How A Bad Voyage Endured by King James And The Bizarre Scandal Involving One of King James Bailiffs Led to A Witch Hunt Terrifying Savagery in Scotland

Aditia Lestari
14 min readOct 17, 2020

Even as witch trials raged in Europe, King James the Sixth of Scotland brought the hysteria to the British isles. In the holy roman Empire, witch hunts only happened if the local prince wants them to happen after all the prince’s officials organized search parties used the courts for trials, carried torture, and execution. Now, a king would take the lead of the witch hunt. King James the Sixth of Scotland was one of the new scholar kings of modern Europe, and he had written a best-selling book called Demonology, which described witchcraft and demonic magic along with ways to track down and execute witches. King James would begin putting his theories into practice after making one of the few romantic gestures of his life. Ann of Denmark betrothed to King James, set out across the North Sea to join her new husband, and Scotland nature intervened battering her ships and causing one to capsize. King James the sixth, choose to travel to Denmark by boat to collect his new bride. During the crossing, the James fleet also faced severe storms that forced them to return home.

Nothing if not persistent, James made a second voyage in 1590 that ended with success., James arrived at here at Kronborg castle near Copenhagen in January 1590. His crossing had been equally violent. The world James walked was very different from his native Scotland which hysteria was infecting mainland Europe. Hundreds had already been executed further south in the Holy Roman. And during his stay in Denmark, James the sixth witnessed the arrest of two women in Kronborg. One can only imagine his shock when the authorities tortured them into revealing that they had conjured the storms, which made for James and Anne’s unhappy crossings. They further revealed the name of six other conspirators and that they had attempted regicide on the orders of satan members of paranoia flickered in James might as he returned home with Anne of Denmark. Tens of thousands would follow. In Denmark, James faces facing the reality of satan’s witches. In April 1590, while James Stewart Kronborg castle, two witches were arrested in Copenhagen and what was truly shocking was that they confessed to conjuring up the violent storms that had hit James and Anne's ships. They had attempted to murder the Scottish king and queen because satan wanted them dead. At least five more witches were later convicted of the same crime, all were burned at the stake. But if James thought he’s left the scourge of witchcraft behind him when he returned to Scotland, he was wrong. With the Danish which is dead, the whole thing might have become nothing more than a historical footnote and James might have lived out his reign untroubled by the devil if it were not for one man.

David Seaton and Gilles Duncan

However, a bizarre scandal involving one of James' bailiffs would fan those members of fear into an inferno that would burn thousands. That bailiff was David Seaton, a local notable from the small town of Trent only nine miles from Edinburgh. Seaton claimed that his young maid, Gilles Duncan, had gained miraculous healing powers and began regularly sneaking out at night. He becomes obsessed with the idea that Gilles met with the devil.

What Seaton did in November 1590 is proved to James that the devil and his witches were alive and well in Scotland. He claimed his young housemaid Gilles Duncan had suddenly acquired healing powers and he’d seen her slipping out at night. According to a contemporary source, Seaton believed only one thing could her furtive behavior, witchcraft. And he was going to prove it. This story about Seaton and Gilles is recorded in the pamphlet first published in 1590 is called news from Scotland, and it tells exactly what Seaton did next. One night, he confronted her as she returned from her night time excursions, flinging wild accusations at her, and beating her. First, he tortured Gilles with thumbscrews, crushing bone as she shrieked in pain. Her frantic denials only fed Seaton’s obsessions with Gilles’s guilt. Next, he borrowed a page from the Spanish Inquisition. His other servants bound a rope around Gilles’ head, tying it repeatedly around her face. While Seaton, angrily demanded her confession. Gilles, how old her pain as the servants pulled the ropes tighter and she endured skull fractures. Gilles must have endured unbearable pain but she would not confess to something that she had not done. Seaton didn’t stop at summer screws, he turned instead to wrenching. Maybe, Seaton’s action had much to do with witch-hunting. His motives might be sexual. Perhaps, he’d lusted after her for a long time and felt that as the master he had a right to have her. That doesn’t take a huge leap to imagine the young woman is sneaking out at night might have been having a sexual liaison with someone other than Seaton. Whatever was driving him, the city might not possibly appreciate the death and suffering that would result from his obsession.

Unable to gain his idea of the truth, he removed her dress and subjected her to inspections. People believed that the devil left a mark upon a person such as a mole, birthmark, or blemish. Seaton found such a mark upon Gilles’ neck. Utterly broken and desperate to make the torture stop, Gilles confessed to witchery. She went to the infamous old toll booth jail in Edinburgh, a foul prison all human waste fed down a pipe built, so the stench of urine and feces filled the prison. Chambers filled with screams of horror as if officers tortured prisoners with the iron or thumbscrews. Those who annoyed the guards would be chained up with iron collars on display for passers-by. Prisoners apartments housed bare floors for sleeping and a drain for latrine inmates as young as 12 or 14 years old would be chained together. Gilles joined the debtors and delinquents who filled its apartments shaking and utterly broken Gilles confessed to the attempt on James' life. Even worse, she named names.

The history never knows why Gilles confessed now after she’d resisted thumb screws and wrench. Perhaps, the mark was from a sexual liaison, and in this highly religious time, she felt too much shame and guilt. Gilles's confession had a seismic impact. It was the first recorded incident of a Scottish witch admitting to working for the devil. It’s set in train a sequence of events that would kill hundreds of people. The repercussions would last a hundred years. In November 1590, Gilles Duncan was brought here to the old toll booth prison, one of Edinburgh smurf notorious jails. Gilles admitted to being part of a coven. She gave up the names of eight other witches. They in turned named more in total over a hundred people were hunted down and tortured. Under torture, Gilles said that her coven had been in league with witches from Copenhagen. The one who’s been executed for attempting to murder King James and his queen. This was dynamite. It changed everything. It got the king’s full attention, and he did something almost unheard of he became directly involved in the case.

In Europe, king James the sixth had seen that witch is working for the devil had been hell-bent on killing him. He was about to receive proof that this dangerous belief was infecting Scotland too. The man was bailiff David Seaton. He was systematically brutalizing and torturing his housemaid Gilles Duncan to make a confession to being a witch. But Gilles would not yield. Seaton began to search her body because people believe the devil always left a mark on the bodies of his disciples. It could be anything a mole, a birthmark. Seaton found what he’s looking for on Gilles’ neck and for some reason, this is what broke her. King James himself, already fearing witches from his voyage to Denmark, took an interest in the case as Gilles provided one name after another. She claimed that Scottish witches had connived with those in Norway to murder a divinely ordained King and Queen. This stoked the fires of terror in Jame’s mind.

Now, he firmly believed that an international cabal of witches intended to murder him. Soon, bailiffs and sheriffs on James' orders began tracking down dozens of women. Soon, the old toll booth filled with witches where the tortures plied their trade. The breast, Ripper ranked among the most infamous devices used by the witch hunters. A living symbol of the rank misogyny that helped to drive the witch trials. It included four-pronged levers that would encase the poor woman and then tear it from her chest with unimaginable pain. Tortures also used the infamous scold's bridle in witches. This variant of the Ripper fit around the head and had metal protrusions that slid into the victim’s mouth, making it impossible to talk after such torment. The accused women in the old toll booth agreed that they had dug up corpses from local graveyards, dismembered them, and tied the limbs to the dead cats. At last, they threw the bloody mess into the sea to conjure a storm to kill King James.

Agnes Sampson

Agnes Sampson, a midwife became one of the victims. After officials beat a confession out of her, King James himself brought her to Hollywood house to interrogate her personally. According to James, he initially did not believe that she had joined the storm raising coven. Agnes repeated the confession that had been beaten out of her in jail that her coven had met with the devil. She said that their plan was to raise a storm for staying of the queens coming home, they intend to get in the way Anne to come home. James saw himself as a highly intellectual king. He read widely and was fascinated by both natural philosophy and the new ideas of rational investigation. Agnes’ confession did not convince him. However, Agnes gripped his arm called him a liar, and then whispered some pillow talk that he had shared alone with Queen Anne. According to James, Agnes repeated the pillow talk between the king and his new bride on their wedding night when they were alone. This is enough to convince him that Agnes must be a witch. It certainly sounds like magic, but whatever James may have believed in reality, there was little privacy for the 16th-century king even embed. Possibly, a juicy piece of gossip escaped the palace, or maybe an experienced midwife simply made an educated guess. But that leaves one big question, why did Agnes go to such great lengths in order to seal her own fate. Possibly, the slow woman enjoys her moment in the limelight. She had the chance to meet the king. Maybe, even scare him, there may be a simpler explanation. It ended her torture. Agnes had been imprisoned in one of the worst jails in Scotland. She had been tortured and she probably knew that this marked effectively the end of her life. So the best that she could hope for was to ease her suffering and in that at least she was successful. James ordered that her torture should cease.

This convinced the king that Agnes had been apart of the coven. Most likely, Agnes had learned of the pillow talk through gossip or simply made an educated guess. If the story is true, Agnes almost certainly wished to sue simply and her torture. At last, officials dragged as many as 200 so-called confessed witches to st. Andrews Kirk, a coastal church where the witches supposedly tried to murder King James. In James’ mind, there was no clear evidence that an international satanic conspiracy was out to kill him and there was the only way to stop them, kill them first.

On the 28th of January, 1591, Agnes was brought here to castle hill in Edinburgh to be executed, but she wasn’t alone. She was with other convicted witches. There were innocent confused and terrified people. People who had been imprisoned and tortured. People who have been prepared anything to stop the pain. All the victims probably garroted before the fires were lit. it was considered mercy and compared to burning to death It probably was.

While the guards trundled them to the stakes and ox-drawn carts enraged mobs how old long live the king as they pelted the women with stones pieces of earth and animal waste. When the authorities bound the victims to the stakes, they granted them the small mercy of strangling them before burning their bodies as the flames rose and blackened the twitching corpses. The overwhelming stench of burning human fat reduced jeering mobs to coughing gagging the stench seeped into the crowds, hair clothes, and the very walls of surrounding buildings given that so many women died in King James fire. The stench must have been stronger than Samson. Gilles Duncan, the young housemaid who started it all rotted in prison for a further year before she too was burnt at the stake. These events became known as the north barrack witch trials. They convinced James that satanic witchcraft threatened his land and his life. And the king’s personal involvement in trials gave the witch-hunting the stamp of royal approval.

James the sixth become James the first

Over the next few years, the inflection spread across Scotland. In east Lothian 62 people were accused, 33 and 586 in Aberdeen and 11 in Ross. Few doubted that the devil and his handmaiden stalked the earth at least in Scotland. Until now, England had largely escaped the curse of mass witchcraft trials, but on the 24th of March 1603, Queen Elizabeth the first died and her cousin James claimed the throne. James carried the witchcraft inflection south to England but how it happened was totally unexpected. In 1603, James VI of Scotland has also crowned James I of England. England had little experience of mass witch trials. That all ended with James 1. The English had high hopes for their new king. He was a young male and already had a couple of sons as heirs after 45 years of childless Queen Elizabeth the first kid seemed too good to be true. But James was an unknown quantity. A foreign king in an alien land his new subjects wanted to know what their new ruler was like what was his interest, what was his beliefs from which way was the wind blowing in this new regime.

Demonology by James

Well, they had one big clue, a book published in London, written by James himself. It was called the demonology. This is the only book ever written by a reigning monarch on the subject of witchcraft and the devil. James sets out his reason for writing in the preface. He says “ the fearful abounding at this time in this country of these detestable slaves of the devil, the witches or enchanters have moved me the beloved reader to dispatch in the post this following treatise of mine, and the purpose of it, he says is to resolve the doubting hearts of many.” This is pretty unequivocal stuff. What he’s saying is that there are witches everywhere in Scotland that they satan’s minions and that everyone better believe it.

James sets the book out in the form of a dialogue between two characters. So, we have Philo Mathis and a pistol on. Episteme is the thoroughly knowledgeable one. The rational man who knows all about the witchcraft is undoubtedly James himself and over the course of the book, a pistol and convinces Philo Matthews that actually witches are real that they should be prosecuted by the correct authorities and, that anyone who doubts their existence, is at best fooling himself and at worst in league with the devil. The book was very popular with the English. It was republished in London at least twice. Demonology gave English people an insight into their new king and what they saw was a man hell-bent on hunting down satan’s witches.

In 1605, James once again became involved in a case of witchcraft but this time in England. Here, at Exeter college oxford, the country finally saw that their new witch-hunting king taking on the satanic scourge. In August, a wealthy and well-connected man gained an audience with King James. His name was brian Gunther. Gunther had a problem, a problem with a witch. Possibly, Gunther had read James’ book, demonology and this was enough to convince him that the king would share his hatred of witches.

Gunther presented his daughter Anne to the king and claimed that she had been cursed by three witches. Ghunter wanted the king to bring the witches to justice but James did something completely unexpected. On the 10th of October, king James wrote to his chief minister about the case. Brian Ghunter was the brains behind the deception. He was seeking revenge against one of the accused and he tried using James to get it. He was fined for wasting the king’s time and thrown into jail for three years. He’d got comparatively lightly if he’d succeeded the women would have been executed. Ghunter had entirely misread the new king. King James’ action in the Ghunter case seemed completely at odds with his reputation as a rabid witch hunter. So what was really going on? Possibly, the answer lies in his book, demonology. If he read it your left in no doubt at all that James wholeheartedly believed in satan and witches. But demonology no malleus Maleficarum. It’s not trying to use fear to whip people up into a frenzy of witched hatred it’s an opportunity to make a case by rational argument rather than by mere superstition. It’s designed to make sure the wrong people aren’t convicted as the right people are.

James a philosopher or at least that’s how he saw himself. But the subtleties of his bookish ideas were almost certainly lost on most of his subjects. Like brian Ghunter, they probably took demonology at face value a license from the king to hunt witches and kill them. This misunderstanding of James's idea would light a touchpaper, that over the next hundred years would lead to the worst excesses of witch-hunting in English history.

Anything could set off a wave of hunts a hailstorm, crop failure, animals dying, or severe weather could reduce people to panic and then vengeance with King James stamp of approval witch hunters seized 62 people in East Lothian, a number 33 in 586 in Aberdeen and 60 in Ross. Scotland saw about 4,000 people burned alive at the stake for witchcraft. An enormous number is relative to its population of 800,000. That is one half of one percent of Scotland accused and executed for witchcraft that wraps things up for this installment of the legendarium.

Worksite :

1. Time line-world history documentaries, “ Witches: A Century of Murder, Part 1 of 2, “ uploaded to Youtube, April 20, 2018.

2. Brynn Holland, “ Beyond Salem: 6 Lesser-Known Witch Trials, “ History Channel Online, History Stories, Published September 1, 2018.

3. Terry Stewart, “ North Berwick Witch Trials, “ Historic UK: The History And Heritage Accommodation Guide.