‘Daemonologie’: James I and Witchcraft

Witches, magic and necromancy are the focus of ‘Daemonologie’ by the man who would become King James I of England, first published in 1597 when he was James VI of Scotland. In a world of suspicion and betrayal, this topic would have played a central role in society and became a very real threat to those accused of being involved in the ‘black arts’. There are three books in the publication: the first focusing on “the description of magie in special”, the second a “description of sorcerie and witchcraft” and the third a “description of all these kindes of spirites”. The book is in the “forme of a dialogue”: a long conversation between Philomathes (Greek for ‘lover of knowledge), somewhat of a sceptic regarding magic, and Epistemon (Greek for ‘sciences’), an expert who informs Philomathes. James did have a great scholarly interest in the subject, yet behind the conversation there could lie some intriguing hidden agendas: could his vehement belief in demonology have been a social tool to maintain power? Or did he genuinely see it as a threat to religion?

Daemonologie, copy in Worcester Cathedral Library

Frontispiece to Daemonologie. Image copyright the Dean and Chapter of Worcester Cathedral (UK).

Belief in the existence of demons and magic was very common at the time, amongst all in society. For ordinary people, this was often the use of harmless spells of healing and protection, and a fear of “maleficium”- the harmful witchcraft and necromancy discussed in ‘Daemonologie’. This was hardly surprising, as the line between religion and magic was very unclear, and the sacraments were said to have considerable supernatural power, apparently even being misused by witches in spells. While ordinary people thought of magic in general terms, for experts like James, it was divided into two distinct kinds: “magie or necromancy”, practised by churchmen with “high aspirations” and a “lust for knowledge”, who were “unknowing” and “meant no harm” by their acts, who, having knowledge of Latin and access to service books, could be tempted into the misuse of that knowledge to summon spirits. Other sources suggest that this was common: the Fifth Monarchist John Rogers recalled how, as an impoverished student, “the Devil did often tempt me to study necromancy… so that I should never want”. The other kind of magic was “sorcerie and witchcraft”, practised with intention to do harm, by those with a “lust for wealth” and “lowly base desires”, often women. Witchcraft was generally considered to be the worse sin, probably because a fear of powerful women was rife amongst the elite, of which James was obviously one, although in ‘Daemonologie’, Epistemon says that necromancy is perhaps the worse sin, because it is closer to God, being conducted by men with “godlike understanding”- once again showing the idea of churchmen being led astray.

Discoverie of Witchcraft, Reginald Scot, Worcester Cathedral Library

…but not everyone believed in witchcraft. Reginald Scot argued that there was no real sorcery, only clever conjuring tricks, in his 1584 book ‘The Discoverie of Witchcraft’. James is said to have suppressed his book and many copies were burned on his orders. Image copyright the Dean and Chapter of Worcester Cathedral (UK)

James’ obsession with the black arts began when he went to Denmark to meet his future wife in 1589. Whilst there he met with philosophers and intellectuals who warned him of the dangers of witchcraft, as Denmark was already persecuting vast amounts of people for association with the devil. James’ personal involvement in trials was not uncommon. He had a phobia of violent death, so when whilst at sea with his wife, he encountered a dangerous storm which almost sank their ship, he blamed witchcraft. In the witch-hunt which followed, over 300 people were accused of plotting to murder King James, including some prominent nobles. The Earl of Bothwell, Francis Stewart, was incriminated and forced into exile, and James ordered that Bothwell’s friend, Mary Napier, be burnt to death. The incident made a profound mark on King James and a warning was included in his book: witches can “rayse stormes and tempests in the air”.

King James, Worcester Cathedral Library

King James I of England and VI of Scotland. Image copyright the Dean and Chapter of Worcester Cathedral (UK)

When James became the King of England, his interest in demonology lessened. However, it did not cease to be of importance to him. Shakespeare’s Macbeth was written with the monarch in mind, and the devilish and manipulating portrayal of witches illustrates the common knowledge of James’ ideas. He also passed the 1604 Witchcraft act, which made the practice punishable by death (it was hardly ever used and not until decades afterwards). And the subtle alteration in The King James Bible, created in 1611, where the phrase “Thou must not suffer a poisoner to live” became “thou must not suffer a witch to live” provides the most telling evidence of all of a continued belief in the harmful power of witches. Whether all this means he was actually worried about the threat to Christianity, or it was simply a convenient ploy to get rid of threats to his own power – such as his cousin and rival, the Earl of Bothwell – we can’t know for sure, but James shaped attitudes to witchcraft for over a hundred years after his reign, and ‘Daemonologie’ certainly makes for interesting reading.

Katy Husband and Rebecca Shipp

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