An ode to A2 History: witchcraft

Dabbling in the history of witchcraft, albeit limited to early modern Europe and North America, has been a refreshing breath of air in comparison to the bog standard mainstream taught history. Yet, no matter how fascinating it was, I couldn’t help but notice core human conditions that tied all the cases of witchcraft together – gossip, greed, and a sprinkle of misogyny. The continuous prevalence of such intrinsic elements in our world today highlights to me that ultimately, we cannot runaway from our human nature. Safe to say, this unit has taught me a lot about what we are capable of.

My essay focuses on the events of North Berwick in the years 1590 to 1597. What is of significance in this case, was the importance of King James VI of Scotland (yes, even the King was thoroughly involved… and wrote a book dedicated to magic and witchcraft!) in the persecutions of witches.


In the years of 1590-97, the interest taken by James VI contributed significantly to the extent of witchcraft persecutions in Scotland. Particularly in the North Berwick witch-hunt of 1590-91, James’ role, as well as his impact later in the decade, was key; as arguably the most significant figure in Scotland, James was fundamental in influencing the political, judicial and social atmosphere. His voyage to Denmark, the publication of Daemonologie in 1597, his approval in the torture of suspects, and his involvement in the witch-hunt of 1597 confirms his accountability for the extent of witchcraft persecutions. With accountability comes responsibility, and – arguably – the interest taken by James takes a part in the other factors of the extent of witchcraft persecutions, such as the lack of central control, the weaknesses in the judicial system, social and natural factors, and the role of individuals like Agnes Sampson.

Firstly, James was key in realising the extent of the witch-hunt: if a less superstitious monarch held the throne, local officials may not have been given such a free hand to carry out torture, trials and executions, linking to the lack of central control the government had over the country. His voyage to Denmark confirmed his growing belief in witchcraft, which he brought back to Scotland that later influenced and explained his avid participation in the North Berwick witch-hunts. James was elemental in approving the torture of suspects, many of which he interviewed himself, and advised the legal authorities on methods of interrogation. The array of torture techniques carried out by David Seaton on Gilly Duncan, and the use of the witch’s bridles, thumbscrews, and ‘boots’ on Agnes Sampson (two key individuals in the North Berwick witch-hunt of 1590-91) could usually only be done if officially sanctioned by the Privy Council, but James’ personal involvement ensured that it was used widely. Additionally, his involvement in the witch-hunt of 1597 allowed the craze to spread beyond Aberdeenshire as far as Fife, Perthshire and Stirlingshire, leading to around 400 accusations by Margaret Aitken. There can also be no doubt that his publication of Daemonologie in 1597 would have slowly been read amongst the Scottish people – one written by the King himself would have been widely regarded and arguably believed in the country. It is clear that without his immediate involvement into the hunts, as well as the great influence he carried that implicitly allowed people to carry out witchcraft persecutions in the government, they would not have been so extensive.

Furthermore, factors like the lack of central control and the weaknesses in the judicial system directly advanced the extent of the witchcraft persecutions as it allowed the authorities in particular local officials and judges to carry forth their own agenda without massive government restrictions. As there were fewer royal agents at the monarch’s disposal, local officials were usually allowed to pursue witch-hunts without interference, and so trials were dominated and directed by paranoid neighbours of suspected witches. As well as this, the geography of Scotland meant that it was difficult for the government to maintain control over judicial proceedings far from Edinburgh, the Highlands and Islands. This suggests that due to the isolation of the many parts of Scotland, the capital was not able to extend their full jurisdiction and hence locals pursued their own witch-hunts. As well as this, according to the law torture could only be used with the consent of the Privy Council or the parliament of Scotland however local judges often allowed torture without suffering repercussions. As for the judicial system, a majority in jury trials was enough for a suspect to be persecuted. The commissions approved between 1591-97 further thwarted the system, for example, in 1596, all requests for commissions were submitted to the Privy Council in place of the King. They then gave commission to Sir William Steward to investigate witchcraft in the Highlands and Islands region, spreading the extent of the persecutions. The weaknesses of the Scottish monarchy and the judicial system essentially links back to James’ interest in the witch craze due to his allowed persistence of all the individual hunts. Without a strong figure of authority like the government and the judiciary, it is clear that the persecutions increased paramountly.

Moreover, it is interesting to note the surprising significance of the social and natural factors surrounding the nation at the time. Patriarchal attitudes were stronger in Scotland as opposed to England, and thus men were quicker to accuse women of witchcraft than their English counterparts that explains the uniqueness of the accusation of John Fian and the Earl of Bothwell, and the greater number of women accused. Parallel to this was the relative poverty of Scottish society. So, the appeal of the notion that the Devil was able to offer people eternal riches and a fruitful life while they were on Earth can be understood. This contrasts the Scientific Revolution that was growing in England’s capital – London. By the 1590s, The Discoverie of Witchcraft by Reginald Scot had already been published. In Scotland, the well-entrenched belief in folk magic, fairies and witches ran alongside the geographical factors of the isolation of the many regions in Scotland. Natural factors such as poor harvest and widespread plague and disease further exacerbated the likelihood of accusations and persecutions as people grew hostile and protective, willing to blame others for their misfortunes. The storms during James and Anne’s voyage from Denmark arguably marked the beginning of the series of North Berwick witch-hunts in 1590-91, linking back to James’ initial interest into witch-hunts. This shows that such social and natural factors played fundamental roles in the extent of witchcraft persecutions.

Lastly, the role of the individual such as Gilly Duncan, the Earl of Bothwell and Agnes Sampson were all intertwined with James. Their actions and influence all resulted in the increased interest of James in witch-hunts. Gilly Duncan catalysed the series of accusations of witchcraft in the 1590-91 North Berwick witch trials, by naming other witches like Agnes Sampson after being subject to torture. Agnes Sampson was a primary individual in the witch-hunt as she brought accusations from the limited region around North Berwick towards the capital of Edinburgh, and drew James’ attention to this trial when she confessed to the involvement in harming both James and Anne on the voyage to and from Denmark, thus increasing the extent of witchcraft persecutions. The Earl of Bothwell was a third principle individual in the persecutions; mixing within the highest circles of Scottish society, even he himself was trialled in 1593 for conspiracies of killing the King. The lack of central control could also explain James’ brutality with Bothwell as he was an imminent threat to the throne as long as James remained without an heir. Agnes Sampson even confessed that she had constructed a wax image of James at the behest of Bothwell. This clearly explains why the extent of witch-hunts were so pertinent under James. However, these individuals would not have had such an influence on the extent of the persecutions if the King did not take such a great interest in the witch craze. His deep belief in witchcraft allowed him to take the accusations and confessions of these individuals seriously, therefore increasing the persecutions under his command.

In balance, it is clear that several factors contributed to the extent of witchcraft persecutions in Scotland in the years 1590-97, but it is fundamentally James’ interest that accounts for the real momentum. Factors such as the lack of central control, the weaknesses of the judicial system, social and natural factors, and the role of the individuals lay the foundations of the witchcraft persecutions. The interest taken by James exacerbated the persecutions by extensions to other regions in Scotland through, for example, Margaret Aitken accompanied by royal agents, the allowance of local judges and officials to take persecutions into their own hands, and the toleration of torture and executions.


Read more about the North Berwick Trials

(I know what you’re thinking: Wikipedia? Really? Don’t worry, I’ve read this and it is accurate!)


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