The use of torture in Scottish and English Witchcraft Trials of the Seventeenth Century

Author: Julia Richards

Sub-editor: Elina Pugacheva

CW: Violence and death

During the seventeenth century, torture was not the most profound difference between witch-hunts in England and Scotland.  On the contrary, it was the politicised nature of the witch-hunts in Scotland, in conjunction with judicial disparities and diverse perceptions of the witch that distinguished the two countries; however, torture did have a profuse impact on both England and Scotland. Torture as a mode of prosecution was illegal in both states during this period. However, the English Civil War (1642-1651), in conjunction with political unrest and the chaos of the witch-hunts ultimately cast a shadow on the use of torture, thus distracting the authorities and serving as a justification for its presence. Through an examination of the witch prosecutions as a ‘top-down’ phenomena fuelled by demonological texts, it can be seen that in Scotland, the brutality and politicised nature of the witch-hunts was a primary characteristic that distinguished it from England. On a judicial level, it can be argued that Scotland and England were profoundly different, through an exploration of how different legislation resulted in more community-led witch-hunts in England and authority-led witch-hunts in Scotland. This essay will also explore notions of the witch and how in England, the role of the familiar spirit profoundly differentiated it from Scottish notions of the diabolical witch. Ultimately, torture was fundamental to the English prosecution system, and therefore cannot be the most distinguishing factor. The use of torture was employed vastly throughout England and Scotland and therefore the most decisive factor relates to the politicised nature of Scottish prosecutions, judicial differences and different perceptions of the witch. 

Although torture was a key factor in both states, it was the widespread brutality, executions and political tensions that epitomised Scottish witch-hunts, thus distinguishing them from those of England. According to historian Brian Levack, the witch hunts in Scotland were twelve times worse than in England and were a ‘top-down’ phenomenon galvanised by demonological texts. According to the Survey on Scottish Witchcraft published in 2003, over three thousand people were accused of witchcraft in Scotland and two thirds were executed. This figure is intriguing because the population of Scotland was only a million, accounting for a significant number of victims. In particular, King James VI’s Daemonologie played a significant role in disseminating fear about witchcraft, and therefore generating an intense atmosphere that contributed to these accusations of witchcraft. In the book, the King warnsthat ‘there is such a thing as Witch-craft or Witches’ and that they pose a very real threat to society, as a serious crime that ‘ought to be put to death’ by burning them at the stake. James had a personal affliction with witchcraft and was personally involved in the prosecution and torture of a suspected witch named Geillis Duncan of Berwick, who cursed his sea journey to Denmark. According to primary source evidence, Geillis underwent torture at the hands of her employer, who used thumb screws on her fingers, rope strangulation and ‘witch pricking’, that involved using a needle to pinpoint the devil’s mark, a spot that would not bleed nor cause pain. The torture, although illegal, was justified because it sought to gain a confession which would enable the execution of the victim. Therefore, the impact of James VI in generating a politicised atmosphere in Scotland is clear through the example of Geillis Duncan, demonstrating that it was in fact a ‘top-down’ phenomenon incited fueled by his beliefs. Thus, it can be determined that the intense political atmosphere sparked by King James profoundly contributed to the brutality and torture that consumed the Scottish witch-trials, however the deep-seated belief in witchcraft was also a contributing factor that made Scotland so unique. 

In Scotland, the ancient belief in witches also contributed to the complexity of the witch prosecutions, generating a vast duality that promoted accusations in the lowlands but also an acceptance of witches in the highlands, thus making it a geographical issue. Contrary to England, the concept of witches and the notion of the ‘Gàidhealtachd’ (Gaelic speaking regions of Scotland) had been ingrained within the Highlands since the time of the Druids, who believed that witches were agents of the Gods with supernatural powers. According to historian Lizanne Henderson, this provides an explanation as to why these regions were far more tolerant to the idea of witches, with the Gaelic speaking areas of Scotland mainly exempt from the pandemonium occurring in the agricultural lowlands, where a fear of witchcraft was not as prevalent. On the other hand, this folkloric tradition could explain why the witch-hunts in the lowlands were far more intense, primarily because they were superstitious of the folklore of the Highland people. For example, in 1591 in an area known as North Berwick, the witch-hunts intensified as a result of the climate of fear sparked by James VI’s affliction with witches. The politicised atmosphere in the lowlands prompted the accusation of two hundred witches, who were believed to have been working in a diabolical coven in order to curse the King’s ship. According to the Newes of Scotland published in London in 1591, the King himself was involved with Agnes Sampson, who confessed to witchcraft after enduring sleep deprivation, torture and harm, believing that she was ‘the cause that the king’s Majesty’s ship, at his coming forth of Denmark, had a contrary wind.’ Thus, this example highlights the fact that to the people within these areas the notion of witchcraft was real and that they did pose a very real threat to their devout Christian society. It is clear that one difference between the Scottish and English witch-hunts is that of the ingrained cultural belief in witches that goes back centuries, a belief that could tolerate witches in the Scottish Highlands, but intensified witch-hunts and the use of torture in the lowlands. 

On a judicial level, the witch-hunts in both England and Scotland were carried out very differently, the English witch-hunts in particular were characterised by a plethora of laws that defined witchcraft as a crime and justified the use of extra-judicial torture. It is important to recognise that there is ambiguity surrounding the definition of torture, as many of the practices such as witch pricking, sleep deprivation and invasion of private property would be classified as torture today under the 1984 Convention against Torture, a document that was ratified by the UN General Assembly in 1987, yet not condemned in law during the seventeenth century. Witchcraft did not become a statutory crime in England until 1542 in the Tudor era as a result of the Henrican Legislation, only to be repealed with the death of King Henry VIII and the succession of Edward VI. In addition, the Elizabethan era was more draconian in nature and placed more of a focus on witchcraft through the 1563 policies which outlined that witchcraft was now a crime punishable by death, usually by hanging. In the Jacobean era, however, there was more of a focus on the features of English witchcraft including that of familiar spirits, declaring in the statute of 1604 administered by Witchfinder General Matthew Hopkins, that keeping familiar spirits or exhuming a body was a capital offence. This legislation in conjunction with the chaos of the English Civil War served as a justification for the witch hunts during the 1640s and resulted in the deaths of an estimated five hundred people, therefore its significance is profuse. Essentially these laws ignited local suspicion, prosecutions and executions that were carried out at a more local level compared to Scotland, perpetuated by witch finders such as Matthew Hopkins (c. 1620-1647). These laws effectively propagated the use of torture in order to gain confessions, despite the fact that torture was deemed illegal in both states, it seemed authorities turned a blind eye permitting that a confession was reached.

On the contrary, the judicial system in Scotland relied less on numerous statutes outlining the threat of witchcraft and instead relied on one primary act that enabled the prosecution of witches. The most significant act in Scottish legislation concerning witchcraft was the 1563 Scottish Witchcraft Act ordained by Mary Queen of Scots (1542-1587). It essentially gave ‘justice schireffis, Stewartis, Baillies,’ and other powerful figures, the authority to execute people on their confession to witchcraft and often extra-judicial torture was employed in order to gain this evidence.Significantly, this law was passed during a time of great turbulence, at the height of the Protestant Reformation. This is relevant because it was an era epitomised by tension between Catholic and Protestants, a precarious situation for Scotland because they had a Catholic Queen and a parliament of Protestants. According to historian Julian Goodare, the significance of this act in Scotland was profound; it essentially caused the executions of an estimated two thousand people over the next century. Therefore, the power of law in the witch-hunts was a profound contributor to the blood and gore that was to follow, promoting the use of extra-judicial torture and harm. The ways in which the witch prosecutions were carried out in Scotland through law was quite different, as it gave certain positions power to prosecute witches, whereas in England it was just a statement saying that witchcraft was a felony. It can be determined that Scotland’s acts were far more politicised and intense under the context of the Reformation, and on the contrary England was less severe. 

However, torture did have a role in English witchcraft, perpetuated by Matthew Hopkins, who composed A Discovery of Witches as a justification for extra-judicial torture in Lancashire, Essex and Pendle. His A Discovery of Witches was published in 1647 as a manifesto concerning his beliefs in English witchcraft and its threatening nature to the devout Puritan society. Through a question and answer format, Hopkins clearly highlights the prevalence of torture in England, describing the practice of ‘witch-pricking’, which involves finding marks on the witch’s body that could not feel pain caused by the sucking of blood on the behalf of the ‘evil spirits’ in the shape of the familiar which can be used as evidence against them. However, Hopkins also understands that finding devil’s marks or a third nipple on a witch’s body is not sufficient evidence to suffice in a court of law and instead techniques such as sleep deprivation and torture can be employed in order to gain a confession to serve in a court of law. This was evident in relation to the Manning Tree case of Elizabeth Clarke, a severely disabled elderly lady with one leg, who had been accused of bewitching a villagers wife who fell ill because of her cursing, quick temper. On the 21st of March 1645, Hopkins and Stearne organised a group of local women to storm Elizabeth’s house and search her body for the devil’s mark, cutting her hair and treating her appallingly, finding the suspected devil’s mark on her genitals. Hopkins then arrived and employed sleep deprivation which was legal in the 17th century in order to gain a confession from Elizabeth, who revealed that she was part of a coven, thus fuelling the fire for Hopkin’s witch-hunt. Interestingly, the peak of the English witch craze occurred during 1640s when the English Civil War was in full swing, in which the Puritan leader Oliver Cromwell who feared any sort of religious plurality, and therefore people such as Matthew Hopkins was able to get away with torture because of the circumstances. Ultimately, witch-hunting in England was epitomised by the use of torture, purposed to eradicate diabolism, superstition and magic from a Puritan society. 

In conclusion, it can be established that torture played a primary role in both the English and Scottish witch-hunts during the seventeenth century. Ultimately, the politicised nature of Scotland, the role of the familiar spirit in English witchcraft and judicial variances are what distinguished the two countries. It is also clear that torture was present in many cases in both England and Scotland and therefore, it can be determined that torture was not the most decisive difference between English and Scottish witch-hunts. 

Image credit

James VI of Scotland, “Suspected witches kneeling before King James” in Daemonologie, 1597, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.


Primary Sources

“Anentis Witchcraftis 1563.” Quoted in Julian Goodare. “The Scottish Witchcraft Act.” Church History 74, no. 1 (2005): 39-67. Accessed May 31, 2020.

Hopkins, Matthew. The Discovery of Witches. Edited by Feòrag NicBhrìde, Andrea Ball and the Project Gutenberg Online Distributed Proofreading Team. November 2004. Accessed on Project Gutenberg,

King James I.  Daemonologie. England: Project Gutenberg, 2008.

News from Scotland.  Quoted in “Document 27: News from Scotland.” In Witchcraft in Early Modern Scotland: James VI’s Demonology and the North Berwick Witches. Edited by Normand Lawrence and Roberts Gareth, 309-26. Liverpool University Press, 2000). Accessed June 14, 2020.

“The Scottish Witchcraft Act.” Quoted in Julian Goodare. “The Scottish Witchcraft Act”.” Church History 74, no. 1 (2005): 39-67. Accessed May 31, 2020.

United Nations Human Rights Office of the High Commissioner. Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment. Published 26 June, 1987. Accessed 6 June, 2020.

“Witches of Chelmsford 1566”. Quoted in Barbara Rosen, Witchcraft. London: Edward Arnold, 1969. 

Secondary Sources

Cowan, Edward J. “Witch Persecution and Folk Belief in Lowland Scotland: The Devil’s Decade.” In Witchcraft and Belief in Early Modern Scotland. Edited by Julian Goodare, Lauren Martin and Joyce Miller. 71-94. Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008. 

Goodare, Julian,  Lauren Martin, Joyce Miller and Louise Yeoman. “The Survey of Scottish Witchcraft.” Viewed on 12 June, 2020.

 Henderson, Lizanne. “Witch-Hunting and Witch Belief in the Gàidhealtachd”. In Witchcraft and Belief in Early Modern Scotland. Edited by Julian Goodare, Lauren Martin and Joyce Miller, 95-119. Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008.

Larner, Christina. “Witch Beliefs & Witch-hunting in England and Scotland.” History Today 31, (Feb 1981), no. 2.

Levack, Brian. Witchcraft in the British Isles and New England : New Perspectives on Witchcraft, Magic, and Demonology. London: Taylor & Francis Group, 2001. Accessed June 12, 2020. ProQuest Ebook Central.

Levack, Brian. Witch-Hunting in Scotland : Law, Politics and Religion. Florence: Taylor & Francis Group, 2007. Accessed June 13, 2020. ProQuest Ebook Central.

Lipscombe, Suzannah. “Witches: A Century of Murder.” Season 1, Part 2, 2015. Netflix, 43:39.

Millar, Charlotte-Rose. Witchcraft, the Devil, and Emotions in Early Modern England. London: Routledge, 2017.

Ritchie, Donald A. “Top Down/bottom Up: Using Oral History to Re-examine Government Institutions.” Oral History 42, no. 1 (2014): 47-58. Accessed May 30, 2020.

Sharpe, Jim. “The Devil in East Anglia: the Matthew Hopkins Trials Reconsidered.” In Witchcraft in Early Modern Europe; Studies in Culture and Belief. Edited by Jonathan Barry, Marianne Hester and Gareth Roberts, 237-256.Cambridge: Cambridge University Press,1996. 

Simpson, Andrew R. C., and Adelyn L. M. Wilson. “Advocates, Witches and Judicial Torture.” In Scottish Legal History: Volume 1: 1000-1707, 346-68. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2017. Accessed June 11, 2020.

Vanysacker, Dries. “Reviewed Work: Witchcraft and the Act of 1604”. Church History and Religious Culture 90, no. 4 (2010): 697-99. Accessed May 26, 2020.  

Waite, Gary K.  Heresy, Magic and Witchcraft in Early Modern Europe. Houndmills: Pelgrave, 2003.

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