The brutal witch hunts of a love-struck Scottish king

Image from pamphlet published in 1591 after the North Berwick Witch trials which were launched following claims of attempt on life of James VI and his wife, Anne of Denmark. Picture: Wiki Commons
Image from pamphlet published in 1591 after the North Berwick Witch trials which were launched following claims of attempt on life of James VI and his wife, Anne of Denmark. Picture: Wiki Commons
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It started with a rumour that witches had conjured up a North Sea storm so powerful it would kill Scotland’s king and his new queen.

That rumour ended in one of the most brutal witch hunts in the country’s history, driven by a love-struck James VI determined to root out the superstitious forces said to have put his life and that of his new bride - Anne of Denmark - at risk.

James VI of Scotland. Picture: Wiki Commons

James VI of Scotland. Picture: Wiki Commons

Anne of Denmark set sail for Scotland in 1589 to start married life with James VI but did not appear in Edinburgh as planned.

The alarm was raised when a member of the fleet docked in Leith, separated from the group by a storm, to warn that the Queen’s life may be in danger.

READ MORE: Six ancient myths of the Scottish isles

James VI was said to be so alarmed that he called for public prayers and fasting while he holed up in the home of his friend, Lord Seton, whose residence overlooked the Firth of Forth, to wait for news.

Queen Anne of Denmark circa 1600.  Picture: Free Image/ Wiki Commons

Queen Anne of Denmark circa 1600. Picture: Free Image/ Wiki Commons

Unbeknown to the King, his wife had been forced back to the coast of Norway several times due to the rough conditions, with the Queen eventually returning to Denmark by land for refuge.

James VI learned around a month later that his wife was safe and decided to embark on his own voyage to bring his wife to Scotland.

After being united, the couple stayed on in Denmark for the winter as the weather continued to rage in the North Sea - then called the German Ocean.

READ MORE: The lost history of Scotland’s small isles

During his time in Copenhagen, the king was to learn that two women were executed at Kronborg after being found guilty of raising storms to delay the Queen’s journey.

James VI, who became so fascinated with ‘witches’ he wrote a book on the subject, began to investigate the possibility that a coven in Scotland was working alongside counterparts in Denmark to try and kill the new Royal couple as they tried to return to Scotland,

News came to the king that his old adversary, Francis, 5th Earl of Bothwell, had kept an active witch coven in East Lothian under his influence.

In December 1590, Scottish and Danish officials met at sea in the Firth of Forth to discuss the issue with talks concluding that there had been witches in both countries who had been working in cahoots to destroy the newlyweds.

According to accounts, trials were raised against four further women in Denmark thought to be involved with the plot.

In Scotland, proceedings were raised against the so-called North Berwick witches, who congregated in St Andrews Auld Kirk in the town, and their accomplices.

It was the first large scale prosecution of its type in Scotland and those arrested and put on trial included Dame Euphemia Macalzean, Agnes Sampson, a herbalist of Nether Keith; John Cunningham of Prestonpans, a schoolmaster and secretary to Lord Bothwell; Geilie Duncan of Tranent and Barbara Napier and Ritchie Graham both of Edinburgh.

It is said that James VI personally interrogated a number of suspects.

Agnes Sampson was tortured at Edinburgh Tolbooth where she was pinned to the wall using a witch’s bridle, an iron muzzle that clamps the head, and eventually she confessed to 53 charges against her.

During her confession she claimed she attached parts of a corpse to a cat, sailed to sea in a sieve, then put the cat into the sea to create a storm to shipwreck the king.

John Cunningham - who used an alias Dr John Fian - was burnt at the stake at Edinburgh’s Castlehill after being tortured for several days.

Dame Euphemia Macalzean, daughter of Lord Cliftonhall, was also burned at the stake in the shadows of Edinburgh Castle.

They were among at least 50 people executed for endangering the life of the King with the episode to lead to witch hunts lasting longer in East Lothian than almost anywhere else.

According to reports, 73 people were tried for witchcraft in Dunbar presbytery between between 1593 and 1705 but this is believed to be a modest indication as to the levels of persecution, given gaps in recorded evidence of one of Scotland’s darkest chapters.

Meanwile, James VI published Daemonologie in 1597 following the Berwick Witch Trials, with the proceedings charted in the third section of the book.

In it, he attempt to “resolve the doubting...both that such assaults of Satan are most certainly practiced and that the instrument therefore merits most severely to be punished.”

The book went on to be a major influence Shakespeare in his writing of Macbeth, it is claimed.

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