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Agnes Sampson – Scottish Witch

These days, witches are fairly trendy. Calling yourself a witch has fewer consequences than ever. People might think of you as a bit odd, sexy, or at worst, in league with a toothless Satan. That is, unless you happen to be accused in modern Africa.

The 16th century (1500-1599, if you were wondering) was a bad time to be called a witch. Only after the 18th century did it become a tad safer to be called a witch. I'm sure some people are still champing at the bit for a good old witch trial and execution.

Often the victims of witch hunts were women who were somewhat educated or skilled. That was the case when the Scottish midwife, Agnes Sampson, was accused of attacking the king of Scotland, James VI.



The King Marries a Child


James VI is known as “The Most Effective ruler Scotland ever had”, by royal sources. Henry IV of France called him “the Wisest Fool in all of Christendom”. He was crowned king at the age of 13 months, after his mother was forced to abdicate the throne of Scotland.

Whatever else he was, he wasn't above marrying a child when he was 22. That's exactly what he did in 1589, when he arranged to marry the princess of Denmark. Anne of Denmark, aged 14, was the daughter of king Frederik II of Denmark-Norway.

Their first wedding was attended by everyone except James VI. He had a proxy stand in for him at the ceremony, which I can't judge, because sometimes you're busy.

Anne made several attempts to cross the sea to get to her husband. Each attempt was thwarted by tempestuous storms that churned the ocean into a killing field. It's almost like some kind of higher power was against the consummation of their wedding.

Finally, James had had enough, and he set off for Denmark himself. There they held the wedding again, trotting out all the disgruntled aunts and uncles and other nobility one more time.

While in the court of Denmark, James noted how taken the nobility there was with witchcraft. They were in hysterics about the threat posed by these powerful women and men. Unsanctioned power was a very bad thing. Peasants should know their place, which is in the dirt, if that wasn't clear.

James thought the idea of persecuting witches was neat. His brain bubbled with the idea that the storms that kept him from his child-bride, were created artificially. It wasn't his idea, mind you, he didn't seem to have too many of those. No, it was the Admiral from Denmark who acted as captain on the royal couple's return to Scotland. Things were about to get bloody.


North Berwick Witch Trials



Childbirth was a difficult and dangerous thing for most of human history. Midwives are women who through experience or training have picked up the skills to make the process a little safer.

Agnes Sampson was a midwife and healer, known locally as the “Wise Wife of Keith”. She wasn't married to Keith, that's where she lived. Nether Keith, in East Lothian, Scotland, was a quiet Barony. Until it wasn't.

James VI arrived in Scotland in 1590 with a burning passion to hunt witches. He had been too lenient on witchcraft before, and they took advantage of him. The king's feelings were hurt, and people were about to die for it.

The Witch trials of Denmark kicked off in 1590. Witches were accused, tortured until they confessed, and burned at the stake for the crime of attacking the princess and her husband. James wanted in on that action, and set up his own tribunal to investigate the international cabal of witches (this is starting to sound like modern conspiracy theories, someone, call Alex Jones).

Gilly Duncan was a concocter of cures living near Edinburgh. Unfortunately for Gilly, her cures worked a little too well. She got the equivalent of a 5-star Google review, and was accused of using witchcraft to enhance her potions.

James VI's tribunal scooped up the young woman, and he presided over her torture himself. She denied any dealings with the devil at first, because that's exactly what a guilty person would do!

Gilly was subjected to thumb-screws, which is like a tiny vise-grip, but for your thumbs. She was made to wear a “Branks”, which is a kind of iron mask that bolts your mouth shut over an iron tongue-piece to keep yours from “wagging”.

After the torture, Gilly confessed to selling her soul to the devil. Her cures just weren't curing, so she appealed to the enemy of the church to help her bring relief to her customers. She named her accomplices as Dr. John Fian, Agnes Sampson, Barbara Napier, Euphemia Maclean, and Francis Stewart.

While Gilly was burning at the stake, her “coven” was rounded up. They were tortured, and much like Gilly, confessed to plotting against the king and his child-bride. Shockingly, they also named more accomplices when pressed under torture, over 70 people would die in the first wave.

The stories were all very similar, and were all extracted by the same team of torturers led by the king himself. He was flattered by their claims that the devil hated him because James VI was his greatest enemy.

According to the confessions, the devil gathered all of his witches on Halloween of 1590. He had them dig up corpses and cut them up. The detached body parts were attached to a black cat and tossed into the sea to call up the storm that kept James from his child-bride.


The Torture of Agnes Sampson – Elder Witch



Among the 51 crimes Agnes was accused of, the first was being a widow. Not having a living husband is very suspicious. She was arrested and taken to Holyroodhouse, James VI's palace, for torture. Trigger warning for scenes of torture and sexual assault.

Agnes was placed in a Branks, the metal headgear had four sharp prongs, two that pressed on the tongue and one to pull apart each cheek. They tied a rope around her head and threw her around the room by yanking on it.

According to the article in the “Newes from Scotland”, Agnes refused to confess. The king's men shaved all the hair from her body. Witches were marked by the devil, you see, and that crafty old devil often placed his mark under the hair. Torturers aren't the gentlest of folk, so you can imagine their shaving methods weren't very kind.

Agnes was found to have a “privy mark”, which meant she was in league with the devil. This mark was found near her genitals, and after it was found, she was ready to confess.

According to the “Newes from Scotland”, the king didn't believe Agnes at first. He was, after all, a pure man with wisdom beyond his years. Agnes grew tired of his disbelief, so she whispered to him the exact words he said to his child-bride at their wedding.

Agnes was strangled and burned with the rest of the people accused by Gilly Duncan. This was the first trial of many, that would last until the early 18th century, and cost the lives of nearly 4000 people.



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