The Scottish Crown, the Protestant Church, and Witch Trials

Brooke Anne Franks
Brooke Anne Franks

The purpose of this article is to acquaint the reader with the period of the witch trials. The newly formed church did not originally intend to pursue witchcraft so vigorously, but did so by default due to the influence of Mary, Queen of Scots, who rejected laws and clauses which contained anti-Catholic rhetoric.

The article covers the involvement of the reigning monarchs during the five notable witch-hunt waves of panic in Scotland, which include King James VI, King Charles I, and King Charles II.

Mary, Queen of Scots, as well as King George II, are also discussed in detail because the Witchcraft Acts were if effect during their reigns.

The Scottish Witch Trials occurred between the years of 1560 and 1730. There were roughly 4,000 witchcraft suspects in Scotland, and during these years, there were five main witch-hunt panic periods. These panics occurred in 1590-1591, 1597, 1628-1630, 1649- 1650, and 1661-1662.

Roughly 1,100 trials took place, and this accounted for a little over sixty percent of all known Scottish witchcraft trials. While these mass panic periods accounted for most of the 4,000 accused of witchcraft, there were still about forty percent of the accused who were tried outside of these five main witch-hunt waves of panic in Scotland.

There are a few notable differences in the accusations of witchcraft and the trials of suspected witches during the non-panic and panic years. In years of panic, witches were mainly accused of attending meetings with other witches, having sex with as well as worshiping the devil, and renouncing Christ and their relationship to him. In the non-panic years, however, most were accused when harm or strife fell on an individual with whom they had a previous quarrel.

During this period in Scotland, the authority of the crown and the Church can be described as rather intertwined. This makes it quite difficult to discuss one without the other. The monarchs and church leaders often worked together in creating laws, especially laws that encompassed the social and moral activities of Scottish society.

In 1534, when King Henry VIII of England broke with the papacy in Rome, James V of Scotland wanted nothing to do with Protestantism. He persecuted outspoken Protestants fervently. His daughter, Mary, Queen of Scots, raised as a staunch Catholic, followed this pattern and reigned over Scotland from 1542 to 1567. However, by 1560, the Protestant Reformation had against the crown’s wishes seeped into Scotland through Scottish Reformation leaders such as John Knox, William Kirkcaldy, Archibald Campbell, and William Douglas.

After the rise of Presbyterianism with its Calvinist inspiration in Scotland as well as a series of military skirmishes between the crown and the Protestant Church, the Scottish Parliament met in August of 1560 to discuss reforms for Scotland.

Three major acts were passed: “under these, all previous acts not in conformity with the Reformed Confession were annulled; the sacraments were reduced to two (baptism and communion) to be performed by reformed preachers alone; the celebration of the Mass was made punishable by a series of penalties and Papal jurisdiction in Scotland was repudiated.”14

While these acts effectively ended the formal role of the Catholic Church as the official Church of Scotland, they did not set up the new organization. They did, however, publish the ‘First Book of Discipline’ in 1561, which was designed to be an organizational and disciplinary guide for the Protestant Church until they could hold another parliamentary assembly.

In 1563, the Scottish Parliament met again to put in place the organization for the Protestant Church of Scotland. These proceedings were held in the presence of Mary, Queen of Scots. She had been Queen for nearly two years when the Parliament meeting of 1563 took place.

Under normal circumstances, she would have held her first parliamentary meeting much earlier, the religious uncertainty in Scotland that the Catholic Queen faced in the new Protestant regime most likely caused the delay.15

The parliamentary assembly was not as successful as zealous leaders like John Knox had hoped it to be, but ‘Anentis Witchcraftis’ passed within a larger set of religious laws on June 4, 1563.

According to Julian Goodare, “the result of this was the execution of up to two thousand people over the next century and a half.” 16

Close examination of this act reveals the religious rationale of the Protestant Reformation in Scotland. The presence of the Catholic Mary, Queen of Scots, during this session contributed immensely to which religious acts passed and which did not.

The anti-Catholic rhetoric of several of the proposed acts prompted their removal from the final acts, which, after extensive revision, were approved. Nevertheless, the Reformation leaders found that “they could link the three subjects of idolatry, magic, and witchcraft, but they could also separate them. The witchcraft act was not the act that the Protestant Church intended to use against idolatry in 1563; the church put forward separate acts against idolatry which were rejected.” 17

The subtle anti-Catholic rhetoric can be seen throughout the witchcraft act. An example of this can be found in the criticism of “credence gevin” to “vane superstition,” which had a direct correlation to the superstition associated with the Catholic Church and the belief of transubstantiation during mass.

It is also plausible that the leaders of the Scottish Reformation were not familiar with the magical beliefs that still lingered from the early years in Scotland. The belief in charmers, who could provide good luck or protection charms; cunning folk, who often were believed to know the future; faeries, who dwelled in a separate realm yet often interfered in the lives of people; and healers, who provided folk remedies for everyday ailments, ran deep in the Scottish peasantry. Therefore, the church’s insistence on rooting out all superstition and those who believed it may have caught fire quicker than the Scottish reformers anticipated.

In 1590, the first major witch panic arose in Scotland. King James VI, son of Mary, Queen of Scots, sat on the throne. The king believed that a group of witches had raised storms in an attempt to kill him and his new bride, Princess Ann.

The trials took place in North Berwick, Scotland. While this initial panic was relatively small in numbers, with only around seventy suspects accused, it sparked the ignition of witch-hunting in Scotland.

This event also kindled the interest of King James VI in the occult. The crown was directly involved with the witch trials of 1590-91, viewing them as beginning from an assassination attempt on the king. The accused witches were tortured into confession with sleep deprivation, fingernail extraction, thumbscrew torture, and the boot (which crushed the knee joint and lower leg).

In a published woodcut pamphlet from this event, which circulated in Scotland and England, the witches depicted in the forest listened to a sermon preached by the devil.

According to the Survey of Scottish Witchcraft Database, “the author was probably James Carmichael the minister of Haddington, who helped to interrogate the North Berwick witches and later advised King James on the writing of his book Daemonologie.” 18 The publishing of Daemonologie in 1597, by King James VI, coincides perfectly with the next major witch-hunt panic period.

The witch trials of 1597, beginning in January and lasting until November, were the least documented witch trials of the panic periods. “Between these two dates there were approximately 400 “cases” — i.e. mentions of individual witches, many of whom were tried but some of whom were not. A little under half of the cases were likely to have resulted in execution.”19

The difficulty in discussing the trials of 1597 lies in the lack of surviving evidence. Commissions were issued just as they were in the trials of 1590-91. However, due to the lack of standard procedure and organization during the trials, records for these commissions were not kept.20

The accused were tried by the Privy Council or at the Justice Court in Edinburgh. King James VI also granted special judicial commissions to try suspects for witchcraft, and these commissions tried most of the cases in 1597. As one can imagine, King James VI’s belief in the occult translated into him being rather liberal in dispatching judicial commissions to investigate witchcraft claims.

The witch hunters were given full power over the trials, and the crown never checked on their evidence or rulings, which resulted in a widespread panic over witches. Another factor relating to the trials of 1597, have been linked to the famine, which swept over Scotland from 1594-99. While the occult was not directly blamed for these events, the rise in social tensions could have raised suspicion about witchcraft and divine intervention for sins. This, followed directly by an outbreak of the plague, would have stirred social unrest to the breaking point.21

The panic slowly started to dissipate after a confessed witch, by the name of Margaret Aitken, managed to keep herself alive by claiming an ability which allowed her to identify witches by looking into their eyes.

Aitken, taken from town to town, watched as officials paraded the suspected witches in front of her, after which she would provide their guilty or innocent verdict. After only a few months, however, the authorities became suspicious and decided to test the witch. “They obtained access to some of the people whom Aitken had accused and re-introduced them the next day in different clothes. This ‘scientific experiment’ was a success, Aitken cleared the same people she had condemned the day before and thus was exposed as a fraud.” 22

The mishap with Aitken triggered debate among the authorities on what should be considered evidence of witchcraft as well as if the witch-hunt should be considered at all. In a small attempt to curtail the trials, the Privy Council decided to disbar commissions that allowed one or two men to act as judges alone.

Unfortunately, King James VI, still determined to proceed with the hunt, urged those who had their commissions voided to reorganize and come obtain new ones.23 The fact that little evidence was required to convict someone of witchcraft could have something to do with the book Daemonologie being published by King James VI. He was convinced that God would actively intervene in cases involving witchcraft. Thus, his solution for the lack of solid evidence was “to trust in the justice of God, who would ensure that the guilty were convicted and the innocent spared.” 24 After 1597, the Privy Council took steps to embrace a more critical outlook on what constituted evidence for witchcraft.

The Witchcraft Act of 1604 was a revision of the original act in 1563. This revision was made under King James VI and took witchcraft out of the authority of the Protestant Church. Instead, witchcraft was categorized as a felony, thus transferring it to the common courts of law. “The Act of 1604 affirmed many of the dominant codes that were already shared within society. Indeed, it did more than that, in some cases, it approbated codes, which had been more marginal, essentially emergent in nature, and legitimated their role in the discourse of witchcraft.” 25

While this act certainly legitimized the existence of witches and witchcraft in the eyes of the court system, it also allowed accused witches access to lawyers and trained judges, and eliminated the sentence of burning at the stake (unless treason was involved). These professional additives to witch trials contributed to the push for hard evidence and a decline of convictions as well as a decrease in executions. During the final years of James VI’s reign, particularly after he became James I of England, Scotland pushed toward a more centralized form of government.

Consequently, the witch-hunt panic of 1628-30, under King Charles I, was quite different from the previous two. After the Witchcraft Act of 1604, the accused had access to lawyers, and since most trials were required to take place in Edinburgh in front of an official court judge, the trials were no longer as cheap and unsupervised as they had once been. When Charles succeeded to the throne in 1625, he required that the men who sat on the Privy Council and on the regular court session could only hold seats on one or the other rather than both.

This caused an exodus of session judges who favored caution towards witchcraft because they had been present for the witch-hunt of 1597. Also, “it is interesting to note that the witch-hunt of 1628-30 coincides exactly with the crown’s attempt to establish working circuit courts in Scotland. The circuit courts were proclaimed in August of 1628 and were finally abandoned in August of 1630; the witch-hunt occurred over exactly the same dates.” 26 There had been a consistent demand for witch trials from the public, which the Privy Council had previously attempted to subdue.

While King Charles I and the Privy Council were still technically the centralized agents for major crimes such as witchcraft, they were no longer able to suppress petitions for witch-hunts from the public.

In 1649, Scotland and England fell under the rule of Oliver Cromwell. This period is known as the Second Scottish Reformation. During a series of parliamentary sessions held by the Protestant Church of Scotland, the Witchcraft Act of 1649 was passed.

Its passage was the result of a new influx of church leaders pressing the community for a more “Godly society,” similar to the push toward the “good individual” seen in the late sixteenth century. The acts during this time sanctioned the execution of blasphemers, atheists, and those who worshiped false gods. “Witch-hunting in covenanting Scottish society was an important element in the attempted creation of a Godly society… It is clear that individual covenanters and parliamentary members had a proactive role in witch-hunting in Scotland.” 27 This revival of panic and renewed fear of witches among the public awoken by the Protestant Church precipitated perhaps the most violent witch-hunt panic in Scotland.

King Charles II was originally crowned over Scotland in 1649, but Oliver Cromwell and the Commonwealth of England deposed him in 1651. During this time of turbulence, the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland seized the opportunity of a weak crown to regain some of the powers formally revoked from them in previous years.

The Witchcraft Act of 1649 passed by the General Assembly reinstated the original methods of witch-hunting and brought control over the trials back under the Protestant Church. Local ministers once again initiated trials, and the accused were tortured into confession.

Over six hundred records exist of those accused of witchcraft, and over three hundred of them represent people who were executed during the one-year period.28

The particular violence and zeal of this panic period occurred most likely because of the English Civil War, the resurgence of church authority, and the destruction of a centralized government in Scotland caused by the execution of Charles I as well as the rocky ascension of Charles II to the throne.

The demise of this panic came “after a period of which English military forces had occupied the country and had greatly reduced the intensity of witch-hunting, local elites, eager to reassert their influence in church and state, returned to the mission of hunting witches.” 29

According to Dr. Brian Levack, “the restoration of Charles II and the displacement of the covenanters by royalists eager to establish their credentials as religious reformers in 1660 provided the backdrop to the large scale prosecutions of 1661-62.” 30 While Charles II himself had little to do with encouraging witch-hunting in Scotland, he also had little to do with monitoring it. This witch-hunt panic could, to some extent, be described as a continuation of the panic of 1649-50. When Scotland was under English rule, the number of witch trials drastically decreased.

Historically, the Scots have been fiercer in their prosecution of witchcraft crimes than the English. Therefore, the influx of reluctant English judges who sat in Scottish courts from 1651-60 caused a lull in the persecution of witches, and “consequently the number of witches believed to be at liberty had steadily increased. As soon as native Scots regained exclusive control of their judicial system after Restoration, they set out to rid the country of the large backlog of witches that had accumulated.” 31

The Protestant church again played an active role in the panic of 1661-62. Ministers often conducted examinations of the accused and facilitated torture in order to procure confessions. Once again, the idea that witches were colluding with the devil against the kingdom of God caused a significant source of panic among the common folk. The public may “have been able to cope with a few isolated individuals tampering with the normal process of nature, but large scale apostasy and recruitment by the devil was something of an entirely different order.” 32 While the panic of 1661-62 was the last major panic in Scotland, witch-hunting was not spontaneously stomped out. According to the Survey of Scottish Witchcraft Database, one hundred and fifty-four cases exist on record between 1663- 1727.33

King George II came to power in 1727, and unlike the monarchs previously discussed, he exercised limited control over British domestic policy. Thus, when the British Parliament passed the Witchcraft Act of 1736, King George II had little to do with the matter.

By the mid-eighteenth century, the common belief in witches and witchcraft had died out. The act of 1736 enforced exactly the opposite of the previous three acts. It was, in short, “an act for punishing such persons as pretending to exercise or use any kind of witchcraft, sorcery, enchantment, or conjuration.” 34 This act also made it illegal for anyone to accuse someone else of witchcraft.

Witchcraft was now considered by legal authorities to be more of an individual’s delusion rather than an actual threat to British society. This switch in policy was most likely put into place in an attempt to root out the ignorance of superstition in British society in the eighteenth century.

In conclusion, both the Protestant Church and the Scottish crown simultaneously influenced the progression of the Scottish witch-hunts. The two entities seemed to seamlessly fill power voids if the other fell short.

The Protestant Church, driven by the quest for a more Godly society, pushed the panic of witches on the common folk. Despite the fact that witchcraft was perhaps not the intended target of the church, their continuous zeal towards the cause wreaked havoc in Scottish society.

The Witchcraft Act of 1604, legitimizing the witch trials within the Scottish crown, further ingrained the belief of witches as well as witchcraft into Scottish society. The crown’s inability to establish a strong and constant central government allowed the witch-hunt panics to spiral out of control. As Julian Goodare discussed in his article on the Scottish state and its involvement with the witch trials:

“The local courts of the church, newly created since the Reformation, were very much organs of the government; indeed, they were some of the most powerful organs that many people experienced. They also fitted neatly into an existing structure of civil authority. Before a witch was tried in a criminal court, she or he had to be identified by the kirk session, and had often been arrested and interrogated (typically with deprivation of sleep) to obtain a confession.”35

The hypothesis that witch-hunting in Scotland began solely from the ground up with the church and peasantry as the main accusers and prosecutors does not hold. The Privy Council was involved equally with the church in the prosecution of witches. The church and state worked as partners with one another throughout the entire process. The church extracted suspects, evidence, and confessions and the Privy Council authorized commissions of judiciary to examine the evidence collected by the church.

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