James VI and the North Berwick Witch Trials.


James VI of Scotland and later I of England

The North Berwick witch trials in 1590 involved a number of people from East Lothian, Scotland. They ran for two years, and implicated over seventy people. These included Francis Stewart, 5th Earl of Bothwell. The “witches” were alleged to have held their covens on the Auld Kirk Green, part of the modern-day North Berwick Harbour area. The confessions were extracted by torture in the Old Tolbooth, Edinburgh. One source for this story was published in a 1591 pamphlet ‘Newes from Scotland’ and was subsequently published in King James’s dissertation on contemporary necromancy titled Daemonologie in 1597.

The North Berwick trials were one of the first witchcraft persecutions in Scotland, and began with the sensational case involving the royal houses of Denmark-Norway and Scotland. King James VI had sailed to Norway to meet his bride Anne of Denmark, sister of Christian IV of Denmark. During their return to Scotland they experienced terrible storms and had to shelter in Norway for several weeks before continuing. At this point, the interest in witch trials revived in Denmark because of the huge, ongoing Trier witch trials in Germany, which werewritten about and discussed in Denmark.

In Denmark, the admiral of the Danish fleet, Peder Munk argued with the treasurer Christoffer Valkendorff about the state of the ships of the bridal fleet, and blamed the mishaps on the wife of a high official in Copenhagen whom he had insulted.

 The Copenhagen witch trials were held in Denmark in July 1590. One of the first of the Danish accused was Anna Koldings, who, under duress, divulged the names of five other women; one of whom was Malin, the wife of the burgomaster of Helsingor. They all confessed that they had been guilty of sorcery in raising storms that menaced Queen Anne’s voyage, and that on Halloween night they had sent devils to climb up the keel of her ship. In September, two women were executed at Kronburg in Denmark.

James heard news from Denmark regarding this and decided to set up his own tribunal.

James’s visit to Denmark, a country familiar with witch-hunts, sparked an interest in the study of witchcraft, which he considered a branch of theology. He attended the North Berwick witch trials, the first major persecution of witches in Scotland under the Witchcraft Act 1563. Several people were convicted of using witchcraft to send storms against James’s ship, most notably Agnes Sampson.

James became concerned with the threat posed by witches and wrote Daemonologie in 1597, a tract inspired by his personal involvement that opposed the practice of witchcraft and that provided background material for Shakespeare’s Tragedy of Macbeth. James personally supervised the torture of women accused of being witches.

After 1599, his views became more sceptical..In a later letter written in England to his son Henry, James congratulates the prince on “the discovery of yon little counterfeit wench. I pray God ye may be my heir in such discoveries … most miracles now-a-days prove but illusions, and ye may see by this how wary judges should be in trusting accusations”.


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