23 October 2013

Witchcraft and Sorcery: The king and the pricker - witch hunting in Scotland

The king and the pricker - witch hunting in Scotland

By Blythe Gifford

While the English “witch finder” Matthew Hopkins and the Salem, Massachusetts witch trials may be more familiar to many readers, some of the most horrific witch hunts of the 16-17th centuries took place in Scotland.  Several waves of witch hunting washed through the country, over a period of roughly 200 years, resulting in a total of some 1,500 deaths, compared to perhaps 1,000 in England.  Other estimates are that Scotland, with a quarter of England’s population, executed three times the number of witches as England did.

There is much speculation and little certainty about exactly why that is so.  I’ll withhold theories, but today, I’d like to focus on two peculiarly Scottish contributions to the history of witch hunting:  first, the direct involvement of the king and second, the phenomenon known as the “witch pricker.”

The Scottish King James VI (son of Mary, Queen of Scots and later crowned as England’s King James I) was obsessed with witchcraft, so much so that he authored an eighty page treatise on the subject, Daemonologie, in 1597.  Although witchcraft in Scotland had been illegal and punishable by death since 1563, the persecution of witches did not really take hold until the king made it a personal crusade.  (Among his “contributions” to the cause was to authorize torture.)

James VI Scotland/James I England
Why was he so obsessed?  Because he was, for a time, convinced he had been a victim of witchcraft.  During a visit to Denmark, home of his future bride, Anne of Denmark, he is said to have been exposed to a theory of witchcraft not yet prevalent in Scotland; one that focused on demonic compacts and groups of witches working together in league with Satan.  This idea apparently weighed on his mind as several rough sea crossings nearly prevented Anne and James from returning to Scotland alive.  The Danish admiral blamed witches for working black magic against the royal couple.  The king must have believed him, for soon, persecutions in both countries began, and the accused included nobles of the Scottish court.

Across a multi-year period, from 1590-1593, the investigation culminated with the execution of around 70 witches in North Berwick.  The king took a personal interest in the trials, and even in the torture of some of the women.  And interestingly, the charges included treason as well as witchcraft, indicating that the king believed he had personally been a target and the crime not only a religious, but a civil one.  His subsequent authorship of the Daemonologie placed him firmly on the side of those who argued that rational men could, and should, believe that such evil existed, insisting it was possible for witches to “rayse stromes and tempestes in the aire, either upon land or sea, though not universally; but in such a particular place and prescribed bunds as God will permitte them so to trouble.”

Pamphlet written by James VI on the North Berwick witch trials
After he became England’s king in 1601 and moved south, his views moderated significantly.  Arguments as to why include the greater skepticism of the English and may also include his experience with Anne Gunter, a young  woman who accused others of witchcraft and later confessed that she had made it all up.

A footnote for those who know “the Scottish play.”  The three witches in MacBeth are thought to have been modeled on some passages of the Daemonologie, an attempt by Shakespeare to please England’s new king James I.

No such moderation of views occurred in the Scotland he left behind.  Witch hunts continued sporadically, with the largest wave in 1661-62.  And the methods of witch hunting in Scotland were more brutal than those in England. Some claimed it was because of differences in the legal system, but the torture routinely practiced in Scotland was gruesome.

Which brings me to the other Scottish contribution to mass witch hunts:  the “witch pricker.” 

These finders-for-hire traveled the country, paid to search for witches and paid better when they found one.  And while the methods of the English “witch finders” such as Matthew Hopkins were grim enough, the witch pricker had a particular slant on things.

The theory was that each witch would have a witch’s mark, given to her by the Devil.  The witch pricker examined the suspected witch (overwhelmingly, though not exclusively a female) for the mark.  (Theory was that Satan, in essence, seduced the
Witch Pricks
women, so the mark would often be found near her most private parts.)  This mark was supposed to be insensitive to pain, so that when jabbed with a sharp, brass prick, the witch would not flinch or cry out or bleed.  If the point of the price disappeared into the mark and the witch did not cry out, the witch pricker had then proven the suspect’s guilt.

The descriptions of these processes, often witnessed by a crowd of observers, are chilling.  More chilling, however, was the discovery that at least some of these pricks were designed with retractable points.  In other words, to an observer, it looked as if the pin penetrated the skin and came out without so much as blood on it.  In reality, the witch pricker had a perfect scam going.  How many women were put to death because of this ruse, we don’t know.  When, finally, one of the most notorious prickers, one John Kincaid, was exposed, it marked a turning point in Scotland.  Witches were still hunted and tried, but torture had to be authorized by national councils instead of simply conducted by local authorities in the grip of fear and frenzy.

These “stranger than fiction” facts haunted me as I developed my next book, THE WITCH FINDER, which will be released later this month.  For those who want an in depth look at the Scottish witch hunts, ENEMIES OF GOD, by Christina Larner, is a comprehensive beginning.

After many years in public relations, advertising and marketing, Blythe Gifford started writing seriously after a corporate layoff. Ten years and one layoff later, she became an overnight success when she sold her first book to the Harlequin Historical line.  Since then, she has published eight romances set in England and on the Scottish Borders, many featuring characters born on the wrong side of the royal blanket.  THE WITCH FINDER will be released in the fall of 2013. For more information, visit www.blythegifford.com  Author photo Jennifer Girard