract their confession to ludicrous Satanic crimes, as instructed by James and the Malleus, before being executed, mostly by burning.