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The Introduction of the Witchcraft Act

Looking back at the era of the witch trials, it becomes challenging for us to grasp how such brutality and cruelty could have been inflicted upon so many innocent people. While those who endured the suffering were mainly women, men and even children also experienced the horror of false accusations and the harrowing process of obtaining confessions. Nonetheless, it is important to recall that the fear of black magic and witchcraft was profoundly genuine. Many of those involved genuinely believed that they were confronting actual witches and felt compelled to take measures to protect themselves. The foundation for this belief was deeply rooted. During that time, the church wielded substantial power. Ministers were both revered as pillars of the community and feared for their ability to mete out harsh treatment to those perceived as not respecting the Word of God. When ordinary townspeople witnessed crop failures, violent storms ravaging fishing fleets, and mysterious illnesses sweeping through their communities, and heard not only their local ministers but also the church hierarchy warning of the presence of the Devil among them, it becomes more understandable why people were willing to accept the notion of supernatural occurrences. Moreover, when even the Monarchy, the highest authority in the land, began making accusations of witchcraft, it further solidified the belief that anyone could fall under the sway of the Devil and carry out his malevolent deeds. The introduction of the Witchcraft Act of 1563 marked the commencement of a truly devastating period in the country's history. The population were put on edge through fear, everyone was under suspicion and unfounded accusations against those who, for various reasons, didn't conform were made. Numerous theories exist regarding the introduction of the Witchcraft Act. Scotland remained embroiled in religious turmoil after the Reformation, even after the Parliament officially ruled in 1560 that Scotland was to follow the Protestant faith and put in place a number of acts accordingly thereby ending over a century of adherence to the Catholic faith. The subsequent year saw the return of Mary, Queen of Scots, to take up her rule. As a devoutly Catholic Queen, Mary is believed to have been pressured by Catholic European nations and the Pope to overturn Parliament's ruling and the Reformation, thus reinstating Catholicism in Scotland. Suspicion surrounded Mary's return, with speculations about her intentions. Despite having some support in the country, it's improbable that she would have had enough backing to revert Scotland to Catholicism without considerable effort. Upon her return, Mary neither endorsed nor reversed the Reformation. Instead, she mandated a temporary religious status quo that there was to be no religious changes in the hope that this would establish short-term stability and provide herself time to consolidate her position. There are various thoughts regarding the reasons behind the Witchcraft Act's introduction. For instance, some theorise that Mary, or at least her advisors, understood that the Protestant faith was perceived as somewhat more lenient. Thus, the hope was that fostering a widespread fear of the Devil's influence within every community would drive people back to the stricter Catholic faith. This line of thought even suggests that people might believe that their lapses in worship, however minor, had allowed evil to take root. Others point to John Knox, a minister known as the 'Father of the Reformation' due to his impassioned sermons that garnered popular support. They argue that Knox envisaged the Witchcraft Act as a means to eradicate all pockets of Catholic support, compelling everyone to adopt the new faith for self-preservation. The exact motives will likely remain unknown, although they might not be as sensational as the conjectures suggest. In 1562, England, a Protestant nation since 1534, had introduced a new Witchcraft Act. With Queen Mary running out of excuses to delay a formal religious settlement in Scotland, there was growing optimism that the Scottish Parliament, when convened in May 1563, would approve the acts introduced by the Reformation Parliament in 1560. In anticipation, many new acts were prepared for discussion in the religious settlement, including the Witchcraft Act, designed not only to match but to surpass the English counterpart. Nevertheless, Mary had managed to create a divide within the Protestant leaders, with some advocating for more time while others, including John Knox, refusing to wait. When the parliament convened on May 5th, 1563, records indicate that heated debates transpired, resulting in the passage of only a few acts, including the Witchcraft Act.

The Influence of King James

In 1589, King James was married to Anne of Denmark in a proxy wedding held in Copenhagen, which meant neither were physically present at the ceremony. Following this, Queen Anne was to embark on a journey to Scotland to join her husband. However, her fleet encountered sudden and violent storms, compelling them to seek refuge in Norway. After several unsuccessful attempts, King James resolved to set sail from Scotland with his own fleet to collect his Queen. In November 1589, the couple were formally married at the Bishop’s Palace in Oslo before returning to Denmark for a celebratory tour. At this time, belief in witchcraft was much stronger in mainland Europe than it was in Scotland. This was largely attributed to a book written in 1486 by Jacob Kramer and Jacob Sprenger titled "Malleus Maleficarum," translating to "The Hammer of Witches" in Latin. Published in Germany in 1487, the book served as an instructional guide on reasons women were thought to turn to witchcraft, methods of finding evidence, and ultimately sentencing those convicted to death. King James was a theologian and Denmark was in the throes of a perceived witch epidemic during his tour. Consequently, he developed a keen interest in their belief system and the writings of the "Malleus Maleficarum." By the time the royal couple prepared to sail back to Scotland in May 1590, King James had amassed significant knowledge about witchcraft and its associated risks, knowledge he was about to put into practice. Similar to Queen Anne's previous attempts, their return journey was plagued by storms that seemingly emerged out of nowhere. These storms repeatedly forced the ships to turn back, and it took several attempts before the fleet could finally reach Scotland. Allegedly, the Danish authorities responsible for preparing the fleet faced embarrassment for not ensuring the ships' seaworthiness. A man who was accused of under stocking the royal boat, making it unstable in rough seas. This man turned out to be a minister, who in turn, accused a local woman of using witchcraft to replace full barrels with empty ones, thus causing instability in the vessels. Although such an accusation may seem absurd today, in those superstitious times, it was taken seriously. Following likely horrifying torture, the accused woman not only confessed to the crime but also implicated others who had supposedly collaborated with her. These individuals were accused of attempting to sink the Queen's ship during her initial failed voyage to Scotland and also conspiring to sink the royal couple's boat. Among those charged was a woman named Anna Koldings, also known as the "Mother of the Devil." Her nickname alone indicated her unpopularity, and the trial was likely seen as a way to remove her from the community. In total, 13 women were burned at the stake for supposedly using witchcraft to try to assassinate the King and Queen. Upon learning that the culprits had been identified and dealt with through the Danish justice system, King James grew curious about whether the Danish witches might have had collaborators closer to home. This curiosity led to the North Berwick Witch Trials, a two-year legal case that resulted in the deaths of around 70 men and women, all of whom were accused and convicted of using witchcraft to attempt kill the royal couple. Still keen to further develop his understanding of witchcraft, King James personally attended several of these interrogations of those accused of witchcraft, including sessions involving torture. Following the end of the trial, he wrote his own book detailing the witch detection methods, how to prove guilt and how to then dispose of the convicted. Published in 1597, the book was titled "Daemonologie". If witchcraft hadn't been taken seriously by any of the general population before, the news of their King overseeing a massive trial and writing a book on the subject would have certainly dispelled any doubts. To contest the existence of witchcraft would not only mean going against the word of the church but also opposing the monarchy itself.

The North Berwick Trials

The North Berwick Witch Trial finds its roots in a woman named Geillis Duncan. She worked as a housemaid for Chamberlain David Seton, an affluent resident of Tranent, situated just outside Edinburgh. Observing Geillis leaving the house during the night he discovered that she was providing care for the sick locals under the shroud of darkness. This led her employer to report his suspicions to the authorities. What had been a simple act of kindness became cause for Geillis to come under suspicions of witchcraft. Upon recounting her story, she was charged with wielding supernatural powers, bestowed upon her by the Devil, to heal the ill. This ran contrary to the expectation that it would be God's will as to whether anyone would survive or die from any illness, as was customary at the time. Geillis underwent severe torture, including the use of thumbscrews, yet she refused to admit to practising witchcraft. However, the presence of marks on her body, most likely to be blemishes or growths such as moles, were believed to be "Devil's Marks" and considered as sufficient evidence of her guilt. Consequently, she was incarcerated and subjected to even more intense torture. Historical documents describe the intention behind the torture and interrogation as an attempt to make the accused's life so unbearable that they would prefer death over their current existence. In other words, the aim was to push them to the brink where death seemed preferable. As was often the case in such trials, these methods proved effective with Geillis, and she eventually confessed. It's highly likely that she was fed information to which to confess to by means of stating what she was accused of doing rather than ask her what she did do. This ensured that in her confession she detailed her involvement in a witches coven comprising around 200 members, acting on behalf of the Earl of Bothwell, a formidable adversary of King James. Geillis claimed that on Halloween evening in 1590, as the King's fleet was entering the Firth of Forth after its voyage from Denmark, the witches congregated at St. Andrews Old Kirk in North Berwick. Here, they listened to a sermon delivered by none other than the Devil himself. Geillis also provided a list of approximately 70 names of fellow witches who were present during the gathering. King James took a personal interest in the trial. It is likely his advisors had orchestrated the proceedings to ensure his involvement, naming the Earl of Bothwell as a conspirator. King James summoned all those named for questioning, while Geillis met her demise at the Castle Esplanade in Edinburgh, burned at the stake. Aside from the Earl of Bothwell, several other prominent local figures were implicated, with Dr. John (also recorded as James) Fian emerging as a leader. He was a local schoolmaster and was reputed to be a powerful wizard. After enduring horrific torture, Dr. Fian refused to admit to the crimes he was accused of. He endured unimaginable torture, including sleep was found guilty and also burned at the stake in front of Edinburgh Castle. Some accounts suggest that the extreme confessions were casting doubt in the King's mind. However, it was the actions of Agnes Sampson, a prominent midwife among the accused, that are said to have convinced the King. Agnes requested a private audience with him and delivered a message. This message reportedly contained details of a private conversation that had taken place between the King and his new bride during their return voyage from Denmark. It's likely that information relating to this discussion had been secretly passed to Agnes without any context by others in the hope that she would do just as she did, and inadvertently relay it to the King convincing him that the accused were indeed witches who were using their powers to watch him. Consequently, Agnes was taken to the Palace of Holyrood House, where the King personally supervised her torture until she confessed. She was then burned at the stake at Edinburgh Castle. Collective confessions yielded information that, under the Devil's guidance, the witches exhumed bodies from the Kirkyard and removed specific body parts and organs. These parts were affixed to a deceased cat, and the entire concoction was tossed into the sea to incite a massive storm, attempting to sink the King's fleet as it entered the Firth of Forth. According to these accounts, the Devil instructed the witches to undertake this action, as, armed with his newfound knowledge, the returning King posed a formidable threat. Although precise figures and details of individual confessions are unavailable, it's likely that all 70 individuals named by Geillis met their demise at the Castle Esplanade in Edinburgh. The only reprieve was that most were strangled before the flames were ignited. The Earl of Bothwell faced trial in 1593, yet as a a testament to his influence and power, he was found not guilty.

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