The North Berwick Witch Trials of 1590

The concept of witch trials originated during the middle ages. According to the definition at the time, a witch was someone (male or female) who was known to practice witchcraft by using magic spells in order to alter something or someone against their will. Most witches were thought to be worshippers of the Devil, who did his bidding by choice or after being “seduced” by him. However, most of us know nowadays that these women and men were actually intellectuals and healers whose advanced knowledge in botany, and medicine (among other subjects) was deeply misunderstood. It’s always been human nature to fear that which we don’t know, and this dark period of time in world history was not the exception.

The persecution of witches soared during the mid-1400s in Europe, causing thousands of people to die as a consequence. It was normal for the accused to confess to a variety of crimes they mostly didn’t commit after being horrifically tortured. Within the span of a hundred years, witch hunts became a common event where the death penalty was carried out by hanging or burning at the stake. Particular targets were unmarried women, widows, and women who lived on the fringes of society. Essentially, most were women who were not under the protection of a man. However, having a male in their life even if a woman was of noble or richer descent didn’t safeguard them from the potential of being accused.

Over a period of 160 years, around 80,000 people lost their lives because of the witch trials in Europe alone. This doesn’t even take into account the time when the trend made its way across the pond to current North America. Germany specifically ended up having the highest sentencing and execution rate in Europe, while Ireland ended up having the lowest.

Malleus Maleficarum: What Was It?

The “Malleus Maleficarum”, also known as “The Hammer of Witches” was a guide that described the best ways to recognize, track down, and question those suspected of witchcraft. It was created by two well-known and respected German Dominicans in the year 1486. The Dominican Order was a religious organization of preachers descending from the Catholic Church, founded on the idea of spreading the gospel and fighting heresy.

Malleus Maleficarum book of witchcraft

The book declared that witchcraft was a direct consequence of heresy, and given how ingrained this concept and the fight against it was during those times, the instructional became a global sensation. Both Protestants and Catholics used it to focus all their efforts on erasing every single witch that lived among them. In fact, during the first one hundred years after it was published, it sold more copies across Europe than any other book. The only exception? the Bible. It’s widely considered today that The Hammer of Witches is what set off the witch-hunting obsession which ended up taking over the Middle Ages.

The North Berwick Trials: What Caused Them?

A year or so before the trials took place, King James VI of Scotland set sail towards Copenhagen to marry Princess Anne of Denmark. On his way there he experienced one of the most intense and terrifying storms he had ever seen. Fearful for his life, he ended up disembarking off the coast of Norway to wait out the storm. While there, Princess Anne decided to travel to meet up instead of waiting for him to complete the journey, and they were married in Norway as opposed to in Scotland as the original plan had been.

After spending a while being hosted by the Danish monarchy, the newlywed couple decided to make their way to back Scotland. A Danish admiral had been appointed to escort them all the way back, and so they left Denmark in 1590. Unfortunately for what would come after, their travels back to their new home were plagued by even stronger storms.

At the time, the concept and persecution of witches had been extremely popular in Denmark and would actually soar in the 1600s. At the time of King James and Princess Anne’s journey back to Scotland, most Danish nobles were already aware and fearful of the idea. This was likely because of the news and details reaching their borders directly from Germany, where the Trier witch trials were taking place. So, it should come as no surprise that the admiral who was with them immediately blamed the life threatening storm on witches. King James who had originally been quite forgiving towards witchcraft accusations, dramatically changed his mind on the matter after hearing the admiral and began an all-consuming persecution, to the point of tyranny.

Consequences in Denmark: The Copenhagen Trials

Before diving into what happened next in North Berwick, let’s look at the consequences of the situation in Denmark, and how this directly affected Scottish witches.

After the almost failed trip back to Scotland, the Danish minister of Finance was accused by Admiral Peder Munk of not having ensured the royal fleet was prepared and equipped enough to withstand potential storms the ship could have encountered. Scared for his position, the Admiral resorted to blaming the storm on a group of Danish witches. He pointed a finger to Karen Vaevers, a weaver by profession, and stated she had sent tiny devils in empty barrels who had then climbed up the side of the ships which caused the weather to change into the storm it became.

The question remained, however, what had made Valkendorff choose this specific woman as the accused, and how the idea of hiding behind witchcraft came to his mind. In May 1590, a little while before the fated trip back to Scotland, a woman named Anna Koldings was sitting in prison in Copenhagen. While she had been accused, tried, and found guilty of witchcraft in a case not related to the royal trip, she was considered an extremely dangerous witch. To the point that her nickname was Mother of the Devil.

At this point, Valkendorff was being blamed for the situation, and he felt stuck between a rock and a hard place. His brilliant idea was to use Kolding’s reputation in his favor, and so he requested the Mayor of Copenhagen to interrogate her regarding her involvement in cursing the ships. Given his highly regarded position in the Danish government, he had no problem having his request heard.

Under torture, Koldings confessed to yet another accusation she was not guilty of. She stated that a group of women had gathered a the weaver’s house with the intent to kill the Princess via witchcraft and through a terrible storm that would cause her to drown. The news of the trial and accusations made it to King James’s ears all the way from Denmark, and fearful and vindictive as he had become, he began his own witch trials.

The North Berwick Trials: What Made them Special?

After King James set out to conduct his own investigation from Scotland, the first ever witchcraft persecution took place within the country’s borders. The trials that took place at North Berwick were specifically attention grabbing because of the vast number of accused witches that were tried and murdered in one go. If we keep in mind how small North Berwick was, the approximately 70 women who died were a huge percentage of the population.

Another aspect to note from the trials was how ridiculous the accusation of women being able to control the weather was. Added to this was the level of torture used during the trials to extract false confessions. The story went that, with the idea of bringing down King James and potentially his new wife, a group of women converged on a church off a nearby cliff overlooking the sea. There, they danced and summoned the devil asking for his help in completing their mission. The Devil had told them to dig up dead bodies from the graveyard next to the church, chop them up limb by limb and then tie each limb to dead cats. Once that was done, they were to throw them into the sea which would please the Devil enough for him to create the storm for them. The location was also said to have been particularly good for storm summoning given how close it was to the water.

The North Berwick Trials: Notable Figures

Agnes Sampson and Gellie Duncan were two of the most noteworthy figures from the accused. Sampson was an experienced midwife, and Duncan was a well-known healer. After being horribly tortured, they confessed to the accusations and were burned at the stake for their crimes. They also were forced to name other women who had been part of their coven and had participated in the summoning. It is thought that the other accused women were also tried and burned, although there’s no official documentation to support that.

Pop culture references to both of these figures as well as the trail can actually be found in a few places. Most notable, Shakespeare’s Macbeth and the book and TV series Outlander.

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