It was Queen Elizabeth I (1533-1603) who first highlighted witchcraft as an official crime in 1563, but it was James VI of Scotland, later James I of England (1566-1625), whose hatred of ‘these detestable slaves of the Devil’ soared to such heights that scores of innocent women were put to horrific death during his reign.
The witch-hunt at North Berwick in 1590 is one of the most famous of his culls and gave rise to what must be a candidate for the most outlandish confession of all time.
Accused of being a witch, Agnes Sampson was brought before King James himself for interrogation. He had a particular downer on these ‘instruments of Satan’ at that time because he was convinced that witches were to blame for saddling him with the wedding arrangements from hell.
Twice in November 1589, his bride-to-be, sixteen-year-old Princess Anne of Denmark, had set sail across the North Sea to join him for the nuptials in Scotland, but twice she was forced back by violent storms. Naturally, James, being a red-blooded 23-year-old, became a tad frustrated. It was obviously the work of witches. So James decided to sail for Denmark himself, hand-picking several ladies-in-waiting to present to his bride. One drowned crossing the River Leith. The ‘evil enchanters’ had struck yet again before the wedding party was even under way.
His voyage across the North Sea was a rough one (damn witches!) and when he finally landed at Uppsala and clapped his lustful eyes on the Princess his initial amorous overtures were rejected. No prizes for guessing who was to blame.
Eventually, after ‘a few words privily spoken’, James and Anne hit it off, were married, and settled in Scotland, but only after his ship had almost foundered on the journey home. If there’d been a wedding video it would certainly have turned out blank. Why wouldn’t the old hags leave him be?
By now James had become obsessed with the evil ways of witches, making a deep personal study of the subject and vowing ‘to prove that such diveelish artes have been and still are in existence and to exact the trial and severe punishment they merite’.
Poor Agnes Sampson was one of the first to be rounded up. James was determined she would confess to witchcraft. A rope was twisted around her forehead and progressively tightened as an aide-mémoire.
‘It was me who called the maelstrom to your ship after your marriage,’ she confessed. ‘I cast a cat into the sea with parts of a dead body to raise a storm.’
That was mere junior witchcraft as far as James was concerned. The rope was twisted afresh. Agnes needed inspiration: ‘One All Hallows’ Eve myself and two hundred other witches went to sea.’ Mere standard fodder: ‘We sailed up the Firth from North Berwick to Leith in a magic sieve,’ she added with a gleam in her eye. James seemed to warm to this one but still wanted more: ‘Then we landed back here at North Berwick and danced in this manner.’ (Pause for manic contortions of Club Ibiza variety.)
But the royal torturer remained sceptical. Agnes went for the big one: ‘We went to North Berwick Church and there met the Devil. He made us kiss his buttocks and swear hostility to the King of Scotland and he declared Your Majesty to be the greatest enemy he had in the world.’
It was good. Too good for James. He wasn’t keen on the last bit: ‘You witches are all extreame lyars,’ he is reported to have said according to transcripts from the Newes of Scotland. Another twist of the rope was applied.
Having thus overegged the pudding Agnes, described by a witness as ‘no common or sordid hag, but a grave and douce matron who gave serious and discreet answers’, took a more cerebral approach.
She took the King aside and whispered in his ear what she claimed to be the very words that had privily passed between him and his wife on their wedding night. It must have been an inspired guess, for we are told that at last ‘the King wondered greatly and swore by the living God that he believed all the devils in hell could not have discovered the same, for the words were most true’.
Agnes’s confession had at last passed muster. She had triumphed. As a reward for this the rope around her forehead was blessedly loosened. But, as a reward for now being a proven witch, she was soundly thrashed and burnt at the stake at Haddington in 1591!
Being a suspected witch in the reign of James VI was no joke. He spent much of his time thereafter looking for the signs and wrote a treatise, The Daemonologie, on the subject in 1597. His Witchcraft Act of 1603 was responsible for many more deaths and being a witch remained a capital offence until the Witchcraft Act of 1735. It is no longer possible in law to ‘be a witch’ in the old sense, for that act was repealed in 1961.
But beware all ye who seek to dabble in ‘matters occult’ for it was replaced in that year by the Fraudulent Mediums Act. Even in these enlightened post-James days both ‘susceptibility to’ and ‘suspicion of’ supposedly supernatural powers are alive and well. You have been warned.