James I considered himself to be an intellect. In particular James saw himself as an expert on witchcraft, which was still an issue in Stuart England in so far as many did not share the same views as James.
The idea of black and witch witches can be traced back to Roman times. However in the sixteenth century a new Christian theory developed based on Christian theology, canon law and philosophical ideas. This theory was that a witch had made a deliberate pact with the devil – almost a form of a personal arrangement – but that a witch did not act alone. Therefore if one witch existed in a locality, there had to be more. This led to a shift in the persecution of witches. Whereas a village may have punished an individual in the past, now the Christian witch theory demanded that more be found within one locality. This resulted in many arrests for witchcraft as the difference between white and black witchcraft effectively ended. The authorities of the time believed that even healing had to be as a result of pact with the devil – so white witches were also persecuted. The arrest of one ‘witch’ almost certainly led to more arrests as torture was allowed to be used on suspects to find out the names of other witches within a locality.
There are no accurate figures for the arrest and punishment of witches in the early seventeenth century – which could indicate poor record keeping or simply that so many were arrested that records were never updated.
The wholesale persecution of witches started in Scotland in 1590 when James VI was king – the future James I of England. Witchcraft had been a criminal offence in Scotland prior to 1590 but action against suspected witches was limited. However after 1590 and in the last thirteen years of the reign of James, Scotland fully accepted the Christian witch theory so that when one witch was found, others were hunted out. Prior to 1590, it seems that witchcraft was seen as a minor issue by those in power. In 1583, the General Assembly complained that witchcraft carried no punishment despite being outlawed in 1563. Why did this change in 1590?
The issue may well have been James himself. James was well known to adopt a topical issue of the time and to develop an ‘expert’ knowledge of it. Prior to 1590 no Scottish theologian, philosopher or lawyer had shown any real interest in the whole idea of witchcraft and therefore to James it was not a fashionable topic. Some of the writings of James before 1590 do make reference to Satan and devils. However, Christina Larner views these as references to the Roman Catholic Church or to Catholic Spain – a common practice at this time.
Why is 1590 a key year? The year saw the start of a series of trials for treason. Three hundred witches were accused of gathering to plot the murder of James. It is known that James had a morbid fear of violent death. Therefore these trials were of especial interest to him and he suddenly developed a very keen interest in demonology and witchcraft.
Evidence for the ‘crimes’ remain patchy at best. Witches were accused of attempting to drown James by calling up a storm while he was at sea with his new wife. Other charges include trying to kill James by melting a wax effigy of him. They were also accused of performing perverted rituals in a church in Berwick – though it is not clear what this had to do specifically with trying to kill the king. However, it did point the way to witchcraft and it is thought that over one hundred witches were actually put on trial. It is said that a large number were executed but there is accurate no figure for this.
While the witches were accused of classic witchcraft, the main issue as far as James was concerned was the plan to murder him – treason. The trials also had a major political aspect as there was an attempt to incriminate Earl Bothwell in the proceedings. One theory put forward is that the whole story was a plot made up by those nobles in Scotland who wanted to devalue the standing of Bothwell within Scotland – and expand theirs. However, this can not be proven.
Why did James become interested in the Christian witch theory – that witches worked in groups and had made a pact with the devil? It almost certainly occurred in 1589 when he visited Denmark to meet his future wife. It was in Denmark that James met a number of intellectuals and philosophers including the astronomer Tycho Brahe. Witches were actively hunted out in Denmark where the theory of a demonic pact had been widely accepted. The king’s journey back to Scotland proved to be a very rough and stormy one and one ship was lost. Witches were blamed – working in both Scotland and Denmark. When the Danish court made a reciprocal visit to Scotland in 1590, the topic of witchcraft and sorcery may well have been a topic of conversation.
When he became king of England in 1603, James claimed never to have been responsible for pushing ahead with persecutions of witches. However, the evidence suggests differently. In 1591 he showed a particular interest in the trial of Mary Napier – arrested for consulting a witch and linked to treasonable activity. She claimed to be pregnant at the time of her arrest. Despite the 1563 law outlawing witchcraft, no one had ever been arrested in Scotland for consulting a witch. Yet James wrote to the court ordering them to find out if she was pregnant or not and that if she was not, she should be burned. That Napier was a friend of Bothwell’s also indicates that James was willing to use witchcraft for political ends. The court acquitted Napier – much to the anger of James.
In 1597, James felt sufficiently knowledgeable about witchcraft that he wrote “Daemononlogie”. This was an eighty page book that expounded his views on the topic and it was meant to add to the intellectual debate that was going on within Europe about witchcraft. The book has three sections on magic, sorcery and witchcraft and one on spirits and ghosts. Having produced this book, James decided to end the standing commission that had been established to hunt out witches. However, the persecution did not end. By the time he left for England in 1603, witches were still being arrested and of those arrested, half were executed. Between 1603 and 1625, there were about twenty witchcraft trials a year in Scotland – nearly 450 in total. Half of the accused were found guilty and executed.
However, in England James found a very different environment. The whole issue of demonic behaviour – the Christian witch theory – had never been readily accepted in England and James was quick to lose his self-imposed expert tag on witchcraft. He viewed England as a more civilised society where intellectuals discussed issues of a philosophical nature – but that did not include witchcraft. For James, any association with the topic was seen as a potential embarrassment. Prosecutions for witchcraft did occur in England while he was king – such as in Lancashire in 1612. However, the trials were covered in such detail by the press of the day that they gave the impression that such events were common when they were not. Midway through the reign of James in England, people could tell jokes about witchcraft – something no one would have done in Scotland in the 1590’s when the thinking of James dominated policy. There was a 1604 Witchcraft Act which some believed was more harsh that the law introduced under Elizabeth I. However, only one clause in it was more draconian and that was execution for the first offence of raising evil spirits. However, it was never used in the reign of James and seems to have been only used once in 1645.
For James, witches hinted at a less than sophisticated society. In England he believed he was in a country where he could best show off his intellectual ability – but the topics did not include witchcraft or demonology.