One of the most prominent cases of the connection of witch-hunting and high politics was the witch-hunt carried out hy the Scottish government, tinder King James VI, from late 1590 to 1593. This was tnily one part of the major wa'e of late sixteenth-centtiry Scottish witch-hunting, from 1590 to 1597. The North Berwick cases began with the accusation of a servant woman, Geil-lis Duncan, in November 1590. Duncan had recently been involved in some seemingly magical cures of illnesses, and her employer, David Seton, had become suspicious that she was deriving her powers from the Devil. Under severe ciuestioning, which may have included illegal torture, Duncan confessed to being a witch and named several others as witches, including a local midwife, cunning woman and suspected witch, Agnes Sampson; a schoolmaster, John Fian; and two middle-class Edinburgh women, Barbara Napier and Euphame MacCalzean. She also confessed that the witches were involved in a diabolical plot to kill the king. This brought the case to the attention of the central gitvernment. Trials were brief and ended with convictions. John Fian was tried and convicted after he confessed (possibly under torture) in late December, although he was not executed until late January. Agnes Sampson overcame the king’s initial skepticism by recounting to him, in private, information about his wedding night with his new bride, Anne of Denmark (1574-1619). James believed that this information could only have been obtained by magic.
The interrogations of Fian and Sampson produced an elaborate account of a massive satanic plot against James, described as “the greatest enemy the devil has in the world.” The North Berwick trial gains its appellation not from the trials, which were held in Edinburgh, nor from the residences of the witches, none of whom lived in North Berwick, but from large meetings allegedly held in a church at North Berwick, and presided over by the Devil. The Devil as
Depicted in the witch confessittns was not the all-powerful master of evil, hut a person who could he argued with and even berated htr failing to deliver on his promises. The meetings included political discussion and were referred tt) as “conventions,” a term used in Scotland to denote the meetings of political bodies, such as Parliament or the Privy Council. The conventions did not include the more sensational features of the sabbat, such as orgies, demonic sex, cannibalism or infanticide. With the exception of Fian, who claimed to have attended the meetings spiritually while his body lay elsewhere, those who claimed attendance described themselves as getting to the meeting by mundane rather than magical means.
The plots against James had allegedly begun with weather magic, causing the North Sea storms that had afflicted James and Anne, first rendering it impossible for Anne to come over to Scotland in the summer of 1589 and then endangering James and Anne on their coming to Scotland in 1590. A witch-hunt had already broken out in Denmark over the storms, and Duncan described meeting and plotting with a Danish witch. The Scots had not blamed the storms on witchcraft when they had occurred. Further plots against James relied on image magic and toad poison.
Part of the background to the trials was the struggle between Reformed Protestantism and Catholicism in lowland Scotland. Samp. son’s magic was strongly Catholic, involving the use of Catholic prayers like the Ave Maria. Another factor was the unstable Scottish political situation. Sampson and Richie Graham, a sorcerer with a sinister reputation, implicated Francis Stewart Ftepburn, fifth earl of Bothwell (d. 1624), one of Scotland’s leading magnates, who was known to he feuding with the king’s chancellor, John Maitland (1545?~1595). Bothwell was an ambitious, violent and unstable man and carried enough royal blood to have made a plausible claim on the throne if James had died without heirs. It is certainly possible that he had some kind of magical plot going to destroy the king, an action for which there was precedent in Scottish history.
Sampson was executed on January 28, followed by 10 more witches on February 23. On April 15, Bothwell was brought before the king on charges of plotting with Sampson and Graham, and the following day he was committed to Edinburgh Castle. Napier’s trial began May 8. At hrst she was acquitted of the more serious charges and only convicted for consulting with witches. James perstrnally intervened against the jury in a rare hut not unprecedented procedure called an “assize of error.” Fie charged, probably with some truth, that the influence of Napier’s powerful friends and relatives had procured the lenient verdict. Napier was now convicted of all charges but escaped execution by claiming pregnancy. She was eventually released. Much less fortunate was MacCalzean, whose trial began June 9. MacCalzean was a classic example of the assertive, combative, “shrewish” wtanan who was one common victim of witch-hunting. She was charged with having tried to kill her husband through witchcraft and with having succeeded in killing three of her relations. Unlike Sampson and Fian, who were strangled before being burned, MacCalzean was sentenced to be burned alive, a fate she suffered June 25.
Meanwhile, Bothwell had escaped from Edinburgh Castle and spent the next several years in a series (tf rebellions and plots against James. He was acqtiitted of witchcraft by a jury of his peers in August 1593, although eventually he died a pttor exile in Italy. Graham was not so kicky, being strangled and burned February 29, 1692. The Nttrth Berwick affair inspired two major texts. One was James’s Demonology, which although it makes no direct reference to the cases was in large part inspired by James’s experiences. The other was an anonymous pamphlet, probably authcired hy the Presbyterian minister of Haddington, James Carmichael, Neivs from Scotland Declaring the Damnable Life of Dr. Fian, a Notable Sorceror (1591). News from Scotland was published in London, where Carmichael had spent some time, and was the first major publication on Scottish witchcraft available tt) an English audience. James was heir apparent to the English throne he would eventually ascend in 1603, and Neivs from Scotland showed him flatteringly to his future subjects.
REFERENCES: P. G. Maxwell-Stuart. Satan’s Conspiracy: Magic and Witchcraft in Sixteenth-Century Scotland. East Lothian, Scotland: Tiickwell Press, 2001; Lawrence Normand and Gareth Roberts, eds. Witchcraft in Early Modern Scotland: James Vi’s Demonology and the North Berwick Witches. Exeter, England: University of Exeter Pre. ss, 2000.