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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
Time Period: Early 17th Century-The end of James VI & I reign/Beginning of Charles I reign
Reading historical fiction has many perks. First, it’s the ability to escape to a time when women wore beautiful, fancy dresses and men dressed as impeccably as the women (I can’t resist a man in a lace-ruffled tunic and knee-length damask coat, can you?). I also love the chivalrous knights and damsel in distress stories. But it also opens many doors for learning about people in history that I either know little about or have never heard of before. The Lady of the Tower hit all of these points for me, and in my opinion, that’s what makes this such a great read.
Author Elizabeth St. John does a marvelous job at portraying the intrigue that surrounded the court of King James VI & I as he took the throne of England after Elizabeth I’s death. This first book in the Lydiard Chronicles, follows the life of Lucy St. John as she tries to avoid the politics of court in an effort to live a quiet, unassuming life. Caught up in her family’s desire for riches, prestige, and titles, we watch as Lucy struggles to distance herself from court and make her way in the world without the royal trappings that the rest of her family longs for.
The Lady of the Tower, is rich in historic narrative, immersing the reader into a time of great political transition in England. From the English countryside to the royal palace and the Tower of London, I loved the glimpses into everyday English life, and really felt as if I were a part of the story. I particularly enjoyed reading about Lucy’s time spent as jailor in the Tower of London. For, although many stories have been written about the people who have spent time within these walls, we rarely get a feel for what life might have actually been like for those unfortunate enough to spend any amount of time there.
Tumultuous times lie ahead for the country of England, as the Lydiard Chronicles continue with the next generation of St. Johns in the second book in the series, By Love Divided. I’m confident that readers will not be disappointed.
Setting: Scotland, during the reign of King James VI
Before I go any further, I just have to say, this is one of the most beautifully written books I have ever read. Yes, it is written in one of my favorite time periods, and yes it takes place in one of my favorite places in all the world, but when you combine that with the almost poetic style of Sinclair’s writing—sigh!
Ok, I know it sounds like I’m gushing, and maybe I am, but deservedly so. Sinclair’s development of characters is charming, making you love the characters she loves and hate the characters that she hates. Or, if she doesn’t hate them, she sure does a good job at making me do it for her.
Isobell is an English girl trying to escape the prospects of an abusive marriage to a wicked man. She comes up with a plan to escape to Scotland, leaving her privileged life behind to serve as a kitchen maid on the estate of the young Laird, Thomas Manteith. Isobell finds solace in the beautiful and spiritual countryside of Scotland and I loved viewing her world and experiencing it all over again through her eyes. From the flowering trees, the birds and other wildlife to the ancient stone circles and rocky cliffs of this magical land, Sinclair’s writing is a treat for the senses.
The storyline is beautiful too. The love Isobell shared with her “light of the world and salt of the earth” as she called him, was well written, leaving no room for doubt of the love they shared for each other, yet without some of the awkward details that other stories offer. And while I enjoyed experiencing all the wonderful sights (and feels!) with Isobell, I was always waiting for the proverbial “other shoe to drop”, and Sinclair did not disappoint!
I have read several books having to do with witch trials, from the North Berwick witch trials in Scotland, to the Salem witch trials in America. All have been well written, but Sinclair’s description of not only the treatment of the accused witches and the bodily harm that they endured, but the spiritual, mental and emotional trauma that these accused women (and men, at times) must have endured, is brilliant.
I also enjoyed Isobell’s exploration of Celtic spiritualism, Catholic rites and Reformed practices as she sought for her own truth. It is an excellent example of Scotland’s own spiritual journey throughout history.
I will read this book again. Now that I know there is a beautiful end for Isobell (admittedly not the end I was expecting!), I will read it for the pure enjoyment of meandering the deeply moving countryside of Scotland once more.
If you would like to see more of Ailish Sinclair’s writings or see her beautiful pictures of Scotland, visit her on her blog at https://ailishsinclair.com/
To purchase a copy of The Mermaid and the Bear click here.
*Please note: this post is part of a series. To read the parent post click here*
I heard the name Mary Queen of Scots for the first time when I was about 13 years old. She was the subject of a play being performed by the fictitious Kingsport Ladies College in the movie Anne of Avonlea. I listened as a young girl named Emmaline described the traumatic death of the queen, swooning as she imagined playing the tragic character on the school’s stage.
It wasn’t until many years later, as an adult, that I actually learned who this queen was and why her story was so tragic. I cannot pinpoint for you the moment I first fell in love with her. But I can tell you that once I read her story I was fascinated and since then I have read scores of material about her life, forming my own opinions about her guilt or innocence and speculating on why she made the choices she made.
So, why is this woman so important? She didn’t leave behind the glorious legacy that her cousin Elizabeth I did; strengthening her kingdom or further advancing political, economic or literary benefits. She didn’t write books or share knowledge that furthered her cause or benefitted the church of Europe that was in the massive throes of upheaval in some way. However, as with any life, there were ramifications from her choices. The decisions she made, whether bad or good, set up the opportunity for other events to happen, positioning other players in place and enabling them to bring about changes to their world and giving us the results we have today. I think primarily of her son, James VI & I who was responsible for one English translation of the Bible used for hundreds of years in many Protestant churches and is still used, to some extent, today (King James Version Bible/KJV).
For many Scots in the 16th century, her birth was a disappointment and her death a satisfaction. From her first breath to her last she was scrutinized, reproached, ridiculed and condemned. So why, after almost 433 years since her death, is she fondly remembered, romanticized, loved?
There is so much that can be said about this woman and the things that happened to her before her life was cut short (she was 44 when she was executed). The purpose here is not to cover every plot or conspiracy theory that pertains to Mary Stuart. It’s just a simple overview of her life. Is it biased? Probably. Do I hope you fall in love with her as much as I have? Most definitely!
‘it cam’ wi’ a lass, and it’ll gang wi’ a lass’
Mary was only six days old when her father, King James V died, making her queen of Scotland. Although there are debates as to whether James actually said these words, legend purports that, upon learning of the birth of his daughter (and knowing already that he was dying) he said, “it cam’ wi’ a lass, and it’ll gang wi’ a lass” (it came with a girl and it will end with a girl). The House of Stewart (Scottish spelling) began when a Stewart married Marjorie, the daughter of Robert the Bruce. James meant that their line began with a marriage to the daughter of a king and it would die with the daughter of a king. In some respects, he was correct; the House of Stewart did indeed end with a lass, but it wasn’t Mary. Instead, it wouldn’t be until almost 200 years later when Mary’s great, great grand-daughter, Queen Anne died childless, thus ending the reign of the Stewart line.
New Beginnings in France
When Mary was five years old her mother, Mary of Guise, sent her to France in order to escape the reach of Henry VIII. The English king had been trying to obtain the little queen as a wife for his son, Edward (VI), resulting in a war between England and Scotland called The Rough Wooing. Mary of Guise, acting as regent for her young daughter, was a Catholic and sought a union between Catholic France and Scotland, which was already in turmoil over the Scottish reformation.
Mary was eventually betrothed to the young Dauphin, Francis, who was a year younger than her. They grew up together as the best of friends and were married in April of 1558. The ceremony took place in the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris. John Guy described the beautiful young bride in his book Queen of Scots, The True Life of Mary Stuart.
“The crowd only had eyes for Mary. They virtually ignored Francis, whose short, weedy build must have presented a strange contrast to her height and womanly beauty. They craned their necks to catch sight of her, cheering and waving their hats in the air. She looked radiant in her shimmering white dress, itself a daring and unconventional choice because white was the traditional color of mourning for royalty in France.”
When Francis’ father, King Henry II died from a jousting accident a year later, Francis ascended the throne, making Mary a queen for the second time. She was 16 years old.
Returning to Scotland
Tragically, Francis died one month shy of his 17th birthday from complications of an ear infection. With Francis’ younger brother, Charles IX taking the throne, there was no longer a need for Mary to stay in France. Her mother, who had been ruling in her stead, had died six months before her husband. It was time for her to return to her homeland, which she had not seen since she was five years old.
Mary stepped into a boiling pot of parritch so to speak when she reached Scotland. The country was in the middle of a Protestant reformation, making it difficult for the young Catholic queen to come back peaceably. However, although her Catholic supporters hoped that her return would be just the card they needed to win the game, Mary had no intentions of creating a blood bath as her cousin, Mary Tudor, had done in England. Mary Stuart proved to be a tolerant sovereign, allowing her subjects to worship as their consciences saw fit.
Time to Find a Husband
In the first couple of years after her return to Scotland, Mary wrote faithfully to her cousin, Queen Elizabeth. She endeavored to keep up a good relationship with the English queen who was her elder by 9 years. She sought to please Elizabeth in all matters in hopes that Elizabeth would eventually name her as her successor, should the queen decide not to marry and therefore produce no heir.
Mary had a legitimate claim to the English throne. She was the granddaughter of Margaret Tudor, Henry VIII’s eldest sister. Since Elizabeth was the child of Henry’s second wife, whom he married after divorcing his first, Catholic subjects did not view her as a legitimate child, let alone heir to the throne. In their eyes, Catherine of Aragon, Henry’s first wife was his one and only true wife. When Henry’s only son, Edward VI died, and then his daughter by Catherine, Mary Tudor died, that left England looking for a rightful heir. As granddaughter of the next of kin to Henry, Mary was a logical choice. However, Henry had tried to exclude Scotland from any succession with the Third Act of Succession in 1544, which would have technically excluded Mary Stuart as well.
Although it was rumored that Elizabeth preferred Mary over any of her other possible choices, she was hesitant to make it official. Mary’s Catholic views probably paid a large roll in Elizabeth’s hesitancy.
For several years Elizabeth played a game of Simon Says with Mary. She persuaded her to think that, if she were to choose a husband to her liking, Elizabeth may be inclined to name Mary as her successor. Mary was not to entertain ideas of marriage to any man that Elizabeth did not first approve of. She even went so far as to offer her own beloved Robert Dudley, who was rumored to be Elizabeth’s lover, as a suitor for Mary. Mary bulked at this suggestion at first, but when she finally agreed to meet him, Elizabeth had second thoughts and eventually withdrew her support of her own suggestion!
Fed up and ready to marry, Mary decided to take matters into her own hands.
Mary was courted by many kings and noblemen. However, Henry Stewart, more famously known as Lord Darnley, was her final choice. He was Mary’s first cousin, having shared a grandmother in Margaret Tudor.
Elizabeth was not happy about Mary’s choice, for Henry was too close in the English line of succession for her comfort. But she unwittingly set them up for courtship, not realizing it until it was too late. Henry was an English subject, so when Elizabeth had made the mistake of allowing him to go to Scotland (more on that in a later post) there was no turning back.
It was a whirlwind romance, so to speak. He came to Edinburgh in February of 1565. By April there was a flourishing romance blooming and by July they were wed.
Henry was the perfect gentleman when he first came to Scotland and did a grand job of making allies and endearing himself to the Scottish court. He was reported as being very handsome and full of charm. But just as quickly as their courtship transpired, so did the unraveling of the Scottish lords’ good opinion of him. He soon proved himself to be as spoiled as a petulant child. He was boorish and rude and pestered Mary about making him her king consort, which she eventually did. However, what he really wanted was the crown matrimonial. This would give him precedence over Mary and insure that he gained the crown (before any children) should something happen to Mary. Mary refused to give him the upper hand and it didn’t take long for the marriage to turn sour.
Within a year, he had made so many enemies that many were plotting how to get rid of him. By this time Mary had borne Darnley a son (to later become James VI & I). Their marriage was a tumultuous one in which Mary had been attempting a reconciliation. But in the early morning hours of February 10, 1567 the house where Darnley had been residing, Kirk o’ Field, was blown up. His body was later found half-clothed in the garden and there were signs that he had been strangled. There were many who had reason to want him dead, and many who had an opportunity to make it happen. Even Mary was accused at one point of being a part of the plot. No one wanted to believe that the lovely queen could be a part of such a horrific act, but her subsequent actions, so soon after the death of her husband, have left historians scratching their heads for centuries since.
The Last Straw
Several people were implicated in the murder of Darnley, but records later show that there was one particular man that had his hand in the carrying out of the act. James Hepburn, the Earl of Bothwell, was the Captain of the Queen’s Guard. Not long after the explosion he was arrested for part and plot in the king’s murder, but Mary soon acquitted him. This was perhaps another wrong step in what seems to be many in the days and months leading up to the loss of her kingdom.
There seems to be more than a loyalty to country that drove Bothwell to rid Scotland of such a cankerous sore as Darnley. Bothwell had intensions toward Mary and soon began to put plans in place to make her his wife.
Bothwell had drawn up an agreement, in which he had a host of the leading nobles and bishops of Scotland sign. The document, now known as the Ainsley Tavern Bond, indicated that these Scottish lords recognized Bothwell’s innocence in the murder of the king and supported his intentions to marry the queen. Furthermore, it pledged their support in seeing such a plan come to fruition, seeing he was a Scottish born suitor.
A week later, while on her way back from visiting her son who was hidden away at Stirling Castle, Mary was abducted by Bothwell, who had convinced her that danger awaited her in Edinburgh. He whisked her away to his castle at Dunbar where he proceeded to convince her that it was the Scottish nobles’ wish for them to be married.
There were several roadblocks to this scheme. For one, Bothwell was still married; his wife having already been offered a divorce. Another problem for Mary was that this was the man that many still believed to be responsible for her second husband’s murder, a husband who had only been dead for two months. Mary refused his offers at first but found herself inclined to finally accept with the help of Bothwell’s rough persuasions. It has been said that the earl forced himself on Mary and she eventually felt she had no other choice
The Downfall of a Queen
After Mary acquiesced to Bothwell’s scheme, they were married within a month. But it wasn’t long before those who opposed Bothwell as her husband rose up against them. They were out for blood and wanted the man responsible for the king’s murder dead. Mary and Bothwell were confronted on Carberry Hill where a day’s worth of negotiations played out under the hot June sun. The Scottish lords gave Mary two choices to avoid a battle; either she release herself from Bothwell forever, or Bothwell should come and fight one on one in hand to hand combat.
Mary was angry and shocked. According to John Guy her answer to the lords was thus:
“It looks very ill of them, to go against their own signed bond, after they themselves married me to him, having already acquitted him of the deed which they would now accuse him.”
Much deliberation commenced with Bothwell gladly taking on the challenge. Yet Mary wanted the lords to see their folly and surrender to her with a promise of pardon. It was finally decided that Bothwell would fight in single combat; but when a worthy opponent had finally been accepted, Mary put a stop to it. She knew that either way the fight ended she would not come out ahead. John Guy further explains:
“If Bothwell lost, she would be the lords’ prisoner and would have lost her protector. If he won, she would still lose, because she had come to know Morton (Bothwell’s partner in the murder of Darnley) for what he really was. He would never accept the result. Either the rebel lords would order their forces to charge or else they would send other champions to repeat the challenge until Bothwell collapsed from exhaustion or died of his wounds.”
Eventually, Mary negotiated for the lords to allow Bothwell a release and she would go with them peaceably. Bothwell eventually escaped to Norway, where he was imprisoned and eventually died. Mary was put under arrest and forced to abdicate her throne to her 10 month old son, James. It may have been the stress of all of these things coming against her that caused her to miscarry a set of twins during this time as well.
The Beginning of the End
Mary eventually escaped her Scottish captors and fled to England for protection. Although Elizabeth had at first been sympathetic to Mary’s plight (she was appalled that the Scottish lords had imprisoned their own anointed queen), she was apprehensive as well. There was too much scandal surrounding Mary.
Mary was put under house arrest upon entering England and remained there for the next 19 years. Although she lived in relative comfort for the most part, she was still not a free woman. Her health eventually began to decline and she even indicated that she had no wish to take upon herself once more the responsibilities of the throne. However, she had many supporters in Scotland and England, and never stopped seeking an escape. It was no secret that Mary wished to be free from her imprisonment. There were several plots hatched to procure her escape, and some included plans to take the throne of England in the process. Many historians believe these were schemes developed by outside forces and Mary had no true intentions of overthrowing Elizabeth’s throne.
However, in August of 1586 another plot was discovered that would eventually bring about Mary’s demise. (You can read about the Babington Plot and Mary’s arrest in England here) Mary was tried and convicted of treason even though she was not an English subject and by law could not be tried for treason of an English sovereign. She was sentenced to death in October, but Elizabeth did not sign the death warrant until February of the following year.
The warrant, having been signed on the first of February, was carried out on February 8, without Elizabeth’s knowledge. When she discovered her Privy Council had acted without her authority Elizabeth was angry and imprisoned one of her councilors as punishment. This was a good excuse to expunge any guilt on the English queen’s part in the murder of another sovereign.
Mary was led to the execution block in the early morning hours. Under her outer garments she wore a crimson petticoat, indicating her belief that she was being executed as a martyr. When she finally laid her head upon the block, it took the executioner three tries before completely severing her head.
Her wish had been to be buried in France, but Elizabeth denied that request. Instead, her remains were initially buried at Peterborough Cathedral. She was eventually moved to Westminster Abbey at the command of her son, James VI & I, who succeeded Elizabeth to the English throne in 1603.