Quacks, Who in Cool Blood Undertook to Overreach Mankind (3/6)

Earl of Derby
The circumstances of the death of Ferdinand, fifth earl of Derby, in 1594, have particularly engaged the attention of the contemporary historians. Hesket, an emissary of the Jesuits and English Catholics abroad, was importunate with this nobleman to press his title to the crown, as the legal representative of his great-grandmother Mary, youngest daughter to king Henry the Seventh. But the earl, fearing, as it is said, that this was only a trap to ensnare him, gave information against Hesket to the government, in consequence of which he was apprehended, tried and executed. Hesket had threatened the earl that, if he did not comply with his suggestion, he should live only a short time. Accordingly, four months afterwards, the earl was seized with a very uncommon disease. A waxen image was at the same time found in his chamber with hairs in its belly exactly of the same colour as those of the earl. The image was, by some zealous friend of lord Derby, burned; but the earl grew worse. He was himself thoroughly persuaded that he was bewitched. Stow has inserted in his Annals a minute account of his disease from day to day, with a description of all the symptoms.

King James’s Voyage to Norway
While Elizabeth amused herself with the supernatural gifts to which Dee advanced his claim, and consoled the adversity and destitution to which the old man, once so extensively honoured, was now reduced, a scene of a very different complexion was played in the northern part of the island. Trials for sorcery were numerous in the reign of Mary queen of Scots; the comparative darkness and ignorance of the sister kingdom rendered it a soil still more favourable than England to the growth of these gloomy superstitions. But the mind of James, at once inquisitive, pedantic and self-sufficient, peculiarly fitted him for the pursuit of these narrow-minded and obscure speculations. One combination of circumstances wrought up this propensity within him to the greatest height.

James was born in the year 1566. He was the only direct heir to the crown of Scotland; and he was in near prospect of succession to that of England. The zeal of the Protestant Reformation had wrought up the anxiety of men’s minds to a fever of anticipation and forecast. Consequently, towards the end of the reign of Elizabeth, a point which greatly arrested the general attention was the expected marriage of the king of Scotland. Elizabeth, with that petty jealousy which obscured the otherwise noble qualities of her spirit, sought to countermine this marriage, that her rival and expected successor might not be additionally graced with the honours of offspring. James fixed his mind upon a daughter of the king of Denmark. By the successful cabals of Elizabeth he was baffled in this suit; and the lady was finally married to the duke of Bavaria. The king of Denmark had another daughter; and James made proposals to this princess. Still he was counteracted; till at length he sent a splendid embassy, with ample powers and instructions, and the treaty was concluded. The princess embarked; but, when she had now for some time been expected in Scotland, news was brought instead, that she had been driven back by tempests on the coast of Norway. The young king felt keenly his disappointment, and gallantly resolved to sail in person for the port, where his intended consort was detained by the shattered condition of her fleet. James arrived on the twenty-second of October 1589, and having consummated his marriage, was induced by the invitation of his father-in-law to pass the winter at Copenhagen, from whence he did not sail till the spring, and, after having encountered a variety of contrary winds and some danger, reached Edinburgh on the first of May in the following year.

It was to be expected that variable weather and storms should characterise the winter-season in these seas. But the storms were of longer continuance and of more frequent succession, than was usually known. And at this period, when the proposed consort of James first, then the king himself, and finally both of them, and the hope of Protestant succession, were committed to the mercy of the waves, it is not wonderful that the process of the seasons should be accurately marked, and that those varieties, which are commonly ascribed to second causes, should have been imputed to extraordinary and supernatural interference. It was affirmed that, in the king’s return from Denmark, his ship was impelled by a different wind from that which acted on the rest of his fleet.

It happened that, soon after James’s return to Scotland, one Geillis Duncan, a servant-maid, for the extraordinary circumstances that attended certain cures which she performed, became suspected of witchcraft. Her master questioned her on the subject; but she would own nothing. Perceiving her obstinacy, the master took upon himself of his own authority, to extort confession from her by torture. In this he succeeded; and, having related divers particulars of witchcraft of herself, she proceeded to accuse others. The persons she accused were cast into the public prison.

One of these, Agnes Sampson by name, at first stoutly resisted the torture. But, it being more strenuously applied, she by and by became extremely communicative. It was at this period that James personally engaged in the examinations. We are told that he “took great delight in being present,” and putting the proper questions. The unhappy victim was introduced into a room plentifully furnished with implements of torture, while the king waited in an apartment at a convenient distance, till the patient was found to be in a suitable frame of mind to make the desired communications. No sooner did he or she signify that they were ready, and should no longer refuse to answer, than they were introduced, fainting, sinking under recent sufferings which they had no longer strength to resist, into the royal presence. And here sat James, in envied ease and conscious “delight,” wrapped up in the thought of his own sagacity, framing the enquiries that might best extort the desired evidence, and calculating with a judgment by no means to be despised, from the bearing, the turn of features, and the complexion of the victim, the probability whether he was making a frank and artless confession, or had still the secret desire to impose on the royal examiner, or from a different motive was disposed to make use of the treacherous authority which the situation afforded, to gratify his revenge upon some person towards whom he might be inspired with latent hatred and malice.

Agnes Sampson related with what solicitude she had sought to possess some fragment of the linen belonging to the king. If he had worn it, and it had contracted any soil from his royal person, this would be enough: she would infallibly, by applying her incantations to this fragment, have been able to undermine the life of the sovereign. She told how she with two hundred other witches had sailed in sieves from Leith to North Berwick church, how they had there encountered the devil in person, how they had feasted with him, and what obscenities had been practised. She related that in this voyage they had drowned a cat, having first baptised him, and that immediately a dreadful storm had arisen, and in this very storm the king’s ship had been separated from the rest of his fleet. She took James aside, and, the better to convince him, undertook to repeat to him the conversation, the dialogue which had passed from the one to the other, between the king and queen in their bedchamber on the wedding-night. Agnes Sampson was condemned to the flames.

John Fian
Another of the miserable victims on this occasion was John Fian, a schoolmaster at Tranent near Edinburgh, a young man, whom the ignorant populace had decorated with the style of doctor. He was tortured by means of a rope strongly twisted about his head, and by the boots. He was at length brought to confession. He told of a young girl, the sister of one of his scholars, with whom he had been deeply enamoured. He had proposed to the boy to bring him three hairs from the most secret part of his sister’s body, possessing which he should be enabled by certain incantations to procure himself the love of the girl. The boy at his mother’s instigation brought to Fian three hairs from a virgin heifer instead; and, applying his conjuration to them, the consequence had been that the heifer forced her way into his school, leaped upon him in amorous fashion, and would not be restrained from following him about the neighbourhood.

This same Fian acted an important part in the scene at North Berwick church. As being best fitted for the office, he was appointed recorder or clerk to the devil, to write down the names, and administer the oaths to the witches. He was actively concerned in the enchantment, by means of which the king’s ship had nearly been lost on his return from Denmark. This part of his proceeding however does not appear in his own confession, but in that of the witches who were his fellow-conspirators.

He further said, that, the night after he made his confession, the devil appeared to him, and was in a furious rage against him for his disloyalty to his service, telling him that he should severely repent his infidelity. According to his own account, he stood firm, and defied the devil to do his worst. Meanwhile the next night he escaped out of prison, and was with some difficulty retaken. He however finally denied all his former confessions, said that they were falsehoods forced from him by mere dint of torture, and, though he was now once more subjected to the same treatment to such an excess as must necessarily have crippled him of his limbs for ever, he proved inflexible to the last. At length by the king’s order he was strangled, and his body cast into the flames. Multitudes of unhappy men and women perished in this cruel persecution.


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