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The Witch Mania of King James I

This article was written by Donald Tyson
posted under Pagan

King James the Sixth of Scotland (1566 – 1625), who later became James the First of England, was always fearful of the unknown. As a boy in sickly health, he cowered at shadows and tended to flinch away from loud noises. The infant disease of rickets left him almost unable to walk without support, and made it impossible for him to fully enjoy outdoor sports such as hunting and horseback riding, despite his efforts to overcome his disability. Once, when he had himself strapped to a horse so that he could ride, the horse fell into a stream and young James very nearly drowned before he could be pulled from the water. This sickliness of body caused him to devote his energies to books and scholarly studies. King Henry IV of France, a contemporary of James, remarked that James was "the wisest fool in Christendom."

He came to the throne at the young age of thirteen months, when his mother, the Catholic Mary Queen of Scots, was put under house arrest after being forced to abdicate her throne by Protestant Scottish nobles. The nobles resented her marriage to James Hepburn, Fourth Earl of Bothwell, so soon after Bothwell had ordered James’s father, Henry Stewart, Lord Darnley, strangled to death and then blown up by a powerful gunpowder bomb that destroyed his house at Kirk o’ Field in Edinburgh. Darnley’s corpse was thrown clear of the house by the blast, but miraculously escaped damage, which allowed those who examined it to determine that he had been murdered by strangulation.

James was placed under the care of unforgiving guardians in Sterling Castle, and brought up as a strict Protestant. By all accounts, he was not a likeable boy. He was slovenly about his cleanliness and seldom washed himself. He was vain about his studies and liked to lecture others. The conviction grew in his own mind that he could out-argue any scholar on any academic subject. His tongue was abnormally large, which caused him to sound as though he had a mouth filled with food when he talked, and when he drank water or wine, it tended to dribble out at the corners of his lips.

At the age of fifteen he developed a homosexual infatuation for a Frenchman, Esmé Stewart, Sieur d’ Aubigny. To break off this relationship, Protestant nobles imprisoned the young king in Ruthven Castle and drove Esmé Stewart out of Scotland. When captured, the teenage king began to weep in terror, certain he was about to be murdered. He was old enough that his beard had started to grow. This led one of the gruff lords holding him prisoner, Sir Thomas Lyon, to remark that it were better "bairns [children] should greet [cry] than bearded men." The powerful and war-like nobles of Scotland had complete contempt for James with his bookish ways and womanish fears. Even so, he was their king and they were forced to make the best of a poor bargain.

His interest in witchcraft was not particularly keen until his marriage to the fourteen-year old Anne of Denmark (1574 – 1619). Although at this time witchcraft was not a hot topic of discussion in Scotland or England, it was a matter of intense interest in Denmark and adjacent countries, which were suffering the throes of an outbreak of witch mania. Witches were being outed by accusers in every village and hamlet, and the people were terrified of the Devil’s agents, as witches were understood to be. They had a very different concept of witchcraft than what we have today. Witches were looked upon as slaves of Satan, compelled to do his bidding.

The marriage between James and Anne took place by proxy on August 20, 1589, at Kronborg Castle in Elsinore, Denmark. James was not present, but his place was filled by George Keith, the Fifth Earl Marischal. Shortly after the marriage, Anne took ship to Scotland to be with her new husband, but the vessel was beset by foul weather and a series of mishaps forced it to take shelter in a port on the coast of Norway. The young Queen traveled overland with her retinue to Oslo. When James heard of the great storm that had driven back Anne’s ship, he embarked on an uncharacteristic course of action—he sailed from Scotland to Norway to claim his bride personally. It has been called the only romantic gesture of his entire life.

His own crossing of the sea was uncommonly stormy. Coupled with the trouble Anne had encountered in her efforts to reach Scotland, the storm must have seemed uncanny to the superstitious James. Yet a third storm struck his ship and almost wrecked the vessel as he was bringing his bride home to Edinburgh in the spring of 1590. It merely confirmed James in his conviction that the Danish royal family and nobility, which he had met with in Kronborg Castle over the Christmas season, had been correct—witches were working black magic to keep Anne out of Scotland. At that time many people accused of witchcraft were being burned alive in Norway and Denmark, and the evils of witches were on everyone’s lips.

It was natural, when accusations were made of witchcraft later that same year in the little village of North Berwick (about twenty-five miles east of Edinburgh) that James should take a personal interest in the proceedings. Had he not himself been targeted for death by black magic? He was present at many of the interrogations of the accused, some of which involved brutal tortures, and became convinced that not only was their witchcraft genuine, but that they had tried to kill him by sinking his ship on his return with his new bride from Denmark. He was determined that this crime against his royal person should not escape punishment. It was not merely a sense of justice that motivated him, but the superstition that those who prosecuted witchcraft using the law were the ones most protected by God from its ill effects. By prosecuting the simple Scottish commoners in and around North Berwick, James believes that he was ensuring the safety of himself and his wife.

More than a hundred persons were arrested, and many of them subjected to horrifying tortures to extract confessions to a whole range of crimes, including treasons against the Scottish crown. The worst of these tortures was the boot, which involved driving wedges between boards strapped to the legs until the boards crushed the bones in the feet and shins. The trials dragged on for two years. In the end, some seventy men and women were convicted of witchcraft and treason. Among the charges was the claim that they had tried to take the life of King James with poison and black magic. It is not known how many were executed, but the form of execution for witches in Scotland was burning at the stake. Usually the condemned were first strangled to death before being burned—this was considered an act of mercy in this barbarous period in Scottish history.

James took so great a role in the interrogations of the accused witches and in their trials that when a Scottish jury acquitted one of the accused, Barbara Napier, due to lack of evidence, James used his power as monarch to void their verdict, and ordered her execution. He even had the audacity to order that the jury members themselves be put on trial for acquitting a witch! As it happened, Napier was the sister-in-law to the Laird of Carschoggill and had influential friends. She was able to avoid execution by pretending that she was pregnant, and eventually was released when there was no determined will in the Scottish justice system to seek her death.

It was with a considerable fund of practical knowledge gleaned from the testimonies of the supposed North Berwick witches that in 1597 James came to write his singular dialogue on witchcraft and the supernatural, which he titled Demonology. James wrote the book as a public service. He genuinely believed at this period in his life that witchcraft was real, and that it was an unholy scourge that threatened to destroy all of Christendom unless vigorously combated by godly men such has himself. Undoubtedly, there was a selfish element in the writing of the book. He was convinced that by exposing the evils of witches and witchcraft, he was insulating himself against their malicious magic. By writing his book he became a soldier in God’s army, protected from the Devil’s earthly agents by his faith. So he believed, at an rate.

In his Preface to the Reader, King James wrote:

The fearful abounding at this time, in this country, of these detestable slaves of the Devil, the witches or enchanters, has moved me (beloved reader) to dispatch in the post, this following treatise of mine, not in any way (as I protest) to serve for a show of my learning and ingenuity, but only (moved by conscience) to press thereby, so far as I can, to resolve the doubting hearts of many both that such assaults of Satan are most certainly practiced, and that the instruments thereof merit most severely to be punished.

One of the first things James did after he became King of England in 1603 was to have his Demonology republished. Another of his initial actions as the English monarch was to revise the witchcraft statute of England, by making its penalties much more severe than was the case with the old witchcraft act that had been in use under Elizabeth I. Crimes that had been punishable by a term of prison became, under James, punishable by death. It was all part of his personal holy crusade against witchcraft. He saw himself as the white knight of the biblical book Revelation, terror of witches and scourge of the Devil who wielded a flaming sword of punishment with which he dispensed justice across the world. As he had done to witches in Scotland, so he intended to do in England.

Toward the end of his life, James’s holy crusade against witches began to falter. He became aware of several instances in which those who had accused their neighbors of witchcraft later confessed to having lied under oath and fabricated the charges. This shook his certainty in the power of witches. The growing climate of skeptism existed not only in England but in the rest of Europe as well, to varying degrees. When James became king of England, the witch mania had reached it height, but by the time of his death, it had largely spent its force and was in decline. Even so, the witchcraft act James forced through the English Parliament in 1604 was not repealed until 1736.

The book Demonology is in the form of a conversation held between two men, Philomathes and Ephistemon, good friends who meet on the street one day and fall to talking about the terrible scourge of witchcraft, which seems to be everywhere in the news and on every townsman’s lips of late. There is very little debate involved in the dialogue. Both characters in James’s book are against witchcraft, and differ only about some of the minor details. The conversation expands to encompass the entire range of supernatural phenomena known to the ancients—ghosts, wizards, spirits, demons, possession, fairies, even werewolves—but is most concerned with witches and their abilities.

Demonology is fascinating on several levels. It gives a revealing glimpse into the superstitious mind of King James VI shortly before he ascended to the throne of England as King James I. It shows how frenzied and irrational the witch persecutions of the late 16th and early 17th centuries were in Scotland and England. It gives a good overview of Western magic and the supernatural as it was understood by the ancient Greeks and Romans. The book is filled with all manner of tidbits of information. For example, the practice of swimming a witch (which James called "fleeting") is described and justified by James—this was the belief that a witch could not drown, because the waters of baptism would reject her body; therefore a way of determining whether someone was a witch was to tie their thumbs to their opposite big toes, then throw them into water and wait to see if they drowned.

The original text is somewhat difficult for the modern reader to comprehend, due to the archaic spelling, unfamiliar and obsolete words, seemingly random punctuation and capitalization, and the lack of regular paragraphing. Yet it is a work that deserves to be made accessible to everyone. For this reason I have modernized the text in my edition, The Demonology of King James I. However, I took care to retain as much of the original word choices and original punctuation as possible. The result is a modernization of the text that is understated and, I hope, not too obvious to the casual reader.

Much of the subject matter examined by James has fallen out of common knowledge in the more than five centuries that have elapsed since its initial publication. This led me to make an extensive set of notes for each chapter in the work, and to include a comprehensive introduction setting out the full background of the North Berwick witch trials and the involvement of King James in them. I’ve also included in this introduction an explanatory synopsis of the entire work, as an aid to comprehension.

An anonymous pamphlet, published in 1591 and titled News from Scotland, gives a full account of the North Berwick witch trials. This pamphlet is usually bound up with the Demonology of James, since it has such an important bearing on the contents of the dialogue. Indeed, the two texts have come to be regarded almost as two parts of a single literary work, although there is no suggestion that James had anything to do with the writing of the pamphlet. I have treated the pamphlet in the same way as the dialogue, modernizing it and supplying a complete set of notes to explain its more perplexing details.

Sometimes it is necessary for a serious reader to have the original text for the purpose of accurate quotation and exact reference. Included in the appendices of The Demonology of King James I are the full original texts of James’s Demonology, and of the anonymously authored pamphlet News from Scotland, which describes the North Berwick Witch Trials, and the great suffering of those who were tortured for imaginary crimes.

In recent decades there has been a strong movement among historians to rehabilitate the reputation of King James, on the assumption that the numerous anecdotes of his contemporaries that present him in an unfavorable light are merely the slanders of his enemies. I am not one of these revisionists. In my opinion, James was a very nasty piece of work indeed, who deliberately and maliciously caused the deaths of hundreds of innocent people to appease his own irrational, superstitious terrors. Single-handedly he was responsible for the upsurge in the witch mania in England, and his Demonology played an important role in the English witch persecutions. His book will be distasteful to practitioners of magic and witches in our more enlightened century, yet it is an important document of the witch persecutions that deserves to be made available to the modern reader in this easily comprehensible, modernized format.

Donald TysonDonald Tyson
Donald Tyson (Nova Scotia, Canada) is an occult scholar and the author of the popular, critically acclaimed Necronomicon series. He has written more than a dozen books on Western esoteric traditions. Visit him online at DonaldTyson.com....  Read more

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