1591: Agnes Sampson, North Berwick witch

2 comments January 28th, 2018 Headsman

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.

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1621: Christenze Kruckow, philanthropic witch

2 comments June 26th, 2015 Headsman

On this date in 1621, Christenze (or Christence) Kruckow was beheaded as a witch — the only known noblewoman to suffer that fate in Danish history.

Kruckow first came under the witchsmeller’s nose in the 1590s. As a young woman, she lived in the household of a man named Eiler Brockenhuus — common practice at the time in Danish high society. The supposition is that when the lady of the house died in 1582, Kruckow might have aspired to make a permanent move. Instead, the position of wife no. 2 went to another woman named Anne Brille.

From the sound of it, Anne Brille spent the ensuing decade-plus in a state of continual pregnancy, punctuated only by periods of mourning as all 15* of her prospective progeny miscarried or died in infancy. Pick your environmental toxin or genetic abnormality of choice, but it’s no surprise this started to give the poor would-be mother the heebie-jeebies. Eventually, two of the estate’s servants got caught up in a 1596 witchcraft interrogation and were burned at the stake — but not before implicating Christenze Kruckow as part of the coven.

On that occasion, the usual reticence to visit on elites the sanctions intended for their lessers prevailed, and Christenze simply had to relocate to a sister’s household in Alborg.

But a reputation for black magic wasn’t the best thing to have to one’s name in early 17th century Europe, when witch-hunting reached a horrifying acme. Like his brother-in-law James VI of Scotland (also James I of England), the long-reigning Danish king Christian IV developed a personal obsession with the diabolical, leading to an effusion of witchcraft trials in the 1610s and early 1620s.

Now, Kruckow’s elite status served to attract instead of deflect attention; it didn’t help that she was become a never-married hexagenarian. When a neighbor’s wife fell ill in witch-spooked Alborg, the accusations against her snowballed into their customary colorful forms, such as that she’d been seen delivering a pregnant woman (Danish link) of a troll or ogre at some fell sabbath. King Christian took a personal interest in seeing her case prosecuted, and in the end it was his own Privy Council that tried her, and then sentenced her to the privileged death by the sword instead of the stake: the last deferences to her social rank. She confessed at that time to having attempted to lay a curse on the wedding-bed of her long-ago rival, Anne Brille.

In between her witch episodes, Christenze Kruckow had taken an interest in education for poor children in Alborg. She carried her philanthropy (more Danish) even beyond the scaffold, bequeathing 1,000 rigsdalers to a university scholarship that the University of Copenhagen was still awarding into the 20th century — popularly known as the “beheaded virgin grant”.

* Or 17. Sources vary, but you’d lose count too.

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1581: James Douglas, Earl of Morton

Add comment June 2nd, 2015 Headsman

On this date in 1581, James Douglas, the Earl of Morton was beheaded on the Maiden.

The fourth and last of little King James‘s regents, Morton was arguably the most able of the bunch and distinguished his span of authority by winning the raging civil war against James’s mother Mary.

Regent Morton had a reputation for avarice during his run in the 1570s. However, deriving as it does from his executive impingement on the treasures of courtiers and clans no less grasping than himself, that reputation probably ought to be taken with a grain of salt.


Rimshot

If nothing else, Regent Morton had the excuse of king and country. Sir Walter Scott, for one, favored this Red Douglas with a much more charitably statesmanlike gloss in The Monastery and The Abbott.

As one example, Morton irked divines by enforcing with a minimum of pious exceptions a pre-existing statute requiring a one-third cut of ecclesiastical revenues.

Likewise, he made an enemy of Lady Agnes Keith — the widow of the assassinated first regent — and her (subsequent) husband, the Earl of Argyll by forcing them to turn over crown jewels that were being held in their quote-unquote safekeeping.

In 1578, this Argyll kidnapped King James VI and induced the 12-year-old to declare his majority and dismiss the Earl of Morton. Argyll landed a Chancellorship out of the deal: Morton — well, you know. He would eventually be accused, 14 years’ belatedly but not inaccurately, of complicity in the 1567 murder of Lord Darnley.

Argyll in the end lost his head to that distinctive Scottish proto-guillotine known as the Maiden. Though the apparatus actually dates back to 1564,* a legend as moralistic as it is specious holds that the Regent Morton was himself the man who ordered construction of the device that would eventually end his own life. Sir Walter could hardly be asked to resist that kind of material:

“Look you, Adam, I were loth to terrify you, and you just come from a journey; but I promise you, Earl Morton hath brought you down a Maiden from Halifax, you never saw the like of her — and she’ll clasp you round the neck, and your head will remain in her arms.”

“Pshaw!” answered Adam, “I am too old to have my head turned by any maiden of them all. I know my Lord of Morton will go as far for a buxom lass as anyone; but what the devil took him to Halifax all the way? and if he has got a gamester there, what hath she to do with my head?”

“Much, much!” answered Michael. “Herod’s daughter, who did such execution with her foot and ankle, danced not men’s heads off more cleanly than this maiden of Morton. ‘Tis an axe, man, — an axe which falls of itself like a sash window, and never gives the headsmen the trouble to wield it.”

“By my faith, a shrewd device,” said Woodcock; “heaven keep us free on’t!”

-Sir Walter Scott, The Abbott

When next in Edinburgh, quaff Scots engineering acumen with the friendly backpackers crashing at the High Street Hostel — the glorious stone town house that was once Regent Morton’s very own crib.


By Kim Traynor (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons.

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1612: Robert Crichton, Lord Sanquhar and mediocre swordsman

Add comment June 29th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1612, the Scottish noble Robert Crichton, Lord Crichton of Sanquhar, swung for revenge served very cold.

Sanquhar (alternatively, Sanquire) was a Scottish noble imported to the English court in the train of King James. Keeping up his swordsmanship in a practice bout with the fencing-master John Turner, Sanquhar had his eye put out by his opponent’s foil.

While this injury was the source of the tragedy that ensued for both men, it is said — perhaps it’s just literary license — that it was the illustrious French king Henri IV who turned the situation deadly with a passing remark when Sanquhar subsequently visited Henri’s duel-mad realm to the effect that it was a wonder that the author of such a horrible wound still lived. Already down one organ for his trouble, Sanquhar was stung to discover emasculation stacked on his woes; even though it was several years after* the duel, Sanquhar began plotting to vindicate eye and honor alike.

If this is so, it is not altogether clear to us that hiring a dependent to shoot the offending duellist unawares in a tavern quite comports with an offended dignity, but that’s chivalry for you. (Actually, the fact that Turner was not himself a gentleman made it socially problematic for Sanquhar to engage him in a proper affair of honor, per the queer codex of early modern masculinity.)

His Lordship had leaned on at least three underlings while engineering his belated revenge, and one of these wisely turned crown’s evidence against the rest of the quartet and hung the lot of his confederates. The headline case was of course the prosecution of the Baron Sanquhar handled personally by the king’s Solicitor-General, one Francis Bacon.

At trial on June 27 — 47 days after the murder; two days before the execution — Sanquhar mounted a better defense for his honor than for his neck.

After this loss of my eye and with the great hazard of the loss of life, I must confess that I ever kept a grudge of my soul against Turner, but had no purpose to take so high a revenge; yet in the course of my revenge I considered not my wrongs upon terms of Christianity — for then I should have sought for other satisfaction — but, being trained up in the courts of princes and in arms, I stood upon the terms of honour, and thence befell this act of dishonour, whereby I have offended — first, God; second, my prince; third, my native country; fourth, this country; fifth, the party murdered; sixth, his wife; seventh, posterity; eighth, Carlisle, now to be executed;** and lastly, ninth, my own soul, and I am now to die for my offence.

But, my lords, besides my own offence, which in its nature needs no aggravation, divers scandalous reports are given out which blemish my reputation, which is more dear to me than my life: first, that I made show of reconciliation with Turner, the which, I protest, is utterly untrue, for what I have formerly said I do again assure your good lordships, that ever after my hurt received I kept a grudge in my soul against him, and never made the least pretence of reconciliation with him. Yet this, my lords, I will say, that if he would have confessed and sworn he did it not of purpose, and withal would have foresworn arms, I would have pardoned him; for, my lords, I considered that it must be done either of set purpose or ignorantly. If the first, I had no occasion to pardon him; if the last, that is no excuse in a master, and therefore for revenge of such a wrong I thought him unworthy to bear arms.

Shorter Lord Sanquhar: I confess.

Needing not so much to contest the case at the bar as to narrate its intended moral, Bacon speculated that Sanquhar must have come by his egregious “affections of dwelling in malice, rather out of Italy … than out of any part of this island, England, or Scotland.” While this murder was not a duel, it sprang from a palpably similar place — and duels, just then taking on their recognizable ritual form, were furiously opposed by the state. Sanquhar had resided in Italy, but more than that, the term was code for the fencing experts who brought from the continent codes duello and mannerly rapiers and the prospect of destructive private vendettas. This was more than premeditated homicide; it was an arrogation of the king’s own prerogatives of justice and order.

“What the law abhorred was not cold-blooded premeditated duelling as such, but the attitudes manifested by that practice,” writes Jeremy Horder.† “The calculating duellist is an ‘isolent’ person acting with ‘arrogancy and rebellion’ in casting off the yoke of obedience, as if he had the power to set his own laws above those of the common law.”

Angling for a promotion to Attorney General (he would get it in 1613), Bacon also made a point to lavish praise on his Scotch-born sovereign for another lesson the trial was meant to underscore to his English subjects: “his majesty hath shewed himself God’s true lieutenant, and that he is no respecter of persons; but the English, Scottish, nobleman, fencer, are to him alike in respect of justice.”

Nobleman and subalterns alike died on different gallows this date: Lord Crichton of Sanquhar hanged before Westminster Hall, while his two assassin-henchmen dangled on gallows at Fleet Street.

* Sources propose various dates from 1604 to 1607 for the eye-foiling; Bacon in arraigning Sanquhar remarks that “it is now five years” since that happened.

** The man who actually shot John Turner.

† “The Duel and the English Law of Homicide,” Oxford Journal of Legal Studies, Autumn 1992.

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1600: The corpses of John and Alexander Ruthven, for the Gowrie conspiracy

2 comments November 17th, 2012 Headsman

Remember, remember, the fifth of … August?

If you didn’t get August 5 off, your jurisdiction is ignoring the Scottish parliament’s 1600 decree: “in all times and ages to come the fifth of August should be solemnly kept with prayers, preachings, and thanksgiving for the benefit, discharging all work, labour, and other occupations upon the said day.”*

They didn’t mean to keep it out of excess reverence for St. Emygdius: rather, August 5 was the date of the Gowrie conspiracy, a sketchy supposed assassination attempt on King James VI of Scotland (soon also to become King James I of England). John Ruthven, Earl of Gowrie and his brother Alexander Ruthven were both slain on the spot during that event … but not until 15 weeks later did Parliament rule that “the said bodies of the said Traitors shall be carried, upon Monday next [i.e., November 17], to the publick cross of Edinburgh: and there to be hangd, quarter’d, and drawn, in presence of the hail People: and thereafter, the heads, quarters, and carcasses, to be affix’d upon the most patent parts and places of the Burroughs of Edinburgh, Perth, Dundee and Stirling.”

Did they deserve it?

Scottish writer John Prebble considered the Gowrie conspiracy one of his realm’s best mysteries. It’s a maddeningly perplexing sequence of ambiguous (or altogether dubious) events related by interested, partisan sources.

I am murtherit!

The summary official version — and we’re skipping over such writerly red herrings as a mystery man in the turret, a still-stabled horse, and a wild fable about a pot of foreign gold — is that while staying at the Ruthven estates, James’s courtiers saw him shouting out the window, “I am murtherit! Treassoun! My Lord of Mar, help! help!”

While Lord Mar and others spent half an hour (!) trying to batter down a locked entrance to the regicidal turret, a page named John Ramsay found another staircase in, where he came upon the king and Alexander Ruthven grappling. Ramsay stabbed Ruthven about the head and neck, and Ruthven fled down Ramsay’s same staircase: there he careened headlong into more arriving royal retainers who killed him flat. Ruthven died exclaiming “Allace! I had na wyte [blame] of it!”

Meanwhile, the Lord Gowrie — quite possibly knowing nothing but that there was a commotion involving the king in his home — had rallied outside the courtyard with his own household and marched in swords drawn, passing the fresh-slain body of his little brother on the way. He must have been in an evil temper when he burst into the chamber, there to discover Ramsay and friends, and only them: the king had been locked in another room for his protection. Ramsay demanded Gowrie’s submission and the two crossed swords, with Ramsay running the elder Ruthven through, too.

(Small wonder Ramsay went on to become a royal favorite.**)

“… if it be true”

“A very wonderful story, your Majesty, if it be true,” one lord is supposed to have replied to James upon hearing this amazing tale.

Suspicion was immediately rife that this “treason” stuff was a cover for the king to take out a rival noble. The Ruthvens had often been at odds with King Jamie’s own family; John and Alexander’s own father was beheaded in 1584 for trying to kidnap the then-teenaged king, and their grandfather had helped a gang of nobles destabilize James’s mother Mary by murdering her favorite courtier David Rizzio right before her eyes. And of course, the crown would be able to seize all the “traitors'” estates, nicely flipping around a significant cash debt owed to the Ruthven clan.

Edinburgh Presbyterian ministers openly disputed the Ruthvens’ guilt, refusing to thank God for James’s “deliverance”.† James found it necessary to forcibly quash this talk, and he would insist upon the Ruthvens’ guilt all his days. But those outside the reach of Scottish royal power had looser tongues.

French nobles who had met Gowrie on the latter’s recent return from his continental studies, and Queen Elizabeth, who had received Gowrie warmly at court, openly doubted the official account: it was thought wildly at odds with the young man’s character. The nature of the interaction between the king and Alexander Ruthven prior to the intervention of John Ramsay depends upon the account of the king himself — that account, and no other. The other witnesses were dead. And the object of the plot seems unclear: sure, maybe Alexander Ruthven could have killed the king mano a mano, but then what? There was no indication at all of confederates (even Alexander’s brother reacted in confusion), nor coherent design for some next step like massacring James’s courtiers or toppling the government or even escaping. These were scheming aristocrats, not deranged lone assassins. And both James and Gowrie had behaved for all the world before this incident as if the unpleasantness with the father was water under the bridge.

“The assassination of the Gowries was the most indefensible act that has ever appeared on the pages of Scottish history,” avers mildy a 1912 volume of the Ruthven family papers. It was “a cunning conspiracy that has disgraced the historical record for more than three hundred years.”

The jury’s still out

Still, the hypothetical account of a royal anti-Gowrie conspiracy seems if anything even less satisfying than the official story. Most of the happenings besides what passed between Alexander and James were witnessed by others, so … the king falsely yelled “treason” counting on the handful of his guys staying in the Ruthvens’ own place to kill the Ruthvens instead of the other way around? Events played out so chaotically that this convenient outcome seems mere [mis]chance. What was the plan if John Ramsay hadn’t found the unlocked second entrance?

And yet some 350 witnesses were examined without turning up any concrete design, and three Ruthven retainers hanged on August 23 insisting upon their innocence of any treasonable intent.

One can go a lot of ways from here, and it’s hard to spin any one story that satisfyingly accounts for all the evidence. A scheme to kidnap (and extract policy change from) the king, rather than murder him? Alexander an unwilling pawn, forced into it by his brother? Or, as one English envoy supposed, a destructive spiral of events proceeding from a silly misunderstanding wherein a chance reference to the Ruthvens’ executed father led Alexander to defend the family a little too hotly and the king to start shouting in panic when he realized he was unarmed in the company of an excited, and much larger, man?‡

We’ll never really know. Light a candle for epistemological uncertainty next August 5.

Much help drawn from a two-parter review of the contradictory evidence in The Scottish Historical Review, nos. 121 and 122 (April and October 1957) by W.F. Arbuckle.

* August 5 was indeed “solemnly kept” during the reign of James, according to F.C. Eeles in “The English Thanksgiving Service for King James’ Delivery from the Gowrie Conspiracy” from the July 1911 Scottish Historical Review. As the title of that piece suggests, there was even a service promulgated (though never incorporated into the Book of Common Prayer), beseeching God that James “may bee kept as the apple of thine eye, and thy kindnesse and mercy may follow him all the dayes of his life, with abundance of all thy blessings both heavenly and earthly upon his Majesty, our gracious Queene, the Prince …”

The Prince in question was the future King Charles I, which might cause one to doubt the prayer’s efficacy.

** Ramsay would be supplanted in the royal sun come the 1620s, by George Villiers.

† Religion affords another potential motivation here, although perhaps only retrospectively. James was working a long-term project to reintroduce episcopacy — crown-appointed bishops — to control the loose canons of Scotch Presbyterianism. “No bishop, no king,” in the aphorism attributed him.

With the Gowrie plot as backdrop, James was able to force radical ministers and their tin-foil hats out of Edinburgh and obtain the consent of the rest to James’s own hand-picked bishops — the camel’s nose under the tent, if you like. (See Maurice Lee, Jr., “James VI and the Revival of Episcopacy in Scotland: 1596-1600,” Church History, 43 (1974).) The Ruthven family papers volume also sets great stock by the idea that a Catholic party was out to get Lord Gowrie.

‡ “by occasion of a picture (as is sayde) or otherwise, speech happening of Earle Gourie his father executed, the k. angrelie sayde he was a traitour. Whereat the youth showing a greived and expostulatorie countenance and happilie Scot-like woords, the k. seeing hymself alone and wythout weapon cryed, ‘Treason, Treason’. The Mr [i.e., Alexander Ruthven], abashed much to see the k. to apprehend yt so … putt his hand with earnest deprecations to staie the k. showing his countenance to them with out in that moode, immediatlie falling on his knees to entreat the k.” Ramsay did say that when he entered the room he saw Alexander’s head under James’s arm, which might be consistent with this supplicatory pose … especially given that accounts of the men’s respective physiques suggest Alexander should have had the clear advantage in an actual scrap.

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1612: The Pendle Witches

3 comments August 20th, 2012 Headsman

You have heard of mother Nottingham, who for her time was pretty well skilled in casting of waters: and after her, Mother Bombye; and there is one Hatfield in Pepper-Alley, hee doth prettie well for a thing that’s lost. There’s another in Coleharbour, that’s skilled in the Planets. Mother Sturton in Goulden-lane, is Fore-speaking: Mother Phillips of the Banke-side is for the weaknesse of the backe: and then there’s a very reverent Matron on Clarkenwell-Green, good at many things: Mistris Mary on the Banke-side is for recting a Figure: and one (what doe you call her) in Westminster, that practiseth the Booke and the Key, and the Sive and the Shears: and all doe well, according to their talent. For myselfe, let he world speake.

-Title character in Thomas Heywood’s The Wise Woman of Hogsdon (1638)

This date marks the 400th anniversary of the Pendle witches‘ hanging — perhaps the most notorious witchcraft execution in English history.

Eight women and two men — Alizon Device, her brother James Device, and their mother Elizabeth Device of the Demdike family; Anne Whittle and her daughter Anne Redferne of the Chattox family; Jane Bulcock and her son John Bulcock; Alice Nutter; Katherine Hewitt; and Isabel Robey* — hanged together this date at Lancaster’s Gallows Hill after being tried over the preceding 48 hours; they, along with a woman named Jennet Preston hanged at York on July 29, comprise the Pendle Witches.

It’s an extraordinarily sad case.

The prosecution of the Pendle witches bubbled out of a witches’ brew of circumstances particular to early-17th century England. There was, to begin with, a new(ish) English king, James I and the guy had a major jones for hunting those early modern supernatural terrorists, witches.** The guy even wrote his own book, Daemonologie, to establish “that such divelish artes have bene and are … [and] what exact trial and severe punishment they merite.” A 1604 law had accordingly broadened the reach of the death penalty for supposed instances of sorcery.

Coming as this did in the aftermath of the Tudor Reformation, the nebulous concept of “witchcraft” was handy as well for clamping down on any excessively Catholic practices that might strike the right authorities as subversive, intransigent, or impious. Lancashire where we lay our scene was just such a Catholic-leaning zone.

Lancashire also had, as almost everywhere in the Isles, its share of “cunning folk” — workers of everyday folk magic whose widely tolerated practices could also be taken by a hostile viewer as Catholic superstition and/or hard-core infernal trafficking.

So, these are the brew’s ingredients. Add wool of bat and tongue of dog, stir vigorously … and serve with a length of hemp.

Curses

The Pendle witches brew started bubbling with a freak incident: a cunning woman named Alizon Device (you’ll recognize her name from the list of the hanged, above) tried to beg some needles from a passing peddler. The latter refusing her, Alizon cursed him, just like you do when you’re cut off in traffic.

Except in this case, the peddler promptly suffered a stroke.

Everyone was spooked at this apparent effusion of transmundane malevolence, nobody more so than Alizon herself. She became the first arrestee, and in the end would go the gallows convinced of her own sorcery.

She also started accusing others of occult involvement, either from a sense of panicked guilt or a blithe ignorance that the new legal regime would be interpreting folk spells as capital crimes. This led her bizarre instance of passing-peddler-popping to become a full-on witch hunt.

Alizon Device came from a whole family, the Demdykes or Demdikes, of cunning-women, and she implicated her own grandmother for having taught her the witchy ways. (Grandma would be spared the ignominy of hanging because she suffered the ignominy of dying in the filthy dungeon.) Alizon also accused a rival family, the Chattoxes, themselves well-known as “witches”, and she also implicated the matriarch of that family, Anne Whittle. The dreadful progress of the ensuing investigation, in which the feuding locals hanged each other with the aid of an ambitious local magistrate, is widely available — thanks to the record one lawyer witness to the proceedings set down in his credulous 1613 chapbook The Wonderfull Discoverie of Witches in the Countie of Lancaster.

Foiled Again

Once these initial arrests were in the books, Alizon’s mother Elizabeth apparently convened a solidarity meeting at a hut with the diabolically menacing name of Malkin† Tower. Dining on stolen mutton, and on Good Friday no less, they may have worked out a plan to liberate the prisoners from Lancaster Castle (at least, the Demdike prisoners). But the magistrate got wind of this confabulation and burst in to arrest those participants, too. As these secondary circles were pulled into the investigation, so too were past years of community gossip about these “witches”, of various folk who had died unexplained and various mishaps that befell people whom the witches didn’t like.

These superstitions seem to have been shared by the witches themselves, at least many of them. The Demdikes and Chattoxes used clay figures, human remains, and little effigies of victims with the intent of hurling evil at their enemies. Causality aside, Alizon Demdike did curse the peddler. “Witches think sometimes that they kill, when they do not, and are therefore as culpable, as if they did,” said their contemporary, pastor John Donne.

To augment the assorted confessions and counter-accusations among the accused, Elizabeth Device’s nine-year-old daughter Jennet Device (little sister of the original peddler-curser Alizon) was summoned up to provide coached testimony against her siblings Alizon and James, against her mother, and against those at the Malkin Tower meeting. Several of these latter would be convicted of non-capital crimes or even acquitted outright, but little Jennet’s testimony doomed her own family.

Although not the first time a child had provided evidence, it was a landmark in normalizing minors’ accusations — jurisprudence advocated by James’s Daemonologie. “Children, women and liars,” the sovereign announced, “can be witnesses over high treason against God.”

These witnesses would cast an evil pall well after Pendle.

In later life, Jennet appears to have been caught up in the same trap, when she was accused of witchcraft by a 10-year-old boy. A judiciary grown more cautious by then did not put her to death … but she (unless it was a different person also named Jennet Device) died in prison.

And the acceptability of this sort of children’s testimony, duly documented for country JP’s in Michael Dalton’s Country Justice, containing the Practice, Duty, and Power of Justices of the Peace, would be the lethal linchpin of the witch trials 80 years later across the Atlantic — in Salem, Massachusetts.

This miserable event has informed any number of artistic productions from the 17th century stage to the present-day Pendle Sculpture Trail. Pendle and Lancashire, as bywords for witch superstitions, now trade handsomely on the unfortunate fame.

Many there have also pushed (thus far unsuccessfully) for an official posthumous pardon of the hanged witches.

And the nearby village of Roughlee even erected a statue in 2012 to the hanged Alice Nutter … a gentlewoman (i.e., of considerably higher class standing than her fellow condemned) whose reason for attending the Malkin Tower meeting remains mysterious.


Alice Nutter statue at Roughlee. Image (c) Burnley & Pendle Ramblers and used with permission.

* Isabel Robey is an outlier case; as of this writing, she’s not even named as one of the Pendle witches on the Wikipedia page as it seems she was not associated directly with the Malkin Tower crowd — merely a bystander who got caught up in the storm of denunciations. She was, however, hanged on Gallows Hill for witchcraft on August 20. There’s a lengthy attempt at reconstructing her story in the face of scant documentation here (pdf).

** All well and good for us moderns to pooh-pooh James’s supernatural obsessions, but the man’s security concerns were very real.

† The BBC documentary has Malkin as slang for “shit”; this page proposes that the word can signify a cat, a bindle, a scarecrow, or “an awkward woman.”

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Entry Filed under: 17th Century,Arts and Literature,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Famous,Hanged,History,Innocent Bystanders,Mass Executions,Milestones,Notable Jurisprudence,Popular Culture,Public Executions,Witchcraft,Women

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1591: Euphane MacCalzean, witch

5 comments June 25th, 2010 Headsman

If there’s one thing King James VI of Scotland (eventually to also become James I of England) worried a lot about, it was witches.

The Al Qaeda of the 16th century imagination, those shadowy yet omnipresent necromancers were especially feared around this time for their powers of supernatural mayhem, and you can take your pick on the phenomenon’s psychosocial explanation. (It was hardly limited to Scotland.)

Whatever it was, King James had it in spades.

The son of one executed monarch and father of another, James kept head tightly fixed to shoulders all his own days, and he used it to write the (well, a) book on witch-hunting.

THE fearefull aboundinge at this time in this countrie, of these detestable slaues of the Deuill, the Witches or enchaunters, hath moved me (beloued reader) to dispatch in post, this following treatise of mine, not in any wise (as I protest) to serue for a shew of my learning & ingine, but onely (mooued of conscience) to preasse / thereby, so farre as I can, to resolue the doubting harts of many; both that such assaultes of Sathan are most certainly practized, & that the instrumentes thereof, merits most severly to be punished: against the damnable opinions … not ashamed in publike print to deny, that ther can be such a thing as Witch-craft.

Daemonologie

You couldn’t fault the guy for a lot of daylight between his principles and his practices.


With a deft political touch, Shakespeare wrote Macbeth after James ascended the English throne as James I.

In 1589, Jamie sailed to Denmark to wed a Danish princess. When ferocious storms nearly wrecked the royal convoy on its return trip, there was only one possible explanation: witchcraft. And security theater for 16th century Scotland wasn’t taking your shoes off when ferrying across the nearby loch — it was publicly burning human beings to death for consorting with the devil.

So once the king made it back home, he initiated the North Berwick Witch Trials, the first notable witch-hunt of his reign.

It was what you’d expect. Seventy people accused, the doomed tortured into confessions like Jack Bauer would do, and a respectable harvest of souls, most famously (because interrogated by the king himself) Agnes Sampson. “Most of the winter of 1591,” writes one chronicler, “was spent in the discovery and examination of witches and sorcerers.”

Our day’s principal, whose name has various different renderings (such as Eufame Mackalzeane), was the last to suffer for some months.

Euphan McCalzeane was a lady possessed of a considerable estate in her own right. She was the daughter of Thomas McCalzeane, lord Cliftenhall, one of the senators of the college of justice, whose death in the year 1581 spared him the disgrace and misery of seeing his daughter fall by the hands of the executioner. She was married to a gentleman of her own name, by whom she had three children. She was accused of treasonably conspiring of the king; of raising storms to hinder his return from Denmark; and of various other articles of witchcraft. She was heard by counsel in her defense; was found guilty by the jury, which consisted of landed gentlemen of note; and her punishment was still severer than that commonly inflicted on the weyward sisters; she was burned alive, and her estate confiscated. Her children, however, after being thus barbarously robbed of their mother, were restored by act of parliament against the forfeiture. The act does not say that the sentence was unjust, but that the king was touched in honour and conscience to restore the children. But to move the wheels of his majesty’s conscience, the children had to grease them, by a payment of five thousand merks to the donator of escheat, and by relinquishing the estate of Cliftonhall, which the king gave to sir James Sandilands, of Slamanno.

As a striking picture of the state of justice, humanity, and science, in those times, it may be remarked, that this sir James Sandilands, a favourite of the king’s, ex interiore principis familiaritate, who got this estate, which the daughter of one lord of session forfeited, on account of being a witch, did that very year murder another lord of session in the suburbs of Edinburgh, in the public street, without undergoing either trial or punishment. (Source

Like any number of other executed “witches,” this one professed innocence at the scaffold.

Before she was strangled and burnt, the poor woman “tooke it on her conscience that she was innocent of all the crymes layed to her charge.”

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1615: St. John Ogilvie

1 comment March 10th, 2009 Headsman

On this date in 1615, Scotland’s only post-Reformation Catholic martyr was hanged at Glasgow Cross.

The Protestant-born Ogilvie had been educated in Europe and there fallen under the sway of the Catholic faith forbidden in his homeland. He converted, trained as a Jesuit, and at his own request returned to minister to the secret Catholic population in Glasgow.

Within a year he was in irons, awaiting a death sentence he refused to spurn with a timely submission to King James‘ spiritual supremacy. Ogilvie greeted his conviction for treason — and like most Catholic martyrs in the British Isles, he protested his loyalty in vain — with the words,

God have mercie upon mee! … if there bee heere anie hidden catholikes, let them pray for me, but the Prayers of Heretickes I will not have.


John Ogilvie? (See Update below)

There’s a multilingual Jesuit text celebrating Ogilvie available free from Google books.

Glaswegians can watch for more demonstrative tribute at St. Andrew’s Cathedral, which is poised to produce a monumental mural by Peter Howson.

Part of the Themed Set: The Church confronts its competition.


Update: Friend of the blog Louise Yeoman, whose guest post on a witchcraft execution remains one of the best pieces in this humble space, has an interesting correction to offer on Saint J.O. According to Yeoman, disemboweling “was not part of Scots law until 1708, when the British government wanted to hang draw and quarter some of those involved in the abortive Jacobite uprising of that year and were shocked to find that Scotland had no such penalty.” She’s backed by this contemporaneous account of Ogilvie’s death, which observes that even the “quartering” part of the sentence was not carried out.

So, what gives with the image, if Ogilvie’s corpse wasn’t carved up?

It’s from this (U.S.) Library of Congress page which marks it as a representation of Ogilvie in a late 17th-century text of Bohemian Jesuit propagandist Matthias Tanner. That provenance, of course, would be consistent with a bit of sanguinary exaggeration. It’s also possible that it’s mislabeled on the Library of Congress page, whose identification of it seems a bit oblique.

Working as I am from secondary sources, I tread cautiously here and welcome further clarification or correction.

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Entry Filed under: 17th Century,Arts and Literature,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,God,Hanged,History,Martyrs,Mature Content,Milestones,Public Executions,Religious Figures,Ripped from the Headlines,Scotland,Torture,Treason

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