King James I: Demonologist

in Magic, Spirituality, and Witchcraft, Queens and Kings

By Mary Sharratt

Even by the standards of his age,” King James VI of Scotland, later James I of England, stood out as a deeply superstitious man, obsessed with the occult.

Before his reign, witchcraft persecutions had been rare in Britain. But that all changed in 1590 when James personally oversaw the trials by torture for around seventy individuals implicated in the North Berwick Witch Trials, the biggest Scotland had known. Their alleged crime? Raising a storm which nearly sank James’ ship when he sailed home from Norway with his new bride, Anne of Denmark. The trial resulted in possibly dozens of people burned at the stake, although the precise number is unknown.

In 1597, James published Daemonologie, his rebuttal of Reginald Scot’s skeptical work, The Discoverie of Witchcraft, which questioned the very existence of witches. Daemonologie was an alarmist book, presenting the idea of a vast conspiracy of satanic witches threatening to undermine the nation.

In 1604, only one year after James ascended to the English throne, he passed his new Witchcraft Act, which made raising spirits a crime punishable by execution.

James’ ideas on witchcraft were later popularized by Shakespeare’s play Macbeth, performed for James’s court in 1606. For the first time in history, English drama depicted witches gathering in secret for their own malign scheming. According to Instruments of Darkness by James Sharpe, this terror of supposed witch covens was the driving factor mobilizing 17th century witch hunts.

In 1612, the King’s paranoid fantasy of satanic conspiracy, planted in the minds of local magistrates eager to win his favor, culminated in one of the key manifestations of the Jacobean witch-craze—the trials of the Lancashire Witches, accused of plotting to blow up Lancaster Castle with gunpowder. Eight women and two men were executed.

James’s legacy extends even into our age. The King James Bible, completed in 1611, saw the scriptures rewritten to further the King’s agenda. Exodus 22:18, originally translated as, “Thou must not suffer a poisoner to live,” became “Thou must not suffer a witch to live.”

Further reading:

The Lancashire Witches: Histories & Stories, Robert Poole, ed, Manchester University Press, 2002.

Instruments of Darkness: Witchcraft in England, 1550-1750, James Sharpe, University of Pennsylvania Press, 1997.

Mary Sharratt is the author of Daughters of the Witching Hill (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, April, 2010), a novel based on the true and heartbreaking story of the Pendle Witches of 1612. She lives at the foot of Pendle Hill in Lancashire, England. To read more about her, click here.

IMAGE: illustration from the original document, The News from Scotland, about the trial of the Witches of North Berwick

Congratulations to the following winners:

DaintyBallerina, Gian T., and Paul M.,

We’ll be in touch real soon!

  • sung

    The book sounds like fun. Scary to think such paranoid political agenda can have lasting impact on later human society though.

  • Kit

    I would LOVE a copy of this book. I was completely unaware of this aspect of King James, especially since you’ll often find the “King James” version of the Bible so heavily referenced!
    “…The Authorized King James Version is an English translation of the Christian Bible begun in 1604 and completed in 1611 by the Church of England…”

  • DaintyBallerina

    I’ve done some extensive research into James I & his interest in witchcraft and come to some quite different conclusions. While I don’t dispute James wrote Daemonologie because he had an interest in witchcraft in Scotland, what has often been overlooked is the political dimension to his interest. Demonology was the preoccupation of many leading intellectuals of the age, and writing about it was somewhat de rigueur at the time. James appears to have lost most interest in witchcraft by the time he ascends the English throne, which coincides with its fall from fashionable discourse in England. The North Berwick trials proved extremely useful to James in shoring up his monarchy in Scotland, and paving the way for positive propaganda before his relocation to England. News from Scotland supports this political dimension.

    Witchcraft did indeed figure on the London stage after his accession, and while this in part might be explained away as an attempt to flatter James, I believe in the early 1600s witches were figures of heavy religious symbolism on the stage, reflecting the mood of apocalyptic eschatology prevalent in England at this time.

  • Paul Mathers

    What a fascinating article! Please include me in the drawing.

  • Sarah

    How fascinating! I never made the connection to Macbeth.

    I would love to win a copy of this book, but it’s going on my to-read list either way.

  • Mary Sharratt

    Thank you so much, everyone, for your comments.

    Dainty Ballerina, your thoughts on James I are intruiging. It is generally accepted that James’s interest in witchcraft waned as the 17th century progressed. However, local English magistrates were indeed encouraged to read and study Daemonologie and be on the look out for suspected witches in their communities. If you read “The Wonderfull Discoverie of Witches in the Countie of Lancaster,” it seems very plain that the author and the prosecutors of the Pendle Witches are eager to gain the King’s attention and favour for their vigilance against witchcraft, even going to the far fetched extreme of accusing the Pendle Witches of plotting to blow up Lancaster Castle–the King’s property–by gunpowder!

    So I believe James’s obsession with the occult was still in evidence in this period, especially considering that the King James Bible, first authorized and issued in 1611, mistranslates the scriptures to say “thou must not suffer a witch to live.”

  • Gian Trotta

    That is fascinating. He always struck me as one of history’s biggest prigs, but he wasn’t all bad. In addition to crusading against witches, he also spoke out frequently against tobacco.

  • Rachel W.

    I’ve been waiting to read this! Thanks for the giveaway!

  • DaintyBallerina

    Hi Mary

    You are of course quite right to suggest that interest in witchcraft continued to be topical during James’s reign in England; and the Pendle Witches are a good example of this. Have you come across the case of Anne Gunther? I think James Sharpe wrote on her & James.

    We may have to agree to disagree over James’s obsession with the occult. I think you’re right to point out he had a strong interest in witchcraft, but I do feel that this waned once he ascended the English throne. But I would agree that interest in witchcraft per se continued in England.

    I wonder whether the ‘witch’ in the King James Bible was inserted by one of the translators? I can’t recall who it was who worked on Exodus – but if it was someone from Lancelot Andrewes’s anti-puritan camp, then that would make sense.

    I look forward to reading your book.

  • Lisa Pollison

    Your essay is a tad simplistic and doesn’t explore the connection between the fear of witchcraft and the rising power of more extreme sects of Christianity. You judge him from a modern viewpoint and fail to take into account the times he lived in, the prevailing beliefs of his time and the long history of such beliefs in both Scotland and England. Those errors could be corrected with some judicious augmentation of your text. I believe that once you’ve compared his interests on the subject in historical context with more than just one adversarial writer, you might come to a different conclusion.

  • Carol M

    This sounds really interesting. I’ve always liked to read about witches. Thank you for a chance to win this book!

  • Lindsey

    Very interesting. Please enter me in this drawing!

  • DaintyBallerina

    Hi Lisa

    You may be correct, although I’m certain James’ intellectual interest in Demonology didn’t really commence until his trip to Copenhagen in 1589, where he met continental thinkers such as Niels Hemmingsen. There is no record of his interest in witchcraft before 1590. See Christine Larner, Witchcraft & Religion – The Politics of Popular Belief.

  • Al

    Actually, the KJV is not the first translation to word Exodus 22:18 that way. The KJV was a revision of the Bishops Bible, which also worded it that way, as did earlier English translations.

  • Peter Appleby

    He also was practicing “Alchemy” I read somewhere,and he was a notorious kiddy fiddler,with the nickname in Scotland “Shamie Jamie”‘ Not a nice man,but most of his ilk were so.Only one great English king ever…and theat was Alfred “The Great”

  • Manny

    Balony on the Exodus translation. Looking up the Hebrew word is strong concordance (Strong’s H3784 – kashaph), it clearly is a word for sorcery and witchcraft.

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