James VI and I
King of both Scotland (as James VI) and England (as James I) and a persecutor of witches, whom he believed to be the servants of the Devil. His book, Daemonologie, broke no new ground in witch hunting but became a handbook for English Demonologists. James was born in Scotland in 1566 to the violent world of Mary, Queen of Scots and her second husband and first cousin, Henry Stuart, Lord Darnley, who was a vicious and dissipated man. At the time of his conception, Mary was having an affair with her Italian secretary, David Rizzio. Once, Henry attacked Rizzio in Mary’s presence in an apparent attempt to cause her to miscarry. Failing that, he and a group of his noblemen murdered Rizzio by hacking him with swords and knives and then heaving him off a balcony.
Mary continued to have affairs and plotted her revenge against Henry. In 1567, she tried to have him killed in a gunpowder explosion. The explosion did not do the job, for Henry was found later in the garden, dead of strangulation.
No one was ever charged with the crime, but his death was rumored to been the result of a plot of the earl of Bothwell, who abducted Mary, raped and impregnated her (she miscarried twins), and then married her. The incident caused an uprising among Scots. Mary abdicated the throne in favour of one-year-old James, who ruled under regents until 1583, when he began his personal rule as James VI.
Mary later plotted to take the English throne from Elizabeth I, her father’s cousin. Elizabeth had her arrested on charges of treason, imprisoned, and then beheaded. This atmosphere of swirling murder, treason, plotting, and bloodshed was bound to have an impact on James. He took to wearing padded clothing at all times to protect himself against stabbing.
When James took the Scottish throne in 1583, 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, who believed that witches were evil and posed a threat to Godfearing people, tolerated increasing witch hunts and even participated in some of the trials himself.
James believed that witches tried to kill him on at least three occasions. In the North Berwick witch trials of 1590–92, confessions were made of 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 where stranded for months. James sailed out to meet the ship. As storms continued, he and Anne were forced to remain in Scandinavia until spring 1590. On their return to Scotland, they were buffeted by yet more storms but managed to make land safely.
The North Berwick witches confessed to raising 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. After the North Berwick trials, over which James supervised brutal tortures of the leader John Fian, James made a study of witchcraft in Europe and read the works of the leading Demonologists. He was distressed by the arguments that Devil-worshipping witches and their Sabbats were all delusions. He was particularly incensed at the views expressed by Reginald Scot in The Discoverie of Witchcraft (1854) and by Johann Weyer in De Praestigiis Daemonum (1563).
Thus, James wrote his own response, Daemonologie, published in 1597. Daemonologie added no new information about beliefs about witches and increased the public hysteria over witches in Scotland. James affirmed that witches, who received their powers from the Devil, could raise storms, could cause illness and death by burning of waxen images, and were followers of “Diana and her wandering court.” He stated that the Devil appeared in the likeness of a dog, cat, ape, or other “such-like beast” and was always inventing new techniques for deceiving others. He defended swimming as a test for witches, in which the accused were bound and thrown into deep water (the innocent sank and usually drowned, and the guilty floated, whereupon they were executed). James believed in sexual acts with Demons but did not believe in impregnation by an Incubus. That, he said, was a fabulous tale. He acknowledged that Demons could make a woman appear falsely pregnant. The sexual aspects of the nightmare were a “natural sickness,” he said, caused by a thick phlegm upon the heart that made people imagine that a spirit was pressing down upon them.
He believed in Demonic Possession but doubted the power of the church to cure it permanently. He noted the simplicity of Jesus’ instructions for Exorcism: prayer, fasting, and expelling the Demons in his name. James supported the widely held belief that more women than men were witches because women were inherently weak and predisposed to evil. He accepted the execution of a witch as the therapeutic cure for the victim. He even 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. To his credit, James revoked 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 took the English throne as James I. Daemonologie was reissued in London the same year. James also ordered that copies of Scot’s Discoverie be burned.
In 1604, a new Witchcraft Act was passed by Parliament under pressure from the gentry. The new law stiffened penalties for witchcraft. Under Elizabethan law passed in 1563, Witchcraft, enchantment, Charms, or Sorcery that caused bodily injury to people or damage to their goods and chattels 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 Demons for any purpose whatsoever was made a capital offense. Passage of the law did not evoke a wave of witch hunts. The first trials of major importance did not occur in England until 1612, trials at Lancaster that saw 10 persons hanged and one pilloried. 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. 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. The 1604 law was used to prosecute the trials of the accused witches in Salem, Massachusetts, in 1692.
In his later years, James’ health declined as a result of arthritis, gout, and other diseases. He had a stroke, which severely weakened him, and soon afterward died, on March 27, 1625, while suffering from severe dysentery.
– King James I of England. Demonology. Edited by G. B. Harrison. San Diego: Book Tree, 2002.
– Kittredge, George Lyman. Witchcraft in Old and New England. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1929.
– Scot, Reginald. The Discoverie of Witchcraft. Yorkshire, England: E. P. Publishing, 1973; 1886 ed.