180: The Witching of King James

Here is the first part of my tale at the Cats’ Field.

I trembled as I went forward to speak.  My mother’s eyes were on me.

Tricks, Harry’s mother.

I kept close to the truth, so my lies would be better.

My time in the Tower had made me a cunning liar.

“Friends,” I began, “is there any here who was grieved to learn the old Queen was dead?”

“No,” some screeched.

“Nor I.  But what have we in her place?  A starveling Scot, who brought his starveling friends with him.  No wonder the London cats sing this song.

Why? Why? we cats do cry,
are such beggars in our town?
Some in rags, some in tags,
and some in velvet gowns!

That brought great applauds, which made me bold.

I sayt, “All know that King James is tim’rous.  So tim’rous that he made peace with Spain!  He prefers to trouble cats and their poor mistresses by means of his new law against witches.

“When I arrkst why, this is what he told me.

“Many winters past, when his bride set forth from Denmark to join him in Scotland, her ship met with weather so foul she made landfall in a place called Norway.  So King James took ship, and wedded her there.

“Then they went to bide in Denmark.  Winter was come and they durst not voyage to Scotland.

“They set sail in spring, and what a rough going they had!  Wild winds and fierce seas made them fear for their lives.”

Fierce seas.

A cat called, “That were the doing of the Queen Cat of Heaven!  She sought to sink him as she sinks the Spanish.”

That caused much merriment.

“I do not doubt it,” sayt I.  “But when King James was safe at home, what did he hear?  That Danish witches had started the trouble.   And he also heard there was a great number of witches in Scotland, no better than devils, who’d raised winds against him with the aid of a cat.”

“All praise to that cat!” came a call.

“First he learnt that there was a man in Scotland who had a maidservant that was often absent from his house by night.”

“Is she the cat?” arrkst one.

“Patience, friends,” I sayt.  “This maidservant was a woman.  She began to help all who were troubled with sickness or infirmitie, and performed miracles.

“Her master believed she did these things by unlawful means.  He examined her, but she gave him no answers.  Then he, with the help of others, tormented her with tortures, but still she would not confess.

“They searched her to see if she had been marked by the devil, as some say witches are.  They found his mark upon her throat.  Whereat she confessed that all she did was by the devil’s inticements.

“She was committed to prison, where she named other witches.  The elder witch she named was brought before King James, but nowt that he sayt could induce her to confess.  So she was conveyed to prison, there to be tortured.

When the elder witch was brought again before the King, she confessed that upon All Hallow E’en last, she and many other witches went to sea in sieves.  And made merrie with flagons of wine.”

“In sieves?” called a cat.  “I have sat in a sieve, but my master could not.”

A 16th century sieve.  This one’s held by the late Queen Elizabeth in a portrait that may be copyright, so I can’t show you more.  She wasn’t planning to go to sea in it.

“I do not think King James believed it at first,” sayt I.  “But there’s more.  This elder witch sayt that, on coming to shore – ”

“Where?” came a call.  “In Denmark?”

“No,” sayt I.  “In another part of Scotland.  They met the devil in the shape of a man and swore to work against the King.  Then they clamb back into their sieves, and so home.”

“What of the cat you spake of?” called another.

“I’ll come to that,” sayt I, and paused to scratch myself.

There came a whisper, “I heard he was fool, but he tells a good tale.  ‘Tis King James that’s fool.”

Toutparmoi - Note from the EditorKing James set off to collect his Danish bride in 1589, and they were married in Oslo in November.  It was after his and Anne’s return to Scotland in April 1590 that he learnt witches had been working against him.

 To be fair to James, most people believed in witchcraft to some degree or other.  As historian Keith Thomas says, in his brilliant Religion and the Decline of Magic (1971) witch-beliefs are as old as human history. 

 The history of witchcraft in Scandinavia, continental Europe, the UK, and North America is varied and complex, to say the least.  However, the idea that witches were in league with the devil (linking witchcraft to heresy) first appeared in medieval Europe.

 By the late 16th century it seems that Scottish witches – whether they were doing good or ill – were held to be the devil’s servants, but the concept was slow to influence English law.

 The English Witchcraft Act of 1542, repealed 1547, made witchcraft (including the invocation of spirits) a felony punishable by death, but concentrated on harmful, irreligious, or antisocial activities.

Its successor of 1563 (repealed 1604) made invoking evil spirits for any purpose a felony, but was more lenient in other ways.  Causing death by witchcraft resulted in execution for murder, but lesser degrees of harm meant imprisonment. 

It’s unlikely the Scottish maidservant (Geillis Duncan by name) could have been convicted under English law.

The 1604 Act tightened the penalties, and went even further with regard to evil spirits: it became a felony to employ, feed, entertain or reward one.  No wonder Tricks didn’t like it.

However, James isn’t entirely to blame.  The concept of animal familiars, i.e. evil spirits in the shapes of small animals, existed in England well before the 1604 Act and could be used in evidence against witches.      


14 thoughts on “180: The Witching of King James

  1. colonialist August 8, 2019 / 8:30 pm

    I am sure that cats are far more sensible in such directions than stupid humans. As for these ‘confessions’, as with the Inquisition it gets to the stage where one will do anything to end the torment, so what does it prove? But such superstitions are still rife to this day.

    Liked by 1 person

    • toutparmoi August 8, 2019 / 9:21 pm

      As reported, the witches’ confessions sound so bizarre I can’t see how an intelligent man like James could have believed them – even if he did believe in witchcraft.

      Liked by 2 people

    • colonialist August 9, 2019 / 3:22 am

      Perhaps he thought it politically wise to give an appearance of doing so.

      Liked by 1 person

    • toutparmoi August 9, 2019 / 9:41 am

      I blame the Danes! Apparently (though I haven’t done much digging into this) there was an investigation into why Anne’s ship had had to turn back, and witchcraft was put forward as a reason. As opposed to poor seamanship or an inadequate vessel? Anyway, James, now safely back in Scotland heard of this and decided to conduct his own investigation there. Intellectual curiousity gone wrong? Before that, he’s said not to have displayed any interest in witchcraft, and later became more sceptical. But the damage was done, and led to an outbreak of witch hunting in Scotland.


  2. Rachel McAlpine August 8, 2019 / 9:11 pm

    What a good story you, oops I mean Harry, does tell. Itching for part II.

    Liked by 2 people

    • toutparmoi August 8, 2019 / 9:25 pm

      Harry is acquitting himself well at the Cats’ Field. I hope is mother is proud of him.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. dornahainds August 9, 2019 / 8:29 am

    Such fools these human be when only seeing with their eyes and not following Logic and or Reason. 😭

    Another Great story telling, by the way. 👏👏👏👏👏

    Liked by 1 person

    • toutparmoi August 9, 2019 / 9:46 am

      So true about the logic and reason! James was more than capable of seeing that such bizarre confessions, extracted under torture, had to be nonsense.


  4. April Munday August 9, 2019 / 7:06 pm

    James was far from being a fool, so the storms that kept his bride from him must have been very unusual, either in force or duration. I’m impressed by his thoroughness. He went from not thinking about witches very much, to becoming an expert in them. He knew enough about them to write a book, which must show how seriously he took witchcraft.

    Liked by 1 person

    • toutparmoi August 9, 2019 / 7:54 pm

      He thought demonology was a legitimate part of theology, in which he was very interested. Perhaps that had already occurred to him in Denmark while he sat out winter there, and the combination of his alarming trip home and word of witch trials in Denmark impelled him further into the topic?

      Liked by 1 person

    • April Munday August 9, 2019 / 8:14 pm

      I can imagine that if it was discussed a great deal at the court while he couldn’t get home it might have sparked a greater interest. If it was linked to heresey, it would have been even more logical for him to study it.

      Liked by 1 person

    • toutparmoi August 9, 2019 / 9:05 pm

      The link to heresy would explain why witches were customarily burned in continental Europe, Scandinavia and Scotland, but were usually hanged in England where witchcraft remained a felony, despite the increased legal emphasis on their use of evil spirits.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Dave Ply August 10, 2019 / 9:37 am

    I recently read a book by Terry Pratchett written from the perspective of a young witch. (I Shall Wear Midnight.) Like other Pratchett books, both humorous and wise. But I suspect, back in the day, I could have been arrested and tortured for even reading such a tome.

    Even in today’s day and age, another book Pratchett wrote with Neil Gaiman, Good Omens, that was made into a teleplay was protested by a certain group of religious fundamentalists. They were trying to get Netflix to stop showing it because it portrayed an angel and a demon getting along all friendly-like. (Netflix didn’t produce it or show it. Darn those inconvenient facts!)

    Liked by 1 person

    • toutparmoi August 10, 2019 / 9:51 am

      First they’d have come for Terry Pratchett, Dave, next they’d have come for you as a likely member of his coven. One of the oddest things I ever heard of was the anti-Harry Potter rhetoric.

      Liked by 1 person

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