The Scottish Monarchy Once Feared It Was Being Attacked By Witches

After more than 20 years on the Scottish throne, James VI had endured just about everything — from rumors of homosexuality to the execution of his mother, Mary Queen of Scots. But when a particularly violent storm kept him from his young bride, he became convinced that dark forces were at play. Furious, he launched a bloody crusade that would result in thousands of deaths.

Supernatural forces

Although there were many factors that influenced the North Berwick witch trials — and the mass hysteria that followed — James’ paranoia was certainly a driving force. And when one woman gave a bizarre confession under torture, the King deduced that a sinister conspiracy was afoot. Were supernatural forces really plotting to bring down his rule? Or was there an altogether simpler explanation?

Trials and executions

For years, women across Scotland were imprisoned by James and his advisors, accused of siding with the Devil against the deeply religious Protestant King. And more often than not, the trials resulted in executions. Shockingly, this legacy of persecution would last well into the 20th century — but what was really going on?

James VI

According to historians, there were few signs that James thought much about witchcraft during the early years of his reign. The child of James V’s daughter Mary and her second husband Lord Darnley, James was crowned King of Scotland when he was just one year old. After his father’s death in battle, rebels had forced his unpopular mother to abdicate and pass the throne to her infant son.

The boy king

For the first 17 years of his rule, James was supervised by a string of regents who managed his affairs and dealt with the government on his behalf. But once he reached maturity and gained full control, he proved to be a competent King. And despite rumors that he preferred the company of men, he began to consider taking a suitable bride.