James VI & I: Life Story

Chapter 13 : Witchcraft

The difficulties Anne’s fleet had experienced had been attributed to witchcraft, and an unhealthy interest in the topic was now spreading through Europe. During the Middle Ages, whilst the Catholic Church was quite confident in the existence of the devil, the official line was that witchcraft was a nonsensical delusion inculcated by the devil to entrap people into pagan errors. Persecution had been almost non-existent prior to 1400.

In the late 15th century, witchcraft began to be taken far more seriously with the publication of the Malleus Maleficarum, a treatise written by the German Dominican friar, Heinrich Kramer. By the latter half of the 16th century the prevalence of persecution of witches had increased dramatically across Europe. In 1537, Janet, Lady Glamis, had been accused of endeavouring to bring about the death of James V by witchcraft and burnt. James, despite his huge intellect and wide-ranging education, had no doubt in the 1590s of the existence of witches and witchcraft.

Whilst we may take any belief in witchcraft with a healthy dose of scepticism, people believed in it, and some even practised it, in the sense that they would cast spells, however efficacious or not they might have been. Several members of the Scottish nobility were believed to be involved with witchcraft: in particular, Margaret Fleming, who was the grand-daughter of James IV and her great-grandson, Francis, Earl of Bothwell, who was also first cousin to James VI (via an illegitimate son of James V.)

Bothwell was a member of the King’s Privy Council. He had urged on James the necessity for making war on England after the execution of Mary, Queen of Scots, but James had ignored his advice. Bothwell, like most of James’ nobles, had spent a brief time ‘warded’ (effectively under house arrest) in Edinburgh Castle for various misdemeanours, but by mid-1587 was back at court, and appointed Lord High Admiral, with responsibility for protecting Scotland against any encroachment by the Spanish Armada that was anticipated would be sent against England.

In 1590-91 the most notorious witch trial of James’ reign began in North Berwick. During the interrogation and torture of dozens of women and some men, some admitted to sorcery, and Bothwell was named as the leader of the coven. He was arrested in April 1591. Over the following three years, Bothwell was imprisoned, pardoned, ordered into exile, released, broke into James’ bedroom causing the King to fear both assassination and the loss of his soul, attainted and finally exiled in a bewildering confusion of events.

James continued to believe in demonic practices, and in 1597 published his ‘Daemonolgie’, a treatise in which he used Biblical verses extensively to prove the existence of witches. During his reign in England, anti-witchcraft measures were strengthened, and there were dozens of accusations and perhaps some 300 deaths in total between Scotland and England during James’ reign. Two particularly noteworthy incidents being the 1612 Pendle witch trials, and the curious case in 1613 surrounding the Duke of Rutland, described in Dr Tracy Borman’s book, ‘Witches: James I and the English Witch Hunts’. The persecution, although horrible, was not on anything like the scale in continental Europe where tens of thousands died. By the end of his life, James began to doubt, not the wiles of Satan, but rather the methods used to extract confessions, and his enthusiasm for the topic waned.

James VI & I

James VI & I

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