Did the North Berwick Witches Actually Do Any Magic?


Blog readers have my apologies for the lateness of this, the first post of my monthly blogging — February has seen me contract Vestibular Neuronitis, a condition affecting my balance. As such February 2017 has been both surreal and hugely unpleasant, and I’m not fully on my feet yet.

Anyway, as some of my readers might know, one case that I often return to is the North Berwick trials of 1590-91. My personal judgement is that the North Berwick trials are interesting to study from a number of perspectives, but that ultimately, I don’t believe for a moment that the events of the North Berwick Sabbats occurred. That doesn’t mean, necessarily, that there wasn’t a magical conspiracy to kill of control James VI.

In fact, there could well have been.

A Very Convenient Witch Trial

The North Berwick witch trials had been political from the start. During her interrogation one of the first two witches – the Cunning Woman Agnes Sampson – had made comment on the king’s difficulties bringing his new wife Anne home from Denmark. With James’ problems securing Anne’s transport presenting a major source of embarrassment, Sampson’s remark was seized upon from the outset. For the cynic, it doubtless presented a convenient foil to blame for the king’s misfortunes; for the believer, it drew the already threadbare curtain away from the hidden cause of their monarch’s difficulties.

Enter the Earl of Bothwell

Francis  Hepburn, Earl of Bothwell was James’ cousin and a one-time ally. He had been one of those who had helped James to free himself from imprisonment by the Presbyterian Ruthven Raiders, despite being on intimate terms with many of the conspirators. However, when the Earl of Huntley had been discovered exchanging letters with the forces behind the 1588 Spanish Armada Bothwell had thrown in with him, bringing James to the field of combat.

By the start of the North Berwick trials, Bothwell had been officially rehabilitated, and made Lord Lieutenant of the Borders… nonetheless, his long-time adversary, John Maitland, was James’ Chancellor. In fact, as James made the journey to Denmark, where he would wed Anne himself and finally bring her back to Scotland, Bothwell and the fifteen year old Duke of Lennox were made joint presidents of James’ Council as James and Maitland travelled abroad.

In a letter of uncertain date (or at least of a date uncertain to me from the resources I have), Richie Graham reached out to James, claiming that Bothwell had sent for him via a servant named Ninian Chirnsyde, whom Bothwell had asked about assurances he had had in Italy that the King should favour him.

We see this accusation in Sir James Melville’s notes on Graham’s examination before himself and the king (where, it would be later alleged, that Graham was offered a deal of immunity and fair treatment if he would ‘depone honestly’ regarding Bothwell’s involvement). Melville writes that Graham claimed Bothwell asked:

“…[for] his help to cause the king’s majesty to like well of him; and to that effect he gave the said earl some drug or herb, willing him at some convenient time to touch his majesty’s face therewith. Which being done by the said earl… he dealt again with he said Richie to get his majesty wracked, as Richie alleged; who said that he could not do such things himself, but that a notable midwife who was a witch called Agnes Sampson, could bring any such purpose to pass.”

In the Duke’s trial documents, more detail is given, saying that while Bothwell had been either in Italy or Germany he had been advised by ‘a man of science’ (possibly an Astrologer?) that James would one day execute him.

Graham also confessed that he had raised the devil at the home of John Boswell, laird of Auchinlek, who had been denounced as a rebel for consulting with witches and practising magic.

Interestingly, the only time that Bothwell admitted to having a connection with Graham had been a time when he had come across him while riding with his enemy, John Maitland. Graham either appears to have been riding with the men, or they had come upon him, whereby he showed them a stick wrapped in human hair and claimed that it was enchanted.

Graham’s confession brings Bothwell into the North Berwick trials: a set of confessions procured in late January 1591 has him commissioning the magical murder of the King – although the culprit is briefly changed to Robert Bowes, the English Ambassador – and offering not only food, but ample payments of gold to the coven of witches.

The question is, was Graham’s statement the pure fantasy of a man evading death? Or could there be some kernel of truth to Scottish nobility consulting with magical practitioners?

Magic and Murder at Aberdeen

Just after quashing the Huntley/Bothwell rebellion that had briefly derailed his marriage negotiations, James entered Aberdeen to interview the magical practitioner Marion MacIngaroch.

The start of this had been some eleven years earlier, in 1578, when Hector Munro and Katherine Ross – Lady Foulis – had consulted with the witch Majorie nighdean MacAlasdair, who had acted as an agent in a magical war against Katherine’s own son, Robert Munro. Along with other witches, the group had used a mixture of magical dolls, ritual magic and outright poison to kill Robert, to no success.

After the group had been caught, and Katherine acquitted, the affair had fallen silent until Hector and Katherine had argued, prompting Hector to seemingly believe that Robert was being cursed again, and recruited the witch MacIngaroch to help him save his brother’s life.

The two seem also to have shared a romantic bond, with Marion living ‘as though she was his spouse’ when Hector fell sick.

In fact, believing that Katherine’s curse had fallen upon him, Hector and Marion hatched a magical ritual that would shift the curse onto Hector’s brother George – delaying the death to avoid suspicion.

The pace of events led to James eventually pressuring Hector into brining his consort Marion to a meeting where he quizzed her about some magical stones – that he confiscated – and eventually to a trial where Hector, like his mother before him, was acquitted.

Magic in James’ English Court

If the letters and confessions of magicians are to be believed, Bothwell’s sending a servant to procure the services of the magician Graham wasn’t without precident in the Court of the English king Henry VIII. The letter of the magician William Stapleton describes his being brought to the household of the Duke of Norfolk, who believed himself to be cursed by a spirit under the control of Cardinal Wolsey.

During James’ reign, the circumstance of desperate nobles supposedly involving magicians in state affairs would rear its head at least twice: the case 1620 case of ‘Peacock of Cambridge’, who claimed to have been employed by Sir Thomas Locke to influence the king’s judgement in a dispute against his daughter’s mother in law; more substantially, the 1613 case of Francis Howard/Carr, the former Lady Essex who had become Lady Essex, and whose personal life had been full of dealings with magicians from the suspicious Gresham and Savoy, the treacherous Woods, who would betray her, and the famous Simon Forman, who seems to have supplied a mixture of magic and drugs to courtly women all over London.

Even decades later in France, the magician Lesage would confess, under threat of torture, that courtiers had hired him for spells to attract the favour of Louis XIVth and other important figures at court.

It’s not, therefore, impossible that Bothwell had contacted Graham for some kind of magical services. Certainly, he was in a difficult situation and if his mind had been further disquieted by an ominous horoscope, he might have decided to take steps to protect himself.

I do, however, maintain that the fantastical images of witches meeting with the Devil and digging up corpses at the North Berwick Kirk never occurred. Such images were born and lived in the minds of witchcraft writers, constructed between interrogators and the desperate victims of Witchcraft accusations.


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