Two years after his mother’s death, James VI married Anne of Denmark. Crossing the North Atlantic then was no easier than it is today. During the trip to her new home, Anne encountered fierce storms and was forced to turn back. As a result, James sailed to meet his new bride and likewise endured terrible weather. The monarch, and some of his courtiers, became convinced witchcraft had caused those storms.
Many so-called North Berwick "witches" were arrested; about 70 people were ultimately tortured, tried or killed. The King himself participated in questioning some of the accused. Jurors in one trial, who had voted for acquittal, were later tried themselves for "willful error on assize, acquitting a witch."
By all accounts, King James approved horrendous torture for the accused. Agnes Sampson, whom the king questioned at Holyrood Palace, was fastened to the wall of her cell by a witch’s bridle. That torture device was made of iron and had four sharp prongs that were forced into her mouth. Two prongs were forced against her tongue while the other two were forced against her cheeks. She was later strangled and burned as a witch.
The North Berwick witch hunt remains infamous to this day. The trials, beginning in 1590, took two years. But those trials were not the last in Scotland. King James’ 1597 book, Demonology, became a guide for future Scottish witch hunts. From 1590 to 1690, about 3,400 people were burned as witches in Scotland.
King James ceased to believe in witchcraft later in his life. But at the age of 24, while he was in the middle of questioning the North Berwick accused, he did the wrong thing even though he thought it was right.
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