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 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.
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.”
Also on this date
- 10 executions that defined the 1980s
- 1804: Georges Cadoudal, Chouan
- 1790: Thomas Bird, the first federal execution under the U.S. constitution
- 1579: Hatano Hideharu, en route to the Tokugawa Shogunate
- 1959: Charles Starkweather, Nebraska spree killer
Entry Filed under: 16th Century,20th Century,Burned,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Death Penalty,Execution,God,Hanged,History,Murder,Notable for their Victims,Power,Public Executions,Scotland,Torture,Witchcraft,Women
Tags: 1590s, 1591, agnes sampson, daemonologie, eufame mackalzeane, euphane maccalzean, james i, james sandilands, james vi, james vi and i, june 25, literature, macbeth, north berwick witch trials, shakespeare, superstition, theology, william shakespeare, witch hunt