On this date in 1591, Agnes Sampson, the “Wise Wife of Keith”, went to the stake at Edinburgh during the North Berwick Witch Trials.
Perhaps Scotland’s most notorious witch hunt, the 1590-1591 sweep caught up something approaching 70 supposed sorcerers thanks to the king’s security panic after dangerous North Sea storms had beset the sea voyages uniting King James VI of Scotland and his new wife Queen Anne of Denmark. An inquisition in Denmark had made witches the culprit, and the young James — amusingly described by one commenter as “a superstitious and distrustful poltroon”* — opened an inquiry of his own as soon as he returned to native heather. His subsequent obsession with witchcraft is one of the signal characteristics of his reign, immortalized in literature via Shakespeare’s Macbeth.
James turned 24 in the summer of 1590, his short life already buffeted by fratricidal court politics (his mother, Mary Queen of Scots, lost her head; the regents who subsequently jostled over control of James had a frightening tendency to violent death). However misplaced upon magicians, his fear was well-founded; James’s cousin Lord Bothwell, himself escaped from arrest during the North Berwick scare, openly plotted against James throughout the early 1590s — one occasion coming “with fire to the king’s door, with hammers to the queen’s door” and on another surprising him in a vulnerable position during his morning toilet, causing the king to exclaim, “Came they to seek his life? let them take it — they would not get his soul.”
Peril to life and soul everywhere stretched into James’s world from the world beyond. “Our enemie is over craftie, and we over weake,” James would write in his remarkable 1597 disquisition on black magic, Daemonologie: Satan’s earthly minions so mighty that “They can rayse stormes and tempestes in the aire, either upon Sea or land.”
In an illustration from Daemonologie, James personally interrogates witches.
A woman named Geillis Duncan, maid to the deputy mayor of a small town near Edinburgh, was the fountainhead of the the North Berwick trials, when her suspicious master tortured her into admitting to witchcraft. King James personally joined the ensuing interrogations which saw her denounce several dozen Edinburghers as fellow necromancers, among them our day’s principal — a matronly widow named Agnes Sampson, who was a respected “wise woman” and folk healer much in demand among Edinburgh’s elites.
In Duncan’s involuntary narration, this woman “was the elder Witch” and when she “stood stiffely in the deniall of all that was laide to her charge” they dragged her to prison and put her to torture, also shaving her hairless in search of the inevitable small disfigurement that would be prejudicially construed her witches’ mark — “and forasmuch as by due examination of witchcraft and witches in Scotland, it hath latelye beene found that the Deuill dooth generallye marke them with a priuie marke, by reason the Witches haue confessed themselues, that the Diuell dooth lick them with his tung in some priuy part of their bodie, before hee dooth receiue them to be his seruants, which marke commonly is giuen them vnder the haire in some part of their bodye.”
We’re quoting here the 1591 pamphlet Newes from Scotland, one of the key primary sources (and justifications) of the witch trials which was issued from a pen very near to the king’s own hand. Having endured the cruel torture of having her hair wrenched (“thrawn”) by ropes for an hour, Newes from Scotland reports, Sampson broke down when an incriminating wart was discovered upon her bared pudenda.
the said Agnis Tompson confessed that the Divell being then at North Barrick Kerke attending their comming in the habit or likenes of a man, and seeing that they tarried over long, he at their comming enjoyned them all to a pennance, which was, that they should kisse his Buttockes, in signe of duetye to him: which being put over the Pulpit barre, everye one did as he had enjoyned them: and having made his ungodly exhortations, wherein he did greatlye enveighe against the King of Scotland, he received their oathes for their good and true service towards him, and departed: which doone, they returned to Sea, and so home againe.
At which time the witches demaunded of the Divel why he did beare such hatred to the King, who answered, by reason the King is the greatest enemy he hath in the worlde: all which their confessions and depositions are still extant upon record.
Item, the saide Agnis Sampson confessed before the Kings Majestie sundrye thinges which were so miraculous and strange, as that his Maiestie saide they were all extreame lyars, wherat she answered, she would not wishe his Maiestie to suppose her woords to be false, but rather to beleeve them, in that she would discover such matter unto him as his majestie should not any way doubt off.
And therupon taking his Majestie a little aside, she declared unto him the verye woordes which passed betweene the Kings Majestie and his Queene at Upslo in Norway the first night of their mariage, with their answere eache to other: whereat the Kinges Majestie wondered greatlye, and swore by the living God, that he beleeved that all the Divels in hell could not have discovered the same: acknowledging her woords to be most true, and therefore gave the more credit to the rest which is before declared.
One can see the work this tract — circulated as its title implies in England, where James was already being set up to inherit rule from the aging Queen Elizabeth — effects as propaganda: James as “the greatest enemy [the Devil] hath in the worlde”; James as the savvy and thorough interrogator too worldly to be taken by Agnes Sampson’s crazy stories until she proved them with a conveniently unfalsifiable private conference. Definitely no superstitious poltroon! Why, it was only by his superlative faith that James earned the divine favor required to overcome his adversaries’ weather machinations.
She confessed that she tooke a blacke Toade, and did hang the same up by the heeles, three daies, and collected and gathered the venome as it dropped and fell from it in an Oister shell, and kept the same venome close covered, untill she should obtaine any parte or peece of foule linnen cloth, that had appertained to the Kings Majestie, as shirt, handkercher, napkin or any other thing which she practised to obtaine by meanes of one John Kers, who being attendant in his Majesties Chamber, desired him for olde acquaintance betweene them, to helpe her to one or a peece of such a cloth as is aforesaide, which thing the said John Kers denyed to helpe her too, saying he could not help her too it.
And the said Agnis Tompson** by her depositions since her apprehension saith, that if she had obtained any one peece of linnen cloth which the King had worne and fouled, she had bewitched him to death, and put him to such extraordinary paines, as if he had beene lying upon sharp thornes and endes of Needles.
Moreover she confessed that at the time when his Majestie was in Denmarke, she being accompanied with the parties before specially named, tooke a Cat and christened it, and afterward bound to each parte of that Cat, the cheefest partes of a dead man, and severall joynts of his bodie, and that in the night following the saide Cat was conveied into the midst of the sea by all these witches sayling in their riddles or Cities as is aforesaide, and so left the saide Cat right before the Towne of Lieth in Scotland: this doone, there did arise such a tempest in the Sea, as a greater hath not beene scene: which tempest was the cause of the perrishing of a Boate or vessell comming over from the towne of Brunt Iland to the towne of Lieth, wherein was sundrye Jewelles and riche giftes, which should have been presented to the now Queen of Scotland, at her Majesties comming to Lieth.
Againe it is confessed, that the said christened Cat was the cause that the Kinges Majesties Ship at his comming foorth of Denmarke, had a contrary winde to the rest of his Ships, then being in his companye, which thing was most strange and true, as the Kings Majestie acknowledgeth, for when the rest of the Shippes had a faire and good winde, then was the winde contrarye and altogither against his Majestie: and further the saide witche declared, that his Majestie had never come safelye from the Sea, if his faith had not prevailed above their ententions.
Moreouer the said Witches being demaunded how the Divell would use them when he was in their company, they confessed that when the Divell did receive them for his servants, and that they had vowed themselues unto him, then he would Carnallye use them, albeit to their little pleasure, in respect of his colde nature: and would doo the like at sundry other times.
The History of Witchcraft podcast does a deep dive on the North Berwick trials in episode 9 which indulges detail (from about 25:40) on the logistics of witch-burning executions. This episode is part of a whole series on witchy King James that also compasses episodes 7, 8, and 10.
* Ray Defalque and A.J Wright, “In the Name of God: Why Agnes Sampson and Eufame McCalyean were burned at the stake” in Bulletin of Anesthesia History, July 2004. The interest in the case from this unusual-to-Executed Today source is that the charges against Sampson included those of witcherous midwifery, to wit, “remov[ing] Lady Hirmestone’s pain and sickness the night of her labor” and doing the same for Eufame McCalyean. As a result, “several authors have suggested that obstetrical analgesia started in Edinburgh in 1591,” an interpretation that Defalque and Wright, both anesthesiologists, reject.
** Newes from Scotland puts this part of the confession into the mouth of a more historically elusive woman called “Agnis Thompson”: many scholars believe that Sampson and Thompson are the same person.