The religious violence of the Protestant Reformation and legacy of political strife between Queen Elizabeth I and Mary, Queen of Scots loomed over the reign of King James I. Both issues influenced him to keep a firm hold on the political, but fear the supernatural.
The only son of Mary, Queen of Scots and Henry Stuart, Lord Darnley, James was born in 1566 during an ongoing conflict between Scotland and England. When he was one year old, he ascended the Scottish throne as King James VI - after his mother abdicated her position - and was crowned King James I of England after the passing of his cousin, Queen Elizabeth I, in 1603.
During James's reign, witch hunts, trials, and executions swept through the British Isles, and he remained fixated on their religious and spiritual consequences. Whether it was by commissioning a new English-language translation of the Bible in 1604 or obsessing over alleged cases of witchcraft, James believed himself to be an instrument of divine authority and justice. Ultimately, he unified the warring kingdoms of Scotland and England, but it was a long, arduous path to peace.
The North Berwick trials of 1590 marks one of the first and largest witch hunts in Scottish history, and James played a significant role in them. After he married Princess Anne of Denmark, they set sail for Scotland, but were met with a series of storms that nearly put an end to the young couple and delayed their arrival.
The ordeal was so traumatic that James suspected foul play. He felt the only reasonable explanation was someone - or a group of people - had tried to sabotage his marriage and target his life. In response, James initiated a witch hunt that rapidly expanded as the accused made confessions and further allegations under torture. In total, at least 70 people were accused of witchcraft, and most were sentenced to death.
Early modern Europe's witch hysteria predominantly victimized women. Historian Suzannah Lipscomb estimates around 70-80% of accusations in this period were directed at women. James believed women were naturally more likely to be witches, since they were "frailer than men," making them "easier to be intrapped in these grosse snares of the Devill."
Though both men and women stood trial for witchcraft in North Berwick, far more of the accused were women. Scholar Deborah Willis has even theorized James primarily targeted women in the North Berwick witch trials to rid himself of an overbearing "malevolent female gaze" left by Queen Elizabeth and his mother, thus reasserting his own masculine power.
James considered witchcraft a serious crime, and he engineered punishments he believed matched the severity of the offence. In 1604, only a year into his reign in England, he passed a new witchcraft act. Though other witchcraft laws had already been enacted by Henry VIII and Elizabeth I, James's act took a hard-line approach. Convicted witches were hanged regardless of whether the accused had allegedly caused bodily harm to others.
Despite the severity of James's punishments, his act also wrought an unintentionally mild effect on the witchcraft trials. Because it put an end to torture as a means of extracting confessions, fewer people faced conviction.
During the North Berwick trials of 1590, James believed he had been a target of magical mischief. Accused witches testified the Devil hated James because "the King is the greatest enemy he hathe in the worlde."
Testimonies like this were political gifts for James; according to author Donald Tyson, he used them to position himself as "an avenging knight of the Christian faith." James claimed divine authority in his crusade against the dark magic Satan had allegedly unleashed throughout his kingdom.