The Berwick Witches
In the 1590’s a number of people from East Lothian, Scotland, were accused of witchcraft in the St Andrew’s Auld Kirk in North Berwick. The trials ran for two years and implicated nearly 100 people. The accused included Francis Stewart, 5th Earl of Bothwell on charges of high treason. The “witches” held their covens on the Auld Kirk Green, part of the modern-day North Berwick Harbour area. The confessions were extracted by torture in the Old Tolbooth, Edinburgh. This was the first major witchcraft persecution in Scotland, and began with a sensational case involving the royal houses of Denmark and Scotland.
These allegations arose through the events of the marriage of James VI to Anne of Denmark in September 1589. She had been expected to sail from Denmark but was prevented by storms three times. The Danish admiral Peter Munk attributed the storms to witchcraft. The same weather caused an accident in the river Forth drowning Jane Kennedy who James had appointed to be chief of Anne’s ladies-in-waiting. James then asked Bothwell, as Admiral of Scotland, to prepare a fleet to fetch Anne. Bothwell’s estimate of the costs involved was high and James decided to raise funds and make the voyage himself. Bothwell remained in Scotland and was given a share of the government, befitting one of King’s closest relations. Subsequently, in November 1590 those accused of witchcraft in North Berwick were tortured and made confessions about supernatural causes of the storms. The historian Christina Larner proposed that the character of the witch hunt with the “demonic pact” which featured in the confessions was influenced by Danish practice. In July 1590 a number of so-called witches had been arrested in Denmark including Anna Koldings for causing the storms.
The revelations began with the arrest of a maidservant named Geillis Duncan who was suspected by her employer, David Smeaton of Tranent. Why was he suspicious? She ‘would secretly go out at night and that this Geillis Duncane took in hand to help all such as were troubled or greeued with any kinde of sicknes or infirmitie: and in short space did perfourme manye matter most miraculous.’ Unable to explain herself, the obvious answer was “WITCH!”
Geillis Duncan was tortured with the pilliwinks (thumbscrews) on her fingers and by binding or winching her head with a cord or rope. She did not confess until her tortures declared they had found her “devil’s mark”- it being believed at that time that ‘by due examination of witchcraft and Witches in Scotland, it hath lately beene founde that the diuell doth generally marke them with a privie marke.’ Once Geillis was committed to prison it did not take her long to accuse others of witchcraft. These people were Agnes Sampson, Agnes Tompson, Doctor Fian, alias John Cunningham, Barbara Napier and Effie MacCalyan, to name but a few. In all around 70 people were implicated in this case.
James VI was a firm believer in the existence of witchcraft and took a personal interest in the story that these “witches” had conspired to kill him by magic but even he found the stories exaggerated as is shown when “his Maiestie saide they were all extreame lyars“.
Agnes Sampson, a respected and elderly woman from Humbie of Nether Kieth, was considered to have healing powers and acted as a midwife for a large section of local society. Accused by Duncan, and arrested along “sundrie” [sic] others, and questioned regarding her role in the storm raising, and that of others. She and brought to Holyrood House before the King and sundry other of the nobility of Scotland, where she was examined, but nothing would make her confes anything, but stood stiffly in the denial of all that was laid to her charge. conveyed to prison, she was tortured and examined, and by “special commaundement this Agnis Sampson had all her haire shauen of, in each parte of her bodie, and her head thrawen with a rope according to the custome of that Countrye, beeing a paine most greeuous, which she continued almost an hower, during which time she would not confesse any thing vntill the Diuels marke was found vpon her priuities, then she immediatlye confessed whatsoeuer was demaunded of her, and iustifying those persons aforesaid to be notorious witches.”
James was still skeptical of her guilt, however, she took him aside and apparently told him the exact words of his conversation with his new wife on their wedding night. This was seen by the King as irrefutable proof that witchcraft had been performed against him. After extensive torture, Agnes Sampson confessed to the fifty-three indictments against her. She was finally strangled and burned as a witch on 16 January 1590 (OS).
‘the damnable life and death of Dr. John Fian’
Doctor John Fian, also known as Cunningham, was a schoolmaster in Prestonpans, East Lothian, and the supposed head of the coven, was tortured to obtain his confession most notably by the Boot, the Pilliwinks and by having his nails forcibly extracted. He was accused along with Agnes Sampson, and others of raising storms to sink the fleet returning King James VI of Scotland and his wife Anne of Denmark, from their wedding celebrations in Oslo. He was put to torture but would confess nothing more even though his legs were totally crushed in the “bootes”. The King and his Council then decided that he was to be made an example of ‘to remayne a terrour to all others heereafter, that shall attempt to deale in the lyke wicked and ungodlye actions, as witchcraft, sorcery, conjuration and such lyke.’ He was finally taken to the Castlehill in Edinburgh and burnt at the stake on the 16th of December..
It is not recorded what happened to all the accused persons but certainly Agnes Sampson and others were condemned and burnt as witches. At the time Newes From Scotland was published they were still languishing in prison. King James VI was so concerned about the threat that witchcraft posed for himself and his country, that he undertook to study the subject in some depth and published his results in his book Daemonologie, published in 1597.
Francis Stewart, 5th Earl of Bothwell
One of the Scottish accused, Agnes Sampson, at least in the account of James Melville of Halhill, claimed the devil had shown her a picture of James VI saying he should be “consumed at the instance of a noble man Francis Erle Bodowell.” Another, Ritchie Graham, confessed and insisted he had conspired with the earl, leading to his arrest in April 1591.
Bothwell, with others, including the Earl of Huntly, was charged with treason for engaging in an armed uprising and plotting to seize the king at Holyroodhouse (this is prior to the Berwick Trials.) He surrendered himself on 11 May 1589 and their trial took place on the 24 May. All were found guilty, but sentences were deferred for the king’s consideration. More seriously, Bothwell was arrested on witchcraft accusations on 15 April 1591. Charged with trying to arrange the king’s death through sorcery he was imprisoned in Edinburgh Castle on 15 April 1591, the formal charges being laid before the Privy Council on that day and the 21st.
Following an escape and pursuit, Bothwell was formally attainted by Act of Parliament, dated 21 July 1593. However, on Tuesday, 24 July, the Earl had been smuggled into Holyroodhouse and forced himself into the King’s presence, in his bedchamber. Soon numerous Bothwell supporters also entered the room. The king accepted Bothwell’s protestations of loyalty and an agreement for his pardon was reached. (It received the Royal, and other signatures on 14 August). So, just five days after his forfeiture, Bothwell and his accomplices received a blanket Act of Remission and Condonation.
On Friday, 10 August, a formal trial (described by Spottiswoode as “a farce”) of Bothwell was entered into on the old witchcraft charges in order to deal with them once and for all. Bothwell made speeches and other argument on his own behalf. He was acquitted.
The King, however, was not yet finished, and when the Convention of Estates met at Stirling on 7 September he conspired with those opposed to Bothwell to recall his pardon and Royal messengers went to meet Bothwell on the 11th, at Linlithgow, with the news that the king proposed to modify his blanket pardon, and added a condition that Bothwell would have to go into exile.
On the death of Elizabeth I in 1603, James VI became King James I of England and ruled both countries jointly until his death in 1625. One of his first acts as king in England was to tighten the Witchcraft Act (1563). At that time in England, hanging was the punishment if it could be proved that use of witchcraft had caused death, but James changed the sentence to hanging for any form of witchcraft confessed or proved. Witchcraft trials continued unabated during his reign and only started to trail off in the early eighteenth century. The last recorded burning of a witch in Scotland took place in Sutherland in 1722.