Even by the standards of his age,” King James VI of Scotland, later James I of England, stood out as a deeply superstitious man, obsessed with the occult.
Before his reign, witchcraft persecutions had been rare in Britain. But that all changed in 1590 when James personally oversaw the trials by torture for around seventy individuals implicated in the North Berwick Witch Trials, the biggest Scotland had known. Their alleged crime? Raising a storm which nearly sank James’ ship when he sailed home from Norway with his new bride, Anne of Denmark. The trial resulted in possibly dozens of people burned at the stake, although the precise number is unknown.
In 1597, James published Daemonologie, his rebuttal of Reginald Scot’s skeptical work, The Discoverie of Witchcraft, which questioned the very existence of witches. Daemonologie was an alarmist book, presenting the idea of a vast conspiracy of satanic witches threatening to undermine the nation.
In 1604, only one year after James ascended to the English throne, he passed his new Witchcraft Act, which made raising spirits a crime punishable by execution.
James’ ideas on witchcraft were later popularized by Shakespeare’s play Macbeth, performed for James’s court in 1606. For the first time in history, English drama depicted witches gathering in secret for their own malign scheming. According to Instruments of Darkness by James Sharpe, this terror of supposed witch covens was the driving factor mobilizing 17th century witch hunts.
In 1612, the King’s paranoid fantasy of satanic conspiracy, planted in the minds of local magistrates eager to win his favor, culminated in one of the key manifestations of the Jacobean witch-craze—the trials of the Lancashire Witches, accused of plotting to blow up Lancaster Castle with gunpowder. Eight women and two men were executed.
James’s legacy extends even into our age. The King James Bible, completed in 1611, saw the scriptures rewritten to further the King’s agenda. Exodus 22:18, originally translated as, “Thou must not suffer a poisoner to live,” became “Thou must not suffer a witch to live.”
The Lancashire Witches: Histories & Stories, Robert Poole, ed, Manchester University Press, 2002.
Instruments of Darkness: Witchcraft in England, 1550-1750, James Sharpe, University of Pennsylvania Press, 1997.
Mary Sharratt is the author of Daughters of the Witching Hill (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, April, 2010), a novel based on the true and heartbreaking story of the Pendle Witches of 1612. She lives at the foot of Pendle Hill in Lancashire, England. To read more about her, click here.
IMAGE: illustration from the original document, The News from Scotland, about the trial of the Witches of North Berwick