Did King James Believe in Witches (English Edition)

witches-sabbathIn the second of our articles about the Witch trials of King James VI (see the note at the bottom of my previous article to explain why I’m not calling him ‘James VI & I’) we shall take up James’ witch hunting career as he officially accepted the English throne in 1603.

The Act of 1604

Popular perception has it that James’ zeal for witch hunting resulted in a tougher witchcraft act, emulating the much tougher law in Scotland.

The only issue with this idea is reality: the English Act of 1604 is more severe on certain forms of witchcraft, introducing a death sentence for first offences where imprisonment and time in the pillory would have been used. However it went nowhere near so far as the Scottish Act of 1563 had: witchcraft was still a felony, and witches died as felons. Minor magical services like divination and love spells were prosecuted under a lesser category, those who consulted with witches were protected from severe punishment, and the rights of torture were not extended to witches any more than to other felons.

Further, even during the parliament where the 1604 Act was brought into force, James granted a pardon to Christian Weech, wife of Thomas, who had been accused of witchcraft, and precious little evidence exists for either a demand, or even any correspondence, from James over the act.

Who brought the 1604 Act into being? The answer would seem to lie in a mixture of existing judicial desires, the prominent cases of Elizabeth’s late reign, and anticipation of the new monarch’s proclivities.

From 1599 to 1603 a series of prominent witchcraft and demonic possession cases had rocked not only London, but northern parts of the Kingdom as well. The Puritan exorcist John Darrell had attracted a great deal of attention with a series of high profile possessions, many of whom not only named women as witches, but a number of the woman accused had been hanged.

Attacked in two books by Anglican cleric Samuel Harsnett, the curtailment possession reached its apex with the 1603 case of Mary Glover, who accused Elizabeth Jackson of bewitching her to have possessed fits. The whole case was finally dismissed by the court after the physician Edward Jordan came to Jackson’s defence, proving that Mary was mentally ill. The trial was followed by Jordan’s book, Breife Discourse of a Disease Called the Suffocation of the Mother, which placed a bee in the bonnet of Lord Chief Justice Edmund Anderson, and started an excited murmur sensationalist sermons across the country.

Not only was witchcraft mentioned in the pulpit, but publishers cranked out popular witchcraft books in anticipation of James’ witch hunting adventure. James’ 1597 publication, Demonology was reprinted, as was George Gifford’s Dialogue Concerning Witches and Witchcraftes. London also abounded with fictions about witches: The Merry Devil of Edmonton was published that year, as was the A Text of Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus.

A power behind the 1604 Act, however, was Sir Edmund Anderson. He was the eldest of the committee behind the act, and had presided over one of the highest volume periods of witchcraft prosecution in the Home Counties. Of the Mary Glover case, he said in 1602, “The land is full of witches; they abound in all places… I have hanged five or six and twenty of them. There is no man here can speak more of them myself… their malice is great, their practises Devilish, and if we shall not convict them without their own confession or direct proofs, where the presumptions are so great and the circumstances so apparent, they will in a short time over-run the whole land.”

Likewise, in 1599, when the Bishop of London had spoken in the case of Anne Kerke, saying that there was nothing in her case that he could not believe had been counterfeited, Anderson and the other judges regaled the Jury with their personal stories of demonic possession to emphasise the reality of the condition.

Under such circumstances, and given the widespread expectation that James himself would be an avid witch hunter, it is easy to imagine how such an act could come to be written without a great deal of input from the man himself.

Demonic Possession and James’ Skepticism

While enemies portrayed James as being the ‘Wisest Fool in Christendom’, he was certainly not a man easily persuaded by supernatural wonders. In 1605 he asked to meet with a physician Richard Haydock, who became briefly famous after professing that he could give sermons in his sleep. Haydock was a typical ‘Charismatic’ preacher: he claimed that he would see the words of the bible scrolling in front of him as he spoke, distracted by demonic pinching.

Despite, or perhaps because of, the fact that Haydock’s sermons were critical of the Church of England, James asked for the preacher to be brought to him. At the critical moment, however, Haydock’s nerve broke and he confessed his fraud to the King and his court. James, moved by the sincerity of the confession, accepted Haydock’s public recantation and offered to set him up with a career in the church, which Haydock refused, becoming a doctor and subsequently examining another of James’ debunked wonders, Anne Gunter.

Anne had started suffering demonic fits after a disagreement in her home town, and had started raising quite a deal of interest. It is here, though, that we see evidence of James’ reputation for scepticism: just after his meeting with Gunter, Sir Roger Wilbraham, the Solicitor General for Ireland, characterised James’ intellectual powers when it came to uncovering pretended supernatural occurrences: “By his own skill” the lawyer wrote, “[the king] had uncovered two notorious impostures.”

Just as with his early fascination with the witch Marion McIngaroch in 1589, in 1605, he had the girl brought to him as a guest of Professor Thomas Holland, a man who would later become one of the academic team working on the King James Bible. Anne Gunter was Holland’s sister-in-law, and an investigation of her so-called possession had already begun as her father, Brian, had used Holland’s contacts to show her around Oxford’s high society.

After meeting with Anne, and a subsequent investigation at the hands of the King’s trusted operatives, James wrote to his chief minister that the girl had been drugged and fed alcohol by her father, and that she had been forced to pretend her fits by him and his confederates.

It wouldn’t be the last time that James debunked the supernatural. When a boy named Smith started identifying witches, James soon came to the scene to interview the boy personally. Upon satisfying himself that the child was pretending, James ‘discounternanced’ the Judges (not the first time he had admonished judges who had come to a decision he didn’t appreciate) and freed five women who had been held for trial (unfortunately, nine had already been hanged).

Likewise, in 1620, when a sorcerer and schoolmaster named Peacock got himself embroiled in the machinations of between Lady Essex and Sir Thomas Lake, James seems not to have been overly concerned. The unfortunate Peacock (who might have brought things on himself, considering a diary entry by William Camden) was tortured by the strappado for most of a day, without uncovering much significant information, and the case seems to have passed James’ attention without a great deal of comment.

(It should be said that while Sir Thomas was fairly quickly returned to James’ good graces, the unfortunate Peacock was remanded from the Tower to the Marshalsea, where I can find no further record of him).

A Reaffirmation of Witchcraft

Despite James’ work against ‘pretended’ cases of the supernatural, and his seeming ability to turn a blind eye when it seemed expedient, one example from his correspondence shows that he retained a private belief in witchcraft, or at least a need to maintain that he did.

By 1613, Francis Howard nee Deveraux, wife of the Earl of Essex was suing for a nullity of marriage against her husband on grounds of impotence. This seems to have been a tactic that other dissatisfied noblewomen attempted. During the Lake case, the fires were stoked by accusations of impotence as Lady Ros, Lake’s daughter, threatened her husband with the exposure of his sexual inadequacy.

In Francis’ case, the Earl either rejected her blackmail attempt, or Francis failed to envision one, since impotence was a key ground in her case of nullity, while the Earl wrote an enraged letter to the court, accusing Francis of making him impotent by sorcery.

While magic and sorcerers would become important again in that case (which I shall write about in good time), Deveraux’s accusation of sorcery seems to have been little more than a footnote – problematic, in that James seemed disposed to grant the nullity, since Francis wanted to marry the King’s favourite, the Earl of Somerset.

However, the suit for annulment had an opponent in the Archbishop of Canterbury, George Abbot. Abbot and the king had clashed through the whole process. After meetings, interviews and conferences on the subject, Abbot finally sent James a letter laying out his opposition to the proposed annulment of the Deveraux marriage.

On such an emotive topic, it can hardly be surprising that the letter was impassioned and somewhat unguarded. However, the Archbishop wrote a sentence that was to provoke a powerful reaction from his king. On the subject of magical impotence annulling marriage, in addition to stating that there was no precedent in scripture, Abbot wrote:

“…till the tyme of [Hicmar, Bishop of Rhiems] who lived 900 years after Christ it may well be conceaded that this was a concomitant of darkness and popish superstition which about that tyme grew to soo great a hight, god permittyng, then that punishment to fall upon the children of unbeliefe. But since the light of the gospel is now in soe great a measure broken out againe, why should not I hope that those who have embraced the gospel should be free from Maleficum, speciallie since from amongst of a million men in our age, there is not one founde in all our countrie who is clearlie and evidentie knowen to bee troubled with the same.”

James’ reply was largely focussed on the matter of Witchcraft. Rather snippily he replied that although the divine could not find a passage that directly covered magical impotence, the impotence of Hagar in 2 Kings could cover it – since it was an impotence sent by God and the Devil was able to ape god’s powers.

Another argument against Abbot’s assertion that the Devil cannot harm the faithful is that, “…as God is, there be divels and divels must have some power, and there power is in this world for Satan I the price of darkness neither are thee exepmpted from his power; Job was not, St Paule was not…”

Likewise, James states that rather than find that despite Abbot’s assertions that witchcraft’s time has passed, “how was then a minister of Genova bewitched to death, and how are the witches dailie punished by our lawe? Surely if they can harme none but the papishe we are to charitable to labour soo far avengine them onlie, Satan is permitted to punish man as well for his breach of the second and the first table and thereof are we noo less guiltie then the paptistes are and if the power of witchcraft may reache to our lyffe muche more… specially to a member soe govourned by the fancie where in the divell has his principalle operation…”

…and yet, James did not either blame nor pursue Farancis for the crime of witchcraft. Eventually, Abbot was cowed, and Essex was taken aside by Francis’ father and persuaded to drop his accusation of witchcraft despite James’ passionate reassertion that James believed in it, albeit in a way that served the purpose of the trial.

The future might hold some record or letter that process this matter definitively: a hand-written diary of James VI, with a harried, scratched confession that his belief in witchcraft was only a matter of political expediency. Conversely, his private correspondence could reveal curiosity, but ultimately a deep-seated belief in the power of Satan and his minions, the witches. There might even be freely available resources that I have not yet come across – my journey on this question has only just begun.


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2 thoughts on “Did King James Believe in Witches (English Edition)”

  1. In the State Papers for the 5th June 1604 there are notes of amendments to be made to this bill which shows James I was closely interested with this bill [1]. One member of the bill committee, Sir Roger Aston, was used by James as a messenger to the Commons and reported activities in the Commons to James.[2] It is likely he was reporting on the bill to James and informing the committee of the opinion of James.

    [1] ‘Calendar of State Papers, Domestic, James I, 1605’, in Calendar of State Papers, Domestic, James I, 1605, p. 117.
    [2] ‘ASTON, Sir Roger (-d.1612), of Edinburgh and Cranfold, Mdx. | History of Parliament Online’ [accessed 1 May 2013].

    1. Ooh, that’s interesting. The British Library has the whole of the State Papers digitised: I’ll take a look at the full thing next time I’m there! I’ll have at any other correspondence I can find.

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