A woeful ghost is said to roam the Palace of Holyroodhouse in Edinburgh, her nebulous body bald, naked, and battered. As legend has it, she is the apparition of Agnes Sampson, interrogated at Holyrood and subjected to cruel torture some 400 years ago.
It’s an eerie tale that stems from a real and tragic miscarriage of justice. In December 1590, Sampson was brought to Holyrood to be questioned on charges of witchcraft—a capital offense, made all the more grave by claims that she had used her powers to try and bring about the death of James VI, the reigning king of Scotland. A small-town healer, Sampson suddenly found herself in the imposing presence of high-ranking interrogators, including James himself.
At first, Sampson denied the charges against her. Then came the torture. All the hair was shaved from Sampson’s body and her head was bound with rope, causing a pain “most grievous,” according to News from Scotland, a propaganda pamphlet trumpeting James’s prosecution of suspected witches. After nearly an hour of abuse, investigators found what they were looking for: the “devil’s mark,” supposedly branded onto witches by Satan himself, “upon her privities.”
At this moment of physical and sexual humiliation, Sampson broke. She “immediately confessed whatsoever was demanded of her,” the pamphlet reported.
Once respected within her community for her healing abilities, Sampson was now fully ensnared in a witch panic that had spread to the highest echelons of Scottish society. The confession that she gave under torture would play a central role in the infamous North Berwick witch trials of 1590-‘91, and entangle Sampson in the ambitions of a king who was unusually eager to pursue ordinary citizens for their supposed dealings with the devil.
Bones, Cats, and the Devil’s Buttocks
Following her confession, Sampson’s captors hauled her once again before the king and his council to relay a wild tale. On Halloween night, she claimed, 200 witches sailed to a church in North Berwick, a seaside town in the county of East Lothian, near Edinburgh. There, they danced and sang until the devil appeared in the guise of a man. He proceeded to bend his bare bottom over the church pulpit and demand that the assembled witches “kiss his buttocks in sign of duty to him”—which they did.
Sampson also confessed to a nefarious plot to murder James with black magic. She said that after the king sailed abroad in 1589 to marry Anne of Denmark, the North Berwick witches baptized a cat, bound it with a dead man’s bones, and tossed the animal into the sea, creating a hex that had caused severe storms to plague James’s journey. “The said witch declared that his Majesty [would have] never come safely from the sea,” News from Scotland reported, “if his faith had not prevailed above their intentions.”
It’s an “absolutely bonkers” story, historian Lucy Worsley says in Lucy Worsley Investigates, a PBS series that explores dramatic events in British history; the fourth episode, which delves into the North Berwick witch trials, is streaming on PBS this month.
James and his advisors, however, took Sampson’s confession as proof of a conspiracy against him. At least 70 people were tried, tortured, and executed in the trials that would spiral out from this conspiracy theory. Sampson was among those who lost their lives. On January 28, 1591, one day after being convicted in a formal trial, she was strangled to death and her body was burned, then the standard punishment for witches in Scotland.
Aspiring to Godliness
The North Berwick trials marked the first in a series of intense witchcraft panics that gripped Scotland in the 16th and 17th centuries. Like other historic witch hunts, these incidences of mass hysteria defy simple explanation. But among the complex forces that gave rise to the trials was a religious revolution that took root in Scotland decades before Sampson and James VI had their unlikely encounter at Holyrood.
Scotland, like many other European countries in the 16th century, was forever changed by the Protestant Reformation, the landmark religious movement that challenged the supremacy of the Catholic church and sparked bitter conflicts between Catholic and Protestant factions. The reformers emerged triumphant in Scotland, which officially became a Protestant country in 1560.
Under the influence of the radical Reformation leader John Knox, the Church of Scotland implemented a strict moral code, with the goal of establishing a “godly state.” Local church courts, known as “kirk sessions,” sought to curtail perceived vices like dancing, drunkenness, celebrations at weddings, card-playing, and luxurious dress. Amid this austere climate, “militant Protestants … defined witches as one of their principal enemies,” Lawrence Normand and Gareth Roberts write in Witchcraft in Early Modern Scotland.
Beliefs in witchcraft and magic were not fringe convictions in late-16th century Scotland. They “permeated every social and cultural level,” Normand and Roberts write. And, as Worsley tells Mental Floss, pursuing suspected witches offered a way to declare one’s “aspirations towards godliness”—something that may have been on James’s mind when he became involved in the North Berwick trials.
A Royal Wedding and Mysterious Storms
James, son of the ill-fated Mary, Queen of Scots, was born in 1566, . He became king when he was just 13 months old, following his mother’s abdication of the Scottish throne. James was raised as a Protestant and became the head of the Presbyterian church in Scotland in 1584. But the young king’s interest in witches only seems to have taken flight in 1590, after plans to bring his Danish bride to Scotland were repeatedly thwarted by mishaps at sea.
James and Anne of Denmark were married by proxy in August 1589. The following month, Anne made three attempts to set sail for her new home, but was forced to take shelter in Norway after her fleet was hobbled by strong winds and a leaky flagship. So James decided to travel to Anne. He too encountered violent winds, but was ultimately able to make it to Norway, where the pair was married once again, this time face to face.
The idea that a devilish conspiracy was behind the royal couple’s maritime misfortunes may have originated in Denmark, where some blamed the delays to Anne’s fleet on alleged witches and put the suspects on trial starting in May 1590. Whatever the catalyst, rumors of a personal threat against him seem to have captured James’s attention. He was a well-educated ruler, and part of this curiosity was scholarly; “demonology,” or the study of demons, was considered an intellectual pursuit in the early modern period. (The king published his own treatise on the subject in 1597.)
But James still took a hands-on approach to tackling what he viewed as the scourge of witchcraft in Scotland. “He does roll up his sleeves and ... [say], ‘Right, I’m going to interrogate these people myself,’” Julian Goodare, emeritus professor of history at the University of Edinburgh and director of the Survey of Scottish Witchcraft, tells Mental Floss. “Not all monarchs would do that. A lot of them would leave it to their officials. It’s maybe a personal style of kingship, maybe it’s arrogance, or maybe it’s just being an active king who thinks he’s got a contribution to make.”
An Eye to the English Throne
Witchcraft was not the only concern occupying James’s mind in the late-16th century. He was the closest royal relative of Elizabeth I, the aging monarch on the English throne. Elizabeth had no children and resisted naming a successor; James was very keen to “position himself as [her] potential heir,” Worsley tells Mental Floss. “He wanted to polish up his credentials to get ready for her subsequent death.” Establishing himself as a strong and godly ruler who stamped out witches and the dangers they posed to god-fearing citizens would do just that.
At home in Scotland, Protestant church leaders were claiming to derive their power directly from God, rather than the sovereign—another reason for James to assert his moral authority by taking a hardline stance on witches. It wasn’t a purely political strategy; according to Goodare, reports of witches plotting against his life would have seemed credible to the king. But James likely understood the benefits of being perceived as an enemy of the devil and his witchy accomplices.
“He's going to think, when he presents himself in public in almost any field of activity, ‘How’s this going to play out?’” Goodare says. “That’s not always the number-one thing that he’s thinking about, but it’s not something he can ever entirely forget.”
The Wise Wife of Keith
As kingly aspirations transpired at the upper levels of Scottish society, Agnes Sampson was busy with her healing practice, serving many clients in her East Lothian village. “Women like her just generally aren’t recorded; they walk very lightly through the archives,” Worsley says. “But because of what happened to her, we know such a lot about her.”
She was a widow and a mother, known locally as the “Wise Wife of Keith”—a woman skilled in traditional healing methods, from the village of Nether Keith. She used both natural remedies and prayer to cure illnesses, assist in childbirth, foretell impending death, and, ironically, cast off ailments that clients believed were set upon them by witches.
Sampson’s practice, with its cures, predictions, and incantations, smacked of the supernatural—not unusual among women of her profession, but a dangerous path to trod as church and state authorities became increasingly concerned with purging the populace of sinful behaviors. “If clients said, ‘I saw her saying a prayer against witches,’ that could very easily, in the eye of the beholder, morph into ‘I saw her casting a spell,’” Worsley explains.
Worsley speculates that there was another reason suspicion fell on Sampson. Historic witch hunts often persecuted marginal members of society—which Sampson was, by virtue of existing at a time when women were considered to be inferior to men, and thus more susceptible to the lure of the devil. But Sampson was also a respected figure within her community, whose expertise was sought by everyone from the local poor to members of the minor gentry.
“Protestantism at that time was a male-dominated religion and it was a relatively new religion in Scotland,” Worsley says. “A mature, respected woman who had won the [admiration] of the community through helping people … could seem like a rival source of authority to the church elders in the community.”
Ultimately, it was a local servant girl named Geillis Duncan who sealed Sampson’s fate. When Duncan became the first accused witch to undergo questioning in late 1590, she named the Wise Wife of Keith as a fellow agent of the devil.
Honoring Witch Hunt Victims
Sampson found herself in an impossible situation, facing brutal interrogations by prominent officials, who were ready to believe that she was guilty of a Satanic conspiracy. “When you get witches’ confessions, what you’re looking at is a negotiation between interrogators and suspects,” Goodare says. “This person is being tortured, this person doesn’t understand the politics, this person is terrified … They try to give the answers that are wanted.”
Before 1590, according to Goodare, almost all witchcraft prosecutions in Scotland had involved “isolated individuals.” The large scope of the North Berwick trials set the stage for four additional mass panics in Scotland in the 17th century, leading to the executions of some 2500 accused—“five times the average European execution rate per capita,” Goodare writes in National Geographic. Most of these victims were women, and most of their names are not known today, displaced in history books by tales of prominent figures—like James VI, who ultimately prevailed as Elizabeth I’s successor, becoming James I of England in 1603.
During the process of making her television special, Worsley was “challenged and upset” by the details of Sampson’s experience. She hopes that viewers will be similarly moved. “I am delighted to … let people honor her and remember who [Sampson] was,” Worsley says, “and also remember her achievements, as well as the horrible ending of her life.”