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 difficult to see how the Scottish maidservant (Geillis Duncan by name) could have been suspect 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.      

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