James VI of Scotland would become James I of England with his coronation on 25th July 1603 and in doing so he would united the kingdoms of Scotland and England. For those in England who were wondering what to expect from their new king, then there were clues from his reign in Scotland. One thing was certain though, he would bring his belief in witchcraft with him.
James’s fascination with the dark arts of witchcraft can be pinpointed to his travels to Denmark, the homeland of his future bride Anne. She was meant to travel from Denmark to be with her groom but during her journey across the North Sea, a storm gathered. For her own safety her ship was delayed. James, eager for news and marry Anne, travelled to Denmark himself.
Married in Denmark, James made the decision to stay until the winter had passed and that the conditions for a safe journey were clear. He was not idle whilst in Denmark. He believed himself to be an intellectual open-minded monarch and was keen to discover more about his new wife and the culture from which she was from. What he discovered would change the course of his reign not only in Scotland but also England. Witch-hunting was common in Denmark. He would meet demonologist, Niels Hemmingsen, where James would become enthralled by debates about the occult.
By the spring of 1590, James had decided to return to Scotland with his new bride. The waters were calmer so the journey should have been a straight forward affair. However, the journey back to his homeland was anything but simple. A storm erupted on route, a ship was lost. Whilst James and Anne both made it home, James’s thoughts had turned to witchcraft and he blamed witches for the destruction of his fleet.
It would wrong to assume that James brought the witch-craze to Scotland. There were cases but James took it to another level. The North Berwick Witch Trials that began once he arrived back were the most brutal and fanatical Scotland had ever witnessed. James believed that a coven of witches had plotted against him and caused the storm that had almost killed him and Anne. More than 70 suspected witches were arrested.
James actively took part in the subsequent trials listening to their testimonies and confessions. Many confessed following torture with a number dying from the injuries inflicted in order to make them confess. Those that survived the torture, would be burned at the stake. The North Berwick Witch Trials opened the door for further hysteria and over the 17th century more than 3000 people would be accused of witchcraft in Scotland alone.
His time in Denmark and his experience of the North Berwick Witch Trials convinced James that witchcraft was very real. He ensured that word spread across his kingdom about the events. In doing so, he helped to spread and even reinforce, not only his own fear of witches, but also the population as a whole. In 1597, he would write his own book about witchcraft and the occult. Daemonologie was his attempt to disprove the skeptics. With Elizabeth I childless, and James being England’s heir in waiting, it would only a matter of time until he would ascend the throne south of the border. English nobility would have the opportunity to find out more about James’s obsession through his writing.
Elizabeth I's passing in 1603 saw James become King James I of England. With him, he brought a symbolic union of the two countries under one crown. He also brought with him his fears of witchcraft. He aimed to change the English law regarding the issue. He saw the English laws regarding witchcraft as too lenient.
The Witchcraft Act of 1604 made sweeping changes. For example, the discovery of the devils mark (a mole, birthmark, wort) upon a suspected witch would be enough to condemn them to death. Hanging would also become the preferred method of execution and was the punishment for witchcraft even if the supposed witch had not murdered anyone. Soon the hysteria would infect England in the same way as it had in Scotland.
Only a year later, the Gunpowder plot threatened James. The Protestant Monarch had a new fear. Seeing Catholicism as largely superstition other than the word of God, Catholic priests were considered to be sorcerers. In some cases, members of the clergy were tried as witches.
James's influence would soon be felt in Pendle. Prior to his ascension to the throne, children's testimonies were prohibited in English Law. The case of the Pendle Witches would change that by allowing the testimony of nine-year-old, Jennet Device.
This change would lead to more children coming forward most notably, in Salem. Nearly 100 years after the publication of Daemonologie, it's impact would be felt on another continent. The ideals of the Devil's mark would be enough to condemn many during the reign of the self appointed, Witch finder General, Matthew Hopkins, who would go on to make a tidy profit from witch hunting during the chaotic English Civil War.
Whilst attitudes changed it would only be in 1736 when the laws against witchcraft were repealed. King James VI of Scotland brought a hysteria against witchcraft with him from Denmark. The result of which was the murder of thousands of innocent people who were caught up in a period of fear. This fear would be one of James's own. Wherever James would go, the same hysteria would follow. Most of this would come in the form of desperate attempts to gain the king's affection and favor.
His death on the 27th March, 1625 would not bring an end to it. His ideas had now become ingrained. The eruption of civil war would allow law and order to become manipulated in favor of individuals like Matthew Hopkins who used the text produced by James to continue slaying the innocent.
Hopkins influence would travel the Atlantic Ocean to the New World. The New World would still focus on old ideas as copies of Matthew Hopkins pamphlets and Daemonologie would be brought over by the puritan pilgrims. Even after his death it would appear, that James VI and I was still hunting witches. His Majesty the witch-finder's ideas were still alive and well.