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King James VI of Scotland :: History 229: The Age of the Witch Hunts

King James VI of Scotland

King James VIKing James VI of Scotland

Sara Moir

December 12, 2014

Scotland became a hotbed for witch-hunts from the late sixteenth through the seventeenth centuries. The country’s royal leader, King James VI, played a significant role in the development of these witch-hunts. He did not contribute to the origins of witchcraft accusations in Scotland, but his interest and belief in the reality of witches contributed to the politicization and spread of hunts. His involvement with witch trials in the North Berwick region sparked a massive witch-hunt in the area. Perhaps his greatest contributions to the development of trials, though, were writings that explained his legal thoughts on the process for trying witches in Scotland. In 1591, a pamphlet titled Newes from Scotland was published. This document discussed the king’s revelations relating to the legitimacy of witchcraft. He became involved with witch trials once again during another large witch-hunt in 1597, which he followed up with the publication of his witchcraft treatise, Daemonologie. This book provided an outline of the king’s thoughts on witchcraft throughout the 1590’s, which established a framework for what should constitute the crime of witchcraft. He emphasized the importance of the pact with the devil, necromancy, renouncing one’s Baptism, congregating in groups, and receiving the devil’s mark. These all became commonalities in confessions throughout the following century.[i] He also recommended techniques for discovering witches such as searching for the devil’s mark and testing to see if a witch could float.[ii] King James did not create the witch-hunts in Scotland, but his writings profoundly impacted the politicization and legal process of witchcraft trials by outlining what should be considered witchcraft and how to identify and try accused witches.

King James formally assumed power in Scotland in 1583 at the age of seventeen.[iii] He inherited a country struggling to define the proper structure of the Church, which divided members of the nobility.[iv] In 1584, the king’s authority as head of the Church was reaffirmed, which protected his power from falling subject to the Ultra-Protestant leaders.[v] However, the religious differences still remained in the country, perpetuating the king’s fears of the possibility that he could be harmed or overthrown. In February of 1589 he found out that one of his most influential lords, George Gordon, participated in a Catholic group that secretly promised to provide support to Spain if they chose to invade Scotland.[vi] In a letter to Gordon, the king wrote, “As ye have offended two persons in me, a particular friend and a general Christian king, so must ye make amends to both of these.”[vii] This is a minor example of the greater religious and political tension permeating the Scottish authorities leading up to the outbreak of the witch trials. The state of religious and political affairs contributed to the king’s fear that a group would overthrow him. This is important to show possibly explain why in the next decade he became so obsessed with witch trials, particularly when they involved elements of treason.

Witch trials had occurred throughout Scotland prior to James’ direct involvement in the late sixteenth century. The Scottish act of 1563 established witchcraft as a crime punishable by death, but it did not provide an explicit definition for what would be considered a crime.[viii] The act condemned witchcraft, sorcery, and necromancy. Although witchcraft trials occurred, the king did not begin to overtly express interest in the trials until 1589 after he experienced a series of misfortunes.[ix] Many historians point to the violent weather he experienced while traveling at sea to and with his bride, Anne, as a catalyst for his interest in witchcraft. The couple spent time in Denmark following their marriage, which had a much greater prevalence of witchcraft than in Scotland during this time. This contributed to the king’s beliefs and ideas on witchcraft. This was demonstrated when Danish authorities arrested, tried, and executed of six witches for causing the storm that had stopped Anne from reaching Scotland initially.[x] Simultaneously at 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.[xi] Through the use of torture, Seton extracted a confession from Duncan as well as the names of alleged accomplices.[xii] One of the accused witches, Agnes Sampson, confessed halfheartedly to conspiring with many other witches, and mentioned raising a storm for the “queen’s coming home.”[xiii] This caught the king’s attention and further heightened his interest in witchcraft to the point of direct involvement in the trials.

In part of her confession, Agnes Scott also referenced the king directly by saying that the devil told her “ministers would destroy the king and all Scotland.”[xiv] King James became involved with the trial after these confessions as an interrogator.[xv] According to a pamphlet written about the North Berwick witches, Newes from Scotland, he was initially skeptical of Sampson’s claims until she repeated the conversation he and Queen Anne exchanged on their wedding night.[xvi] The author of Newes from Scotland wrote,

“And therupon taking his Maiestie a little aside, she declared vnto him the verye words which passed betweene the Kings Maiestie and his Queene at Vpslo in Norway the first night of their marriage, with their answere eache to other: whereat the Kinges Maiestie wondered greatlye, and swore by the liuing God, that he beleeued that all the Diuels in hell could not haue discouered the same: acknowledging her woords to be most true, and therefore gaue the more credit to the rest which is before declared.”[xvii]

The initial accusations from Duncan and Sampson involved the identification of accomplices. This became an important and distinctive aspect of the North Berwick trials because it suggested that the witches tended to meet and conspire in a large coven.[xviii] For this reason, James began to question whether the entire group was treasonously plotting against him.[xix] Numerous witches began to confess that the devil told them to poison the king and create the storms to harm Anne.[xx] He became obsessed with the witch-hunt, seeking justice for his misfortune. He wanted to eliminate the entire group of witches from the coven because of their alleged plot and attempts to kill him. It is possible that his fears were legitimized in a near death experience that involved a treasonous group. On December 27, 1591 a group of political dissenters trapped the king in a remote tower and set fire to his home in Holyrood and in Maitland.[xxi] A group of people from Edinburgh stopped the rioters, but the king’s terrors for his own safety were reaffirmed.[xxii] He viewed the incident as validation that people were actively trying to harm him.

The 1591 pamphlet titled Newes from Scotland outlined the process of the North Berwick witch trials. Beginning with the initial accusation of Geillis Duncan, the author detailed the process of the trials, from interrogations, to torture, to confessions, convictions and executions.[xxiii] The author explained the role of King James in the trials, conveying his approval of the trials. First, he began by writing that the witches lived in Lowthian, pointing out that the location was “where the Kings maiestie vseth to make his cheefest residence or abode.”[xxiv] He then claimed that their goal in the trials was to “end that their detestable wickedness which they priuilye had pretended against the Kings Maiesti, the Common-weale of that Country, with the Nobilitie and subiects of the same.”[xxv] This is significant because it immediately pointed out the relationship between the convicted witches and the king. At the end of the document, the author concluded that the king was a devout follower of God and was therefore protected from the coven of witches and the devil. He wrote, “There is no doubt that God woulde as well defende him on the land as on the sea, where they pretended their damnable practice.”[xxvi] By drawing a strong connection between the trials and King James, there is a strong sense of justification for the deaths of the executed witches. The king’s role in the trials seems to legitimize their productivity and necessity. Although James most likely did not write the pamphlet, Newes from Scotland had a profound impact on validating the process for trying witches in Scotland because it showed the king’s interest and credence in the reality of witches, as well as his opinion that they needed to be eliminated.

The widespread publicity of the North Berwick trials increased belief in and fear of witches among Scottish people. Interest in witchcraft stretched from the peasantry to the elite class during the 1590s. Each group sought explanations for the economic challenges they faced during the 1590s. Between 1594 and 1599, the harvest failures plagued the country and sometimes resulted in mass starvation.[xxvii] These misfortunes were not directly attributed to the work of witches, but they did seem to contribute to social tensions.[xxviii] Famine increased the amount of peasant beggars, and it also threated the members of the elite class that depended on income from renters.[xxix] The country also continued to experience political and religious turmoil throughout the 1590s. Cooperation between the political and religious leaders deteriorated during this decade as well.[xxx] Ultimately, the combination of these factors resulted in a massive witch-hunt in 1597.[xxxi] 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.[xxxii] 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.[xxxiii] Though, his involvement came late in the trial, thus he did not have the same profound impact that he did in the North Berwick trials.[xxxiv]

It is unclear when exactly King James began work on his treatise, Daemonologie, but he published it in 1597 following that year’s great witch-hunt.[xxxv] The book provided insight into the king’s experiences in both the North Berwick trials and the witch-hunt of 1597. In Daemonologie, James explained the nature of the crime of witchcraft and the crime of necromancy, discussing both witches and magicians.[xxxvi] He wrote 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.[xxxvii] It is likely that the king sought to eliminate commonly assumed differences between these two groups because he thought they had both plotted against him and exerted influential power under the rule of the devil.[xxxviii] He distinguished the two by writing, “Witches ar servants onelie, and slaues to the Devil; but the Necromanciers and his maisters and commanders.”[xxxix] However, he intertwined the two by saying that Magicians and witches, “They serue both one Master, althought in diuerse fashions.”[xl] This shows how King James denounced both practices by relating the two under the authority of the devil. This played an important role in the development of the legal process because he was able to effectively show his belief in the legitimacy and dangers of both necromancy and witchcraft and condemn both forms of practice. He also provided a description of the practices that witches would engage in. He reiterated the importance of the devil’s pact by 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.”[xli] 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.[xlii] These practices became part of the common script in witchcraft confessions throughout the next century.[xliii]

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.[xliv] The king pressed his belief in the devil’s mark, which would be warranted when a witch denounced its baptism. 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.[xlv] 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.[xlvi] He also suggested the swimming test as a way to identify a witch, which likely reflected his knowledge of the only known use of this process in a 1597 trial.[xlvii] This practice did not become a common aspect of trials due to skepticism among many Scottish demonologists during this era.[xlviii] However, even though this particular aspect of the treatise did not popularize, his work in Daemonologie still played a large role in the development of witchcraft trials in Scotland. 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.

In 1601, King James became King of England, thus moving out of Scotland and losing interest in the witchcraft trials.[xlix] However, his departure and decline in witchcraft interest had little impact on Scotland.[l] Throughout the next seventy years, there were three more periods of high frequency of accusations and executions of witches. The Scottish act of 1563 was officially repealed in 1736.[li] By the end of Scottish witch trials, as many as 3,000 people had been accused of witchcraft. Although King James did not play a major role in Scottish witch-hunts after the 1590s, his involvement during that decade left a lasting impression on the process for trying witches in Scotland. He became heavily involved with the trials and published a treatise the reflected his thoughts and experiences with the trials. The king played a crucial role in the development of the legal process for witch trials. His acceptance of the witch-hunts in Scotland justified the accusations of witches and the trials. His writings offered suggestions for how to find, try, and execute witches. His ideas became an important basis for the legal process for witchcraft. Although the Scottish Witchcraft Act of 1563 defined witchcraft, sorcery, and necromancy as crimes punishable by death, the king’s suggestions further developed the processes for dealing with witchcraft trials. His outline defined what a witch went through with the devil became a commonplace for the script of confessions by accused witches. Although the king became disinterested when he became duel King of England, his work and influence in the 1590s left a lasting impact on the legal processes of witchcraft in Scotland.


[i] Brian P. Levack, Witch-Hunting in Scotland: Law, Politics, and Religion (New York: Routledge, 2008), 44.

[ii] Levack, Witch-Hunting in Scotland, 45.

[iii] Antonia Fraser, King James (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., 1975), 39.

[iv] Fraser, King James, 44-45.

[v] Fraser, King James, 46.

[vi] King James to George Gordon, February, 1589, in Letters of King James VI & I, ed. G.P.V. Akrigg (Berkeley & Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1984), 89.

[vii] Letters, 91.

[viii] Julian Goodare, “The Scottish Witchcraft Panic of 1597,” in The Scottish Witch-Hunt in Context, ed. By Julian Goodare (New York: Manchester University Press, 2002), 39.

[ix] Levack, Witch-Hunting in Scotland, 35.

[x] Levack, Witch-Hunting in Scotland, 35-36.

[xi] Levack, Witch-Hunting in Scotland, 35.

[xii] Levack, Witch-Hunting in Scotland, 35.

[xiii] Levack, Witch-Hunting, 36.

[xiv] Levack, Witch-Hunting, 36.

[xv] Levack, Witch-Hunting, 35.

[xvi] Levack, Witch-Hunting, 37.

[xvii] Newes from Scotland: Declaring the Damnable Life of Doctor Dian, a Notable Sorcerer, Who was Burned at Edenbrough in Ianuary Last, 1591 (New York: Shakespeare Press, 1816), Google Books edition, 16.

[xviii] Levack, Witch-Hunting, 37.

[xix] Levack, Witch-Hunting, 38.

[xx] Levack, Witch-Hunting, 38.

[xxi]  Fraser, King James, 58.

[xxii]  Fraser, King James, 58.

[xxiii] Newes from Scotland, 2.

[xxiv] Newes from Scotland, 2.

[xxv] Newes from Scotland 10.

[xxvi] Newes from Scotland 10.

[xxvii] Goodare, Panic of 1597, 53.

[xxviii] Goodare, Panic of 1597, 53.

[xxix] Goodare, Panic of 1597, 53.

[xxx] Goodare, Panic of 1597, 53.

[xxxi] Goodare, Panic of 1597, 54.

[xxxii] Goodare, Panic of 1597, 54.

[xxxiii] Levack, Witch-Hunting in Scotland, 42.

[xxxiv] Levack, Witch-Hunting in Scotland, 42.

[xxxv] Levack, Witch-Hunting in Scotland, 42.

[xxxvi] Levack, Witch-Hunting in Scotland, 43.

[xxxvii] Levack, Witch-Hunting in Scotland, 43.

[xxxviii] Levack, Witch-Hunting in Scotland, 42.

[xxxix] James R., Daemonologie (Scotland: Robert Walde-graue, 1597), 10.

[xl] James, Daemonologie, 26.

[xli] James, Daemonologie, 15.

[xlii] Levack, Witch-Hunting in Scotland, 44.

[xliii] Levack, Witch-Hunting in Scotland, 44.

[xliv] Levack, Witch-Hunting in Scotland, 45.

[xlv] Levack, Witch-Hunting in Scotland, 44.

[xlvi] Levack, Witch-Hunting in Scotland, 45.

[xlvii] Levack, Witch-Hunting in Scotland, 45.

[xlviii] Levack, Witch-Hunting in Scotland, 45.

[xlix] Levack, Witch-Hunting in Scotland, 53.

[l] Levack, Witch-Hunting in Scotland, 53.

[li] Levack, Witch-Hunting in Scotland, 160.

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