The Devil’s “greatest enemy”

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North Berwick, All Hallows Eve 1590 – and the Devil is abroad.


The North Berwick Witches meet the Devil (image in public domain)

According to the pamphlet Newes from Scotland he took human form, appearing before a group of witches to whom he requested to “kiss his Buttocks, in signe of duetye to him”.  They duly did, also offering oaths for “good and true” service.  The Devil then delivered “ungodly exhortations”, describing the King of Scotland, James VI, as “the greatest enemy he hathe in the world”.

This account – and James VI’s response to it – says much about the cultural and political contexts of witchcraft in the late 16th century.  It reminds us that such settings need to be born in mind, particularly when such suggestive and occult occurences are being described.

What we know for certain is that King James VI took a personal interest in the trial of witches described above.  Newes from Scotland is the earliest publication on witchcraft in Scotland, claiming to give a true account of the trial of the alleged North Berwick witches.  It describes the activities the ‘witches’ were charged with – and how their testimonies were produced under forced confession.

Why was James VI so interested in these witches?  The suspects were charged with attempting to raise storms in the North Sea and so drown the King as he sailed to Denmark.  Under confession, the witches also revealed details of conversations James had with Anne of Denmark – his Queen – on the night of their marriage.

M0014280 James I: Daemonologie, in forme of a dialogue. Title page.

Dæmonologie, in forme of a dialogve, divided into three books / Written by Iames … King of England, Scotland, France and Ireland … (EPB 3445/B)

James’s interest in witchcraft leads him to write Daemonologie, a copy of which the Wellcome Library holds in its collections. First published in 1597, after another outbreak of witch trials in Scotland, Daemonologie was seemingly begun in 1591 after his interest in the North Berwick witch trials.

The contents of Daemonologie can be summarised as follows.  Taking the form of a dialogue between two characters, it sets out that witchcraft is real; that witches are to be prosecuted by the correct authorities and that those who deny the existence of witches are in the wrong (and may even by in league with witches by so doing).

The book is written from a position of strength: James’s kingship is relatively stable at this point in time and by taking the position he did in his text he was disagreeing – and discrediting – Reginald Scot’s highly influential The Discoverie of Witchcraft.

The political context, however, is crucial.  As James was an advocate of the Divine Right of Kings – meaning that he believed to have been annointed by the Lord, and had a God-given right to rule – Newes from Scotland‘s description of James as the Devil’s “greatest enemy”, matched perfectly with how he wished to be viewed and would also help to reinforce his authority over church and government.  If James had been chosen by God, of course the Devil would view him on such stark terms.  Indeed, the next work produced from James – a year after the publication of Daemonologie – is The True Law of Free Monarchies (1598), a written defence of the Divine Right of Kings: monarchs should be answerable only to God, not to their subjects.

The copy we hold Daemonologie is printed in 1603 in London – the year when James VI of Scots had become James I of Scotland, England and Ireland.  It’s interesting to consider the cultural resonances this work may have had in England: within 10 years of James’s accession to the English throne, a play had been performed which begun with a Scottish King meeting with three witches…

L0032439 Macbeth seeing thre witches, after Reynolds

Macbeth seeing the three witches, with other horrifying visions. Etching after J. Reynolds, ca. 1786-1790, after W. Shakespeare (Wellcome Library no. 47617i)

Ross Macfarlane

Ross Macfarlane is the Research Engagement Officer at the Wellcome Library.

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