“King James and the Era of the Witch Trials”
By Stephanie Winscher
“The fearful abounding at this time in this country, of these detestable slaves
Of the Devil, the witches and enchanters, hath moved me (beloved reader)
To dispatch in post, this following treatise of mine.” – King James,
Daemonologie (Gutenberg 1).
King James Stuart VI, king of Scotland in 1567, and also known as King James I of England and Ireland from 1603-1625, carried an exceptionally paranoid view of witches and witchcraft which affected his kingship and led to a massive execution crusade on persons accused of witchcraft. With this in mind, the following essay will discuss sixteenth and seventeenth-century witchcraft, some famous trials of those suspected or convicted of witchcraft, the controversies surrounding witchcraft, and the effect witchcraft had, not only on two centuries, but on the world. Arguably, witchcraft and the persecution of witches in this era seemed to be a conduit by which James projected not only his extravagant fear of his own demise, but his political failures as well.
The wholesale persecution of witches started in Scotland in 1590, when James VI was king and soon to be the future James I, king of England. The year saw the start of a series of trials for treason. Three hundred witches were accused of gathering to plot the murder of James, making these trials personal for him, and he suddenly developed a very keen interest in witchcraft. However, evidence for these alleged “crimes” remains imprecise at best. It is known, however, that James had a morbid fear of death as is evident in his book Daemonologie, and one can argue that this fear is the real reason behind the death of hundreds of possible innocents in this so-called “Era of the Witches” (Porterfield).
By the end of the 16th century, magic had taken several shades. There was “white” magic, which was considered pure of heart. One might compare white magic to the power of love while “Black” magic however, was seen as evil and magic conjured by the devil. It’s no surprise, then, that dark magic was considered a form of magic where the host or “witch” essentially made a pact with the devil in order to possess it. One cannot blame James for adopting the theory of good and bad, or “black” and “white” witches. It is a notion that existed long before James came to the throne. One can, however, argue that James’ position on the throne accelerated the movement of witchcraft persecutions and antagonized crowd hysterics. Ultimately, James’ paranoia and fanatical antics turned sixteenth-century Scotland into the site of a ravenous lynch mob out for blood (Anderson and Gordon).
It was only after crowning James king of both England and Scotland that the number of accused witches rose significantly in England. To the credit of the King, many suspected witches were given a trial, such as the very public Lancashire trials in 1612. However, the trials were covered in such detail by the press, that the records give the impression that such events were common when they were in fact not. What is most interesting in all of this is how James never involved himself in any of these stories. He claimed to have no interest in witchcraft. This claim, of course, can be challenged by his own hand in the rantings of his famous Daemonologie, published in two parts in 1591 and 1597. This book is a collection of King James’ letters, which offer diverse focus and styles. The book presents writings on witchcraft, trials, demons, fairies, possessions, were-wolves, and ghosts in Socratic dialogue in order to confuse, educate, or scare the wits out of a person. The book also expresses the first-hand accounts of witch trials and accusations that took place in Scotland, as well as some mention of the Mary Napier controversy as discussed in further detail below. Ultimately, this era of witches and witch-hunting left an irremovable mark on how witches were viewed and how we view suspected witches even to this day (Porterfield 26).
James had a justified fear of death, as he had countless enemies he had created not only in Scotland during his rule there, but in England and beyond. His religious policy consisted of asserting the supreme authority and divine right of the crown, and suppressing both Puritans and Catholics who objected. His accession was, however, not welcomed by a group of Catholics as he was a Protestant, and they were incensed when he passed a law demanding that people who did not attend the Protestant church pay substantial fines. In addition, the king saw little economic growth during his reign, poor political power outside of his own dictatorship, and caused a great deal of concern for his English subjects who rejected his relationship with France, their primal enemy. It was no surprise to James that he harbored such enemies in both Scotland and England, which is what fueled his paranoia of murder conspirators and led to many of the hate-filled accusations of witchcraft (Wormald).
The Witchcraft Act of 1563 was implemented by James, which made practicing witchcraft and consulting with witches illegal and punishable by death. Fast forwarding to 1590, and the last thirteen years of the reign of James, Scotland fully superseded the Act by instead accepting the “Christian Witch Theory” which made it considerably easier to hunt down witches as opposed to simply threatening to do so. This theory, also created by James, implemented a nation-wide hunt for witches by accusing those around suspected witches of being conspirators. As such, these conspirators were hunted down, just as the suspected witches were, and faced the same cruel punishments for their alleged crimes.
Witchcraft had been a criminal offense in Scotland prior to 1590, but action against suspected witches was limited, and it seems that witchcraft was seen as a minor issue by those in power. In 1583, for example, the General Assembly complained that witchcraft carried no punishment despite being outlawed in 1563. Why did this change in 1590? I believe the new perception of witchcraft, and everything it stood for, literally scared people into slaughtering many innocents for unproven crimes or conspiracy. Or perhaps people needed a way to show off their devotion to religious beliefs by fabricating unnecessary evil where it simply did not exist. What is so controversial here is not so much the convictions and executions of so many people for suspected witchcraft, but that James denied being responsible for pushing ahead with the persecutions of these many potentially innocent “witches.” The evidence is stacked against James’ involvement, however, suggesting he was not only involved, but was in many ways, a great facilitator and mastermind behind the carnage. Regardless, there can be no denying that his deep involvement and radical pursuit of known conspirators of witchcraft led to a great hatred toward the king (Hare).
Additionally, records reveal that in 1591, he showed a particular interest in the trial of Mary Napier, who was arrested for consulting a witch and thusly linked to treasonable and punishable activity according to the law. Mary claimed to be pregnant at the time of her arrest, in hopes that her life might be spared. Despite the 1563 law outlawing witchcraft, no one had ever been arrested in Scotland for consulting a witch. Yet James wrote to the court, ordering them to find out if she was pregnant or not. If she was not, she should be burned. The court acquitted Napier, much to the anger of James. However, from that point on, whether a woman was with child or not, if she was suspected of witchcraft or conspiring with a witch, she was still hung from the same noose or burned at the same stake as anybody else. In fact, rumors were spread that pregnant women suspected of witchcraft might hold the seed of the devil inside them, and this almost certainly did not help many pregnant women of this time. One might even go as far as suggesting that some of the modern-day controversies over abortion and the constitutional morality of abortion had their origins in the Napier trial. The trial of Mary was not that different from many of the issues we see today. Here we see a woman playing on her advantage of being with child to save her own skin. In time, people developed an unfaltering hatred for the king, as many grew tired of his tyranny and saw many of their townsfolk meet a tragic and unjust fate at the hands of the king (Hare; Anderson 171, 182).
Witchcraft, as well as this deep-rooted hatred for the king, grabbed the attention of the sixteenth century media, which included reading materials, plays, and, of course, gossip. Through these outlets, witches were exaggerated and horrible stories were told about them, which had a profound effect on the views of witches among the people. Take Macbeth, Act 2, for instance. A Shakespearian classic, yes, but the play also asserts the image of the witch as distinctly feminine, who is there to conversely wreak havoc on the natural social order, and as such, is an “element of the supernatural capable of tapping into Satanic powers” (Porterfield 8). As such, Shakespeare’s play Macbeth was directly influenced by James famous writings of the witch as depicted in his Daemonologie. The clearest correlation between Daemonologie and Macbeth can be seen in the tale of “three witches” described in Macbeth. James’ Daemonologie states: “rayse stromes and tempestes in the aire, either upon land or sea, though not universally; but in such a particular place and prescribed bunds as God will permitte them so to trouble[sic],” which can be seen directly in Macbeth when the witches summon winds and storms. It doesn’t take a great deal of imagination to see the similarities between the Macbeth scenes and those of Daemonologie and know it is more than mere coincidence that they are so similar. In fact, according to Amanda Mabillard, Shakespeare and James shared a unique friendship and admiration for each other’s written works. It is even said that Shakespeare sent his rough draft of Macbeth to James to have him add his revisions and unique tastes to the piece before it was finalized.
Essentially myths created the image of the witch, as well as labeling each suspected witch as having powers given to her by the devil himself, which could not be tolerated in the heart of a profoundly religious generation. According to Melissa Rynn Porterfield, theatre in the Early Modern Period profoundly affected the views of witches specifically for the English. Porterfield writes, “As English colonization began in earnest, the threats inherent in controlling the unknown and uncontrollable forces of nature became all too real and loomed menacingly on the outskirts of the English cultural mindset” (81). The sixteenth-century media’s focus, in fact, was not so dissimilar than the focus of today’s media on public trials. Take the OJ Simpson trial for instance. Would this trial have gained half the popularity and interest it did, had it not been so heavily gossiped about and displayed for the public? Unlikely.
It has been advocated that witches, who were predominantly women, never worked alone. Subsequently, the Christian Witch Theory was believed to give rise to the pursuit of people suspected of witchcraft based on gender and physical stereotyping. Thus, once a woman was suspected to be a witch, a hunt for more in the same town or village would immediately commence. Usually, the pursuit would not stop until several other witches had been found. Through the exploitation of the sixteenth-century witch hunts, women developed quite a reputation as accused witches. Men were accused of witchcraft but not as commonly as women. According to “Witchcraft and the Status of Women–The Case of England,” an article by Alan Anderson and Gordon Raymond from the British Journal of Sociology, in “the period of 1300-1500, about two-thirds of all accused [witches] were women” (172). The article goes on to say that it is reasonable to assume that women took the face of the ‘witch’ because women were seen as inferior to men, and in many ways, even persecuted by their own churches simply for their female gender. As such, suggesting that society was comprised of predominately “female” witches implied that women were inheritably impure and easily swayed by the devil. One can assume this is mostly related to the fact that folklore designated the devil as a man, and women of this period were not regarded very highly, especially when it came to temptation and trustworthiness in the presence of a man. This reasoning, of course, brought no objections from the king and his fanatical propaganda. He affirmed in his famous Daemonologie that “there are twentie women giuen to that craft, where there is one man[sic]” (Porterfield 174). It is sufficed to say that the Christian Witch Theory sparked an episodic preservation attempt for 16 and 17th century women and Christendom.
According to Hartmut Lehmann’s article, “The Persecution of Witches as Restoration of Order: The Case of Germany, 1590s-1650s,” witchcraft was just as popular throughout the world during this time as it was in England, however, no other land saw as much carnage as England or Europe. In Europe, for instance, those accused of witchcraft were at least tortured until they confessed, so at least they had a fighting chance at saving their own skin. However, torture was not used in England. In England, witches were hung, not burned. In the rest of Europe, witches were usually burned, but normally they were strangled first. One cannot help but put substantial, if not full blame for these turn of events, in the hands of James (Porterfield).
In America, there were several famous periods of time when witchcraft was high, and several famous trials, including the Salem witch trials of 1692, where an estimated 20-35 people died by hanging or imprisonment. Some people confessed without torture, but that still does not mean they were guilty. Despite these shocking hangings in the Americas, there can be no denying the Christian Witch Theory under the direction of James created more havoc. Why did James become so interested in the Christian Witch Theory? Was it that he put so much faith in the scripts of his Daemonologie that he actually began to believe his own lunatic ravings about witches’ conspiracies? It almost certainly seemed that way in 1589, when he visited Denmark to meet his future wife. The king’s journey back to Scotland proved to be a very rough and stormy one, and one ship was lost. Many suspected witches, this time in both Scotland and Denmark, were accused of attempting to drown James by calling up a storm while he was at sea with his new wife.While the witches were accused of classic witchcraft, the main issue as far as James was concerned was the plan to murder him, which was the highest form of treason known at the time (Bentley 635; Wormald 27).
Finally, the sixteenth and seventeenth century “era of witches” was a time the world will never forget, and perhaps not for the reasons one might assume. Perhaps when readers think of witches on Halloween this year, they will really think of where the idea of the witch came from and how many innocents had to suffer fighting against the persecution it brought. While many will never understand the morality of the issue at hand, it nevertheless should be given the respect and attention it warrants. One might argue that the modern era brought about more than the hunting and slaughtering of suspected witches; it also brought about the public disgrace of unfair trials, cruelty cases, human rights violations, the discussion of women’s rights, and perhaps even acknowledgment of the shortcomings of a king. Whatever purpose the season of the witches brought, it certainly has changed the mythology many of us take for granted and dismiss as mere folklore, and it should be discussed with the seriousness it deserves.
Stephanie Winscher is in her fourth year at Ashford University working on multiple degrees in both History and Education. Stephanie is an accomplished writer and is part of the Golden Key International Honour Society & Alpha Signa Lambda. In addition to her writing, Stephanie has a great passion for history and animals. Lastly, she is dedicated military veteran and prides herself in her ability to make the Dean’s list and maintain a 4.0 GPA