In 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.
From the year 1563 to 1736 Scotland saw almost four thousand witch trials, with as many as 67% of the accused being executed by fire.
Two of the greatest concentrated periods of witch trials occurred under the stewardship of King James VI, son of Mary Queen of Scots, who would come to succeed the English Queen Elizabeth in 1603. That year, lawmakers in London would also draft a new witchcraft act that created a two-tier system of trials, dramatically increasing the number of death sentences for the most serious categories of witchcraft.
For anyone studying the history of Witchcraft, this title is the question that you can’t quite believe nobody asked.
In the pamphlet, The Severall Facets of Witch-crafte (1585), we can observe the horrible retribution a nameless thirty-year-old metes out on a neighbour in Stanmore:
“I have not done with thee yet: so hee went about his businesse and beeinge come home, he complained of his backe and belley, saying… that he thought she had bewitched him: so his paine increased more and more, and hee began to growe into a consumption, and wasted away like the Childe before mentioned, like a parched or wethered leafe, hanged up in the smoke of a Chimney, and dyed three monthes after, and before he dyed his side did burst, and his guttes and backe bone was rotted in sunder, so that his guttes and bowels being rotten did issue foorth on his belley: and dyed hereof in most pitifull and grievous manner, the sayd partie taking it upon his death that her witch-craft and sorcery was the cause…”
With that sort of power – to kill swiftly, painfully, and with almost guaranteed success – you might think her apprehension would have caused a considerable number of casualties. Yet in the 1585 case our demonstrably dangerous sorceress is captured by simply arresting her when she comes begging at a gentleman’s door.
I’ve already written about fairies in the witch trials on this blog. While it would be inaccurate to say that witches represented a survival of some pre-Christian Pagan religion, the idea of Pagan DNA lurking in the genetic makeup of Medieval and Early Modern Christian practises certainly bothered educated writers. In Buchard of Worms’ Decretum, written sometime around 1066, took time to attack perceived ‘Pagan’ practises such as dream travel, playing music around the dead, and dancing in cemeteries. Whether it was a deliberate campaign — not unlike the general campaign of imitation, assimilation and stigmatisation used through the rest of the spread of Christianity through Europe — or the result of writers attempting to use the Latin language to express native concepts, by the 16th and 17th centuries the idea had become entrenched.
We can see by the late 16th century, by which time the English witch trials were in full swing, and nowhere near the hiatus that would occur in the first Caroline era, that the ecclesiastical elite were very much of the opinion that witches whose work involved mention of the fairies were certainly minions of Satan. In 1579, in a book of medicinal recipes, William Bullein took time to attack a Catholic healer in Parham who used an ebony rosary and prayers to St. Anthony to cure illnesses caused by fairies and sprites.
In his 1590 Treatise Against Witchcraft Henry Holland, a graduate of Cambridge who was the Vicar of St. Brides while Christopher Marlowe was writing his Faustus, mentioned fairy witches in his list of terms for malevolent women, “the witches are sometimes called Thessalae, Thessalian Witches, Sagae, Wise Women, Magae, Persian Witches, Lamiae, Ladies of Fayrie, Stirges, Hegge…”