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Digital Subscriptions > History Revealed > December 2018 > The King Obsessed with Witches

The King Obsessed with Witches

Once you had been accused of witchcraft in late 16th-century Britain, there was usually only one way out: the grave. Emma Slattery Williams asks historian Suzannah Lipscomb why James VI and I feared them so
The King watches on as a group of women suspected of witchcraft are beaten in front of him

The year is 1590, and in Scotland an extraordinary event is taking place – the North Berwick Witch Trials. A group of at least 70 people, mostly women, stand accused of witchcraft.

Agnes Sampson is one of them. After enduring days of torture, she has confessed to conspiring with the devil against the King – James VI of Scotland (who will later also become James I of England). What makes this particular trial stand out is that the King is personally presiding over proceedings. Having been condemned, Sampson is lashed to a stake, where she is strangled and burned.

Over the next century Scotland alone will see more than 3,000 people accused of witchcraft, and the hysteria will spread across Britain. The belief in magic had been part of societies across the globe for centuries, yet the persecution of witches in 16th- and 17thcentury Britain was unprecedented and merciless.

What was behind kings and popes becoming involved in the matter, which served to legitimise a terrifying and seemingly very real threat from witches? Historian Dr Suzannah Lipscomb, author of a new book on the subject, suggests that it was the King’s obsession that led to this panic: “The fact that we’ve got these massive witch trials in 1590-91 comes from James’s enthusiasm for witch trials; he thinks witches are treacherously attacking him.”

The North Berwick witches were said to hold their covens in the town’s churchyard
ALAMY X2, BRIDGEMAN IMAGES X1
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About History Revealed

Fifty years ago, astronauts Frank Borman, Bill Anders and Jim Lovell became the first men to escape the clutches of Earth's gravity and journey to the Moon - and in doing so, stole a march on the Soviets in the Space Race. Discover how this mission, hatched amid setbacks and failures, and shaped by the wider tensions of the Cold War, gave the US something to hope for after the trauma of 1968. Plus: History's greatest coincidences, what happened to fallen French emperor Napoleon after the Battle of Waterloo, the value of Britain's battlefields, why King James VI and I was obsessed with witch hunting, and more.