James I and Witchcraft

by Tracy Borman

Chapter 1: Whipping up a Storm

In September 1589, James VI of Scotland waited anxiously for news of his betrothed, Anne of Denmark, who had set sail across the North Sea several weeks before. Eventually, word reached him that a terrible storm had battered Anne's fleet and many lives had been lost. In an uncharacteristic show of bravery, James resolved to sail across the treacherous seas and collect his new bride in person. But another tempest whipped up out of nowhere, and he was forced to retreat to Scottish shores. He eventually made it to Oslo in November and the pair were formally wed.

James VI of Scotland and I of England - obsessed with witches

The episode would have a profound effect upon the King of Scots. Denmark was one of the most vicious witch hunting countries in Europe, and during his stay he heard whispers that neither storm had been an accident: they were the result of a witchcraft conspiracy that had aimed at nothing less than the murder of the king and his bride. From that moment, James was inspired with a witch hunting fervour so extreme – and so dangerous – that it would wreak terror across his kingdom.

Upon returning to Scotland, James had no fewer than seventy of his subjects rounded up on suspicion of bewitching his fleet and that of his new wife. He personally superintended the interrogation of many of the suspects, including the ringleader – a 'wise woman' named Agnes Sampson. Taking 'great delight' in her torture, he was dismayed when she suddenly called a halt to the proceedings and beckoned the king to her. She then whispered something in his ear that made him go as white as a sheet. It transpired that she had repeated the very words that had passed between James and Anne on their wedding night – words that no other mortal soul could possibly have known. If James needed any further proof that witches existed, this was it. He sent Agnes straight to the flames. Thousands more of his subjects – both in Scotland and (after 1603) in England would perish for the same crime.