James I

James I (1566–1625) king of Scotland and England who strengthened anti-witch laws in 1604. James’ own beliefs about witchcraft reflected the popular views of the day, and while he permitted prosecutions of accused witches, he did not lead the charge against them. When public hysteria threatened to get out of hand, he moved to cool tensions down. “James was not riding the storm like Odin,” notes George Lyman Kittredge in Witchcraft in Old and New England (1929). “He was only a mortal man, swept off his feet by the tide.” James was born in Scotland in 1566 to Mary Queen of Scots and her second husband, Lord Henry Stuart Darnley, a vicious and dissipated man. In 1567 Darnley was murdered by strangulation. His death was rumoured to be the plot of the earl of Bothwell, who then married Mary. The incident caused an uprising among the Scots; Mary abdicated the throne in favour of James, who ruled under regents until 1583, when he began his personal rule as James VI.

The same year, the Scottish clergy, pressured by rising public fears of witchcraft, demanded tougher enforcement of Scotland’s witchcraft law, which had been enacted in 1563. James, credulous in his beliefs that witches were evil and posed a threat to Godfearing people, tolerated the increasing witch-hunts.

James was skeptical of the confessions made by accused North Berwick Witches in the trials of 1590–92, even though the confessions involved an alleged plot by witches to murder him and his bride. In 1589 James had agreed to marry by proxy Anne of Denmark, a 15-year-old princess whom he had never met. That same year, she set sail for Scotland from Norway, but her ship was buffeted twice by terrible storms and nearly destroyed. It made port at Oslo, where the passengers were stranded for months. James sailed out to meet the ship. As a result of more storms, he and Anne were forced to remain in Scandinavia until the spring of 1590. On their return to Scotland, they were buffeted by yet more storms but managed to make land safely. The North Berwick witches claimed to have raised these storms. James, however, called them “extreme lyars,” until one of the accused convinced him of their supernormal powers by repeating to him the private conversation he had had with Anne on their wedding night. James permitted brutal tortures and executions of the accused.

After the North Berwick affair, James made a study of witchcraft on the Continent and read the works of the leading Demonologists. He was distressed by the counterarguments on the “witchcraft delusion” posed by Reginald Scot in The Discoverie of Witchcraft (1584) and by Johann A. Weyer in De Praestigiis Daemonum (1563). He wrote his own response, Daemonologie, which first appeared in 1597.

Daemeonologie has been blamed for adding to the public hysteria over witches, though Kittredge points out that it added nothing new to the prevailing beliefs about witches. Nevertheless, the book did much to reinforce prevailing beliefs. In it, James acknowledged that witches had the power to raise storms; cause illness and death by burning waxen images; and were followers of “Diana and her wandering court” (see Diana). He stated that the Devil appeared in the likeness of a dog, cat, ape or other “such-like beast” and always was inventing new techniques for deceiving others (see Black Animals; Metamorphosis). He defended swimming as a test for witches and supported the widely held belief that more women were witches than men because women were inherently weak and predisposed to evil. He accepted the execution of a witch as the therapeutic cure for the victim. He advocated the death penalty for clients of Cunning Men. He defined a witch as “a consulter with familiar spirits.”

By 1597 the witch hysteria in Scotland had reached alarming proportions, and there was evidence that overzealous wItCh-hunters were indicting people on fraudulent evidence. James reacted by revoking all indictments, and for the remaining years of his rule on the throne of Scotland, executions for witchcraft decreased.

Upon the death of Elizabeth I in 1603, James gained the English throne as James I. His Daemonologie was reissued in London the same year, and he ordered copies of Scot’s Discoverie to be burned.

In 1604 a new Witchcraft Act was passed by Parliament, which stiffened the penalties for witchcraft. The impetus for the new law had already begun years before (see Warboys Witches) and was neither the idea nor the work of James but of the ruling gentry of England.

The 1604 law closely followed the Elizabethan Witchcraft Act. Under the Elizabethan code, witchcraft, enchantment, charms or sorcery that caused bodily injury to people or damage to their goods and chattel was punishable by a year in jail with quarterly exposures in the pillory for the first offense and death for the second offense. A sentence of life in jail with quarterly pillory exposures was given for the divining of treasure and the causing of “unlawful” love and intentional hurt. Bewitching a person to death was a capital offense. The 1604 law punished crimes of witchcraft with death on the first offense instead of a year in jail or life in jail. In addition, the conjuring or evoking of evil spirits for any purpose whatsoever was made a capital offense. However, the law was no tougher than the rest of England’s penal code, which mandated death for stealing a sheep or a purse, or breaking into a home. Ironically, the death sentence may have been a blessing: the jails of the time were so abominable and filthy that death might have seemed preferable to life in a stinking, dank, disease-ridden hole.

Passage of the law did not evoke a wave of witchhunts; the first trials of major importance did not occur until 1612. During James’ entire reign of 22 years, fewer than 40 persons were executed for the crime of witchcraft. James pardoned some accused witches because of the weak evidence against them and exposed a number of cases of fraudulent accusations of witches, including the “possession” of a boy in Leicester that sent nine victims to the gallows in 1616. (Unfortunately, James did not uncover the fraud until after the executions. Though he was sorely displeased with the judge and sergeant, he did not punish them.)

The Witchcraft Act of 1604 remained in force until 1736, when it was repealed and replaced by a new law under George II. It was used to prosecute the accused witches in Salem, Massachusetts in 1692. (See Salem Witches.) Some of the worst abuses of witch-hunting in England did not occur until several decades after James’ death, when Matthew Hopkins terrorized the countryside in search of victims.



  • Barstow, Anne Llewellyn. Witchcraze: A New History of the European Witch Hunts. San Francisco: Pandora, 1994.
  • Deacon, Richard. Matthew Hopkins: Witch Finder General. London: Frederick Muller, 1976.
  • Russell, Jeffrey B. A History of Witchcraft. London: Thames and Hudson, 1980.
  • Scot, Reginald. The Discoverie of Witchcraft. 1886. reprint, Yorkshire, England: E. P. Publishing, Ltd., 1973.
  • Scott, Sir Walter. Letters on Demonology and Witchcraft. 1884. reprint, New York: Citadel Press, 1968.
  • Trevor-Roper, H. R. The European Witch-Craze. New York: Harper & Row, 1957.


The Encyclopedia of Witches, Witchcraft and Wicca – written by Rosemary Ellen Guiley – Copyright © 1989, 1999, 2008 by Visionary Living, Inc.