Posted in Historic Characters

The First Executed Witch in the North Berwick Witch Trials

What were the North Berwick Witch Trials?

The North Berwick witch trials were held to examine several people who were accused of witchcraft in Scotland starting in 1590.

King James VI of Scotland married Anne of Denmark in a proxy marriage ceremony in 1589. But when it came time for Anne to sail to Scotland to meet her new husband, that is when the real trouble began.

Anne’s ship was delayed by storms for so many months that James decided to sail to Norway, where she was stuck, and retrieve her. He too, had issues with the storms, but they finally reached Scotland in 1590.

  • Portrait title: James VI and I, 1566 – 1625. King of Scotland 1567 – 1625. King of England and Ireland 1603 – 1625. Artist unknown but attributed to Adrian Vanson.
  • Portrait title: Portrait of Anne of Denmark (1574-1619) by Unknown Artist.

It was during this turbulent time that it was first brought to James’ attention that witches might be responsible for the storms that caused the delay in Anne’s travels (and also caused the death of one her maids). Witchcraft and the hunting of witches was very popular in other parts of Europe at the time and James began to make serious inquiries into the possibilities. Eventually a woman name Geillis Duncan who lived in the town of Tranent, was arrested. She went on to accuse several more people of being witches and a true witch hunt began.

Not All Accused Witches Were Women

At least three of the names that Geillis Duncan gave her accusers were men. One of these men was a schoolmaster from Prestonpans by the name of Doctor Fian, who went by the alias, John Cunningham. It was said he was the witches’ register, and  that there was not one man who could come to the devil’s readings but only he.

Once he was arrested, Doctor Fian had his head thrawed, whereby a rope would be wrapped around the head and squeezed. This did not have the effect his accusers had hoped, and he confessed nothing. He was also put in the “boot” which was a wooden or metal device into which wedges were hammered thus crushing the feet and lower legs. Yet, he still would not confess. The other accused witches urged his accusers to search his tongue, whereby two pins were found underneath, pressing up into his tongue. The witches claimed that the charmed pins were the reason Doctor Fian could not confess. He was immediately released from the boots and brought before the king where his confession was taken, written in his own hand.

Love-Sick Schoolmaster?

Along with his admittance of recording the witches’ confessions of service and true oath to the Devil, he would write whatever the Devil commanded him.  Doctor Fian also admitted to bewitching another man in town who had an interest in the same young woman that Doctor Fian did. He caused the man to fall into a state of lunacy for the span of one hour, every 24 hours. This young man was brought before King James to testify and it was witnessed that he did indeed fall into madness, bending himself and capering directly up, so high that his head would touch the ceiling. It took several men to subdue the man and once he was bound hand and foot, he was left to lie still until his fury had passed. Once the bewitchment was over, the man had no recollection of the events. 

Doctor Fian was also accused of trying to bewitch the young woman that he was in love with. Having enlisted the help of one of his students, who happened to be the brother of the woman he was in love with, he attempted to obtain “three hairs of his sister’s privities”. Doctor Fian gave the young man a piece of paper to wrap the hairs in to be brought safely back to him.  The young man pestered his sister so much that she brought it to her mother’s attention.

Her mother (who was said to also be a witch), began to inquire of the brother what he was trying to do. She finally beat a confession out of him and he told her all that Doctor Fian had asked him to do. Wanting to give the schoolmaster a taste of his own medicine, she then proceeded to snip three hairs from the utter of a heifer and wrapped them in the paper that Doctor Fian had given to her son. 

When Fian used the hairs in an attempt to cast his love spell, you might imagine what happened next! According to contemporary accounts, he had no sooner done his intent to them, that the heifer appeared at the door of the church where the schoolmaster was. The cow came through the doors of the church and made toward him “leaping and dancing”, and followed him out of the church and wherever he went. 

According to the writer of Newes from Scotland, this was witnessed by many of the townspeople who recognized that such acts could never have been sufficiently effected without the help of the Devil. It became such an ordeal that Doctor Fian came to be known amongst the people of Scotland as a notable conjurer. 

An Apparent Change of Heart

Doctor Fian eventually recanted his allegiance to the Devil and renewed his confession of Christ. He pledged to live a godly life and eschew all that the Devil had asked of him. But the morning following his confession, Fian revealed that the Devil had visited him in the night and demanded that he continue his faithful service. The Devil had appeared to him dressed all in black with a white wand in his hand. Doctor Fian claims he rebuked the Devil, telling him that he would no longer take part in that lifestyle. He also claimed that the Devil then told him “once ere thou die, thou shalt be mine”. The Devil then broke the white wand and immediately vanished. 

Doctor Fian told these events to his accusers the next morning and remained in solitary confinement throughout the day. He appeared to ponder the care of his own soul and would call upon God indicating a penitent heart. However, that very same night, Fian was able to apprehend a key to the cell in which he was kept and escaped the prison.

The king immediately issued public proclamations throughout the land in an effort to apprehend Doctor Fian. According to Newes from Scotland, a hot and hard pursuit ensued, and he was eventually recaptured.

Although the schoolmaster had confessed his sins in his own handwriting, he denied now that he had ever had such a pact with the Devil. The king, perceiving that Fian had renewed his allegiance to the Devil during his absence from prison, commanded he be searched again for a mark indicating his new pact. He was thoroughly searched, but no mark could ever be found. 
More torture was ordered and it was done in this manner:

**SENSITIVITY WARNING**


All his fingernails were split with an instrument called a Turkas (pincers)  and two needles were pushed up under each nail up to the heads. The Doctor felt nothing and confessed to nothing from this torture.

He was then put to the boot again. He remained in the boots for a long time, enduring many blows insomuch that his legs were “crushed and beaten together as small as might be, and the bones and flesh so bruised, that the blood and marrow spouted forth in great abundance, whereby they were made unserviceable forever.” For more information about how the boot was used as a torture device check out this website here.

Example of a boot used for torture

Yet, he still would not confess. 

His accusers claimed that the Devil had entered his heart so deeply that he utterly denied all that he had previously confessed. Doctor Fian claimed that he had only made such confessions for fear of pains which he had endured. 

Pincers from the archaeological excavation at the Harburger Schloßstraße in Hamburg-Harburg, Germany. Dated to approx. 15th or 16th century. Photoraphed at Archaeological Museum Hamburg. Photo credit: Bullenwächter; Wikipedia CC

After great consideration by the king and His Majesty’s council, in the name of justice and “also for example’s sake”, Doctor Fian was soon condemned to death. 

According to Newes from Scotland, he was strangled, carried in a cart to Castle Hill of Edinburgh and put into a great fire and burned. 

Doctor Fian was the first accused witch executed in the North Berwick witch trials.  There would be many more.

Woodcut featured as a scene from the life of Doctor Fian’s life, in Newes from Scotland, published 1591.

Posted in Events in History

The Last Letter of Mary Queen of Scots

In the very early hours of February 8, 1587, Mary Queen of Scots penned the last letter that she would ever write. She addressed her brother in law, Henry III, King of France, in hopes that he might be able to settle some of her financial affairs after she was gone.

In her letter, she speaks of her “papers” being confiscated and that she was unable to get them returned to her in order that she might take care of some of her personal matters. She requests that Henry pay her servants the money that is due them out of the good Christian charity in his own heart.

Mary also complained that her chaplain (almoner) had been taken away from her and he was unable to hear her confession or give her the Last Sacrament. She does not waiver in her confession of the Catholic faith and maintains her innocence in the two points on which she is charged: her Catholic faith, and her God-given right to the English throne. She points out that, even if she were a subject of English law, she would not be guilty of any crime.

Mary had requested that her body be conveyed to France, where she wished to be buried. She laments to Henry that her request was denied (by Elizabeth). She was initially buried five months after her execution in Peterborough Cathedral but was moved to Westminster Abbey in 1612, nine years after her son took the English throne.

Below is the English translation of Mary’s last letter, courtesy of the National Library of Scotland.

Queen of Scotland
8 Feb. 1587

Sire, my brother-in-law, having by God’s will, for my sins I think, thrown myself into the power of the Queen my cousin, at whose hands I have suffered much for almost twenty years, I have finally been condemned to death by her and her Estates. I have asked for my papers, which they have taken away, in order that I might make my will, but I have been unable to recover anything of use to me, or even get leave either to make my will freely or to have my body conveyed after my death, as I would wish, to your kingdom where I had the honour to be queen, your sister and old ally.

Tonight, after dinner, I have been advised of my sentence: I am to be executed like a criminal at eight in the morning. I have not had time to give you a full account of everything that has happened, but if you will listen to my doctor and my other unfortunate servants, you will learn the truth, and how, thanks be to God, I scorn death and vow that I meet it innocent of any crime, even if I were their subject. The Catholic faith and the assertion of my God-given right to the English crown are the two issues on which I am condemned, and yet I am not allowed to say that it is for the Catholic religion that I die, but for fear of interference with theirs. The proof of this is that they have taken away my chaplain, and although he is in the building, I have not been able to get permission for him to come and hear my confession and give me the Last Sacrament, while they have been most insistent that I receive the consolation and instruction of their minister, brought here for that purpose. The bearer of this letter and his companions, most of them your subjects, will testify to my conduct at my last hour. It remains for me to beg Your Most Christian Majesty, my brother-in-law and old ally, who have always protested your love for me, to give proof now of your goodness on all these points: firstly by charity, in paying my unfortunate servants the wages due them – this is a burden on my conscience that only you can relieve:    further, by having prayers offered to God for a queen who has borne the title Most Christian, and who dies a Catholic, stripped of all her possessions. As for my son, I commend him to you in so far as he deserves, for I cannot answer for him. I have taken the liberty of sending you two precious stones, talismans against illness, trusting that you will enjoy good health and a long and happy life. Accept them from your loving sister-in-law, who, as she dies, bears witness of her warm feeling for you. Again I commend my servants to you. Give instructions, if it please you, that for my soul’s sake part of what you owe me should be paid, and that for the sake of Jesus Christ, to whom I shall pray for you tomorrow as I die, I be left enough to found a memorial mass and give the customary alms.

This Wednesday, two hours after midnight.
Your very loving and most true sister,   Mary R

Posted in Animals

Mary, Queen of Scots’ Faithful Dog

Hi everyone! I just wanted to do a quick post, inspired by Louise’s challenge on Instagram at Ahellaloadofhistory. I’ve been participating in her 30 day history challenge and Day 10 asks for you to share an obscure history fact.

I don’t know how “obscure” this fact is that I wanted to share, but I thought it was kind of neat so, here it is.

For the Love of Dogs

Mary Stuart was taken to France when she was five years old with the intention that she would one day marry the French Dauphin, Francis. It has been said that when she first arrived at the French court, she stuck closely to her maids that had accompanied her, and was content with a group of about 20 dogs that lived at court.

Mary always kept dogs, and it appears that the Maltese was one of her favorite breeds. She also favored terriers, and it was a terrier that made it into the (obscure) history books on the day of her execution.

A Faithful Friend

Mary was taken prisoner in England in 1568, and was held for 19 years. She was allowed to keep dogs throughout her captivity.

One eyewitness account tells of her tiny dog that had hidden within the folds of her skirt on the day of her execution. Of the event, Robert Wingfield wrote:

Then one of the executioners, pulling off part of her dress, espied her little dog, which was under her clothes, which could not be gotten forth but by force, and afterwards would not depart from her dead corpse, but came and laid between her head and shoulders (a thing diligently noted: ) the dog being imbrued with her blood, was carried away and washed, as all things else were that had any blood, except those things that were burned.

Wingfield’s account does not clarify the color or type of dog that wouldn’t leave Mary’s side. And many tales have grown up around this little detail of Mary’s death. Some had said it was a white dog, others say it was black. Some say it was a Skye Terrier. Although some professional dog breeders claim that the Skye Terrier didn’t come into existence until the 19th century, leaving people to believe that perhaps it was a Scottish Terrier that was so devoted to her.

skye terrior
The cutest Skye Terrier you will ever see! (no photo credit available)

 

Scottish Terrier at Redbubble
Scottish Terrier (product/photo credit to creator thanhdang at Redbubble.    

Mary’s Dog in Literature and Pop Culture

I came across a really cute book that I want to get for my 4th grade classroom library. The Dog Who Loved a Queen, by Jackie French tells the story of Folly, Mary’s canine companion that accompanied her to the executioner’s block. This is a fictional book, told from Folly’s point of view. I am always on the lookout for ways to incorporate the time periods that I love to study and read about into my classroom. I enjoy sharing other historical time periods with my students that do not fall within the confines of our standard curriculum.

Click on the book cover if you’d like to check out this book.

The Dog Who Loved a Queen

 

You will also find a fuzzy little canine appearance in The Queen’s Almoner. You can read about Tom Tom the pup here.

 

Maltese_puppy.jpeg.jpeg
Maltese puppy and inspiration for Tom Tom in The Queen’s Almoner. Photo courtesy of Wikipedia under the Creative Commons license.

 

I am not a big fan of Reign, but I found this lovely picture on Pinterest of Adelaide Cane, dressed as Mary Stuart alongside her deerhound, Stirling.

Reign-Mary with Irish Bloodhound
Pinterest. No photo credit available.

 

 

Mary-Queen-of-Scots and maltese
Mary, Queen of Scots with her Maltese. Drawn by J.W. Wright, based on image by Zuccero.

 

Until next time, Long May She Ever Live in Our Memories.

Tonya

 

 

Posted in Events in History

The Arrest of Mary, Queen of Scots

“In my end is my beginning.”

The celebrated poet, T.S. Eliot may have penned these famous words in his poem, “East Coker”, however, he was not the first person to use them.  Mary, Queen of Scots took this phrase as a motto sometime during her long captivity in England. Embroidering the words on her canopy of state, they served as a sort of prophetic epitaph of her life, that ended so tragically at the hands of the Queen of England, Elizabeth I.

Some scholars speculate that she may have been referring to her late grandfather-in-law, Francis I’s symbol of the salamander with these words. In medieval times the salamander had an allegorical element that symbolized a righteous person’s ability to withstand fire, just as the three Hebrew children in the Biblical story, emerged unharmed from the fiery furnace.

Medieval manuscript depicting a salamander enduring the flames.
National Library of France, Department of Manuscripts, French 2286, fol. 10r.

Mary was an unrepentant Catholic. She never swayed from her religious beliefs, even though it caused heartache for her for most of her life. It is no secret that she considered herself a martyr for her Catholic faith (even going so far as to wearing a red petticoat, the martyr’s color, at her execution). She is known to have told her cousin, the Duke of Guise:

“For myself, I am resolute to die for my religion. . . With God’s

help, I shall die in the Catholic faith and to maintain it

constantly. . .without doing dishonor to the race of

 Lorraine, who are accustomed to die the sustenance of the faith.”

In her Essay on Adversity, written in 1580, Mary wrote of the lives of rulers:

“Tribulation has been to them as a furnace to fine gold—a means

of proving their virtue, of opening their so-long blinded eyes, and

of teaching them to know themselves and their own failings.”

Perhaps Mary saw herself emerging victorious on the other side of this mortal life with that everlasting life promised to believers that can only come after death.

Mary’s words can also be a bit predictive. They are a sort of foretelling of the immortal, romanticized life that she has taken on since her death. She is, beyond a doubt, one of the most controversial figures in Scottish history. Whether you believe she was complicit in her second husband’s death, and guilty of plotting a treasonous over-taking of the English throne, one cannot deny that she has had more than her fair share of 15 minutes of fame, and she remains one of those characters in history that we non-participants either love to love, or love to hate.

A little back history

After her disastrous second marriage to Lord Henry Darnley ended in his death by strangulation, Mary was kidnapped, raped and accepted a marriage proposal by another man accused in the death of her husband (we’ll save that story for another day.)  When Mary followed through with the marriage barely two months after Darnley’s death, suspicions were heightened concerning Mary’s involvement with Darnley’s murder.

Panel paintings of Mary, Lord Darnley, and James Bothwell on wall of the Mary Queen of Scots House in Jedburgh, Scotland~photo: Tonya U. Brown~2017

Soon Scottish lords were seeking to implicate Mary in Darnley’s murder as well, and she was forced to abdicate her throne to her one-year old son, James. When attempts to raise an army to take back her throne failed, she ended up imprisoned at Loch Leven Castle where she eventually miscarried Bothwell’s twins. She finally escaped ten months later with the help of one of her sympathizes.  

Surrender of Mary Queen of Scots at Carberry Hill, 1567. Illustration for the Historical Scrap Book (Cassel, c 1880).

Mary attempted a second time to raise an army, trying in vain to defeat her leading opponent, her half-brother James Stewart, Earl of Moray. When she was not successful, she fled to England, hoping to obtain help from her cousin, Queen Elizabeth.

Any indications of sympathy that Mary may have received from Elizabeth were short lived. She was quickly taken into custody and remained so, moving from residence to residence under house arrest for the next 19 years. Although records indicate that she led a somewhat pampered life while in England (after all—she was a queen), the fact remained that Mary was still a captive of Elizabeth’s. With her health declining, she made it no secret that she would use any means necessary to escape her situation. This was not a confession to treason, but merely an admission that she had tried on more than one occasion to escape.

 A victim of one scheming nobleman after another, she continued to be a political pawn, having no control of her own life. When her private letters were produced for Elizabeth to read, the contents were condemning. Through plots originating at the hands of her supporters in an attempt to rescue her, and plots formed at the hands of her enemies in an effort to entrap her, Mary endured some of the most farcical examples of court intrigue that have ever existed and rivals anything even Hollywood could come up with.

The day finally came

On August 11, 1586, Mary was arrested for her part in another murder plot to kill Elizabeth that would eventually come to be called the Babington Plot.  Mary’s long-time English foe, Elizabeth’s Secretary of State, William Cecil, and another of Elizabeth’s secretaries, Sir Francis Walsingham, had finally succeeded in scrounging up something to pin on the Scottish queen.

Forged postscript to a letter by Mary Queen of Scots to Anthony Babington and alongside Babington’s record of the cipher used~The National Archives~United Kingdom

By this time, Mary was suffering from arthritis, making movement in her arms and legs very painful. She could not walk without assistance and was confined to a bed most of the time. She testified in court that due to her illness, she had no desire to take the reins of government again. She also complained that her letters and papers had all been taken from her, and that she had not been given any counsel as to how to proceed in her trial. The most adamant of her complaints, however, was the fact that since  she was not an English subject, they had no right whatsoever, to try her under English law.

Her pleas and complaints went unheard, and after Elizabeth’s attempts to end her Scottish problem with other means had failed, she finally signed the death warrant to execute Mary on February 1 the following year. She was executed seven days later. Mary was 44 years of age when she laid down her life in typical martyr fashion, her red petticoat announcing to the world the glorious death to which she had been called.  

Execution of Mary, Queen of Scots~Robert Herdman~Glasgow Museums
Notice the red petticoat peeping out at the bottom of her gown?

The following pictures were taken at the Mary Queen of Scots House in Jedburgh, Scotland when I was there in 2017. They depict examples of the high demand for relics pertaining to Mary and her fascinating story. There are many more relics at Jedburgh, but here I have posted only the ones that pertain to this post.

One final note of interest…

If you are interested in seeing some of the places that Mary stayed after her initial arrest in Scotland in 1567, or if you want to start at the beginning of her life in 1542, this is an excellent book. The author is Andrew Burnet.

Mary Was Here by Andrew Burnet
Mary Queen of Scots~Unknown Artist~Hermitage Museum~St. Petersburg, Russia