In 1589, King James VI of Scotland, later James I of England, was due to marry Princess Anne of Denmark. As the princess sailed to Scotland, fierce storms raged and forced her and her company to find shelter in Norway.
Although James and Anne were eventually wed, the tempest was blamed on malevolent witches, who were said to want to thwart their royal union. Thus, both in Denmark and Scotland, large scale inquisitions were instigated against suspected sorcerers for two years, with King James himself supervising some of the tortures and examinations that occurred.1 History would come to remember this inquisition as the North Berwick witch trials. They ran for two years and implicated over seventy people. Amongst those said to be witches, was Doctor John Fian.
The examination and torture of Doctor John Fian
Fian, who went by the alias Cunningham, was discovered with the aid of another, Gillis Duncan, who confessed to the authorities that he was a fellow practitioner.2
At first Fian said nothing at all. The inquisitors then began the customary torture, starting with one of their milder punishments, which involved thrashing Fian’s head about with a rope around it. After that, he started to talk. Yet, he provided no coherent confession that satisfied his tormentors. Thus, a torture method known as the “boots”, which King James described as “the most severe and cruel paine in the world,” was employed.3
Whilst there are many variants of the “boots” torture to have been used and recorded around the world, they all seem to agree on a singular principle: the inflicting of excruciating pain to the lower legs, either by crushing the bones therin or by searing the flesh off them with boiling water. 4
Still, Fian was resolute – he would not confess to witchcraft. This prompted a further examination of his body, where it was found that two pine needles had been placed under his tongue. Supposedly, this was a spell cast to prevent him from confessing under torture. With the needles removed, Fian confessed to everything.
John Fian’s confesses to witchcraft and selling his soul to Satan
He stated that his soul belonged to the devil, after having made a covenant with him long ago. It was by serving him that Fian had gained his powers of witchcraft. It was recorded that amongst his powers was the ability to bewitch a gentleman and send him into fits of lunacy.
One man, who supposedly suffered in this manner, was brought before the King’s presence on 24th December 1590. What the man allegedly did under Fian’s command is described in King James’ own book, Daemonologie.
“[…] suddenly he gave a great screech and fell into a madness, sometime bending himself, and sometime capring [gesticulating] so directly up, that his head did touch the ceiling of the Chamber, to the great admiration of his Majesty and others then present.” 5
When the man was finally worn out by his supposed bewitchment, it took an hour for him to come to his senses and be brought back before the King, only to admit to having no memory of the event.
Recantation and escape
Fian continued to tell other tales of his nefarious witchcraft, which were verified by witnesses in the court. Supposedly, Fian had attempted to enchant the girl with a spell of seduction. When the spell backfired, after being sabotaged by the girl’s mother (who was also a witch), Fian ended up seducing a cow instead. Records state that inhabitants of the town confessed to having seen this cow follow Fian wherever he wen
Eventually, Fian promised to recant his evil ways. He testified that the devil had come to visit him the night before with a white wand in his hand, trying to persuade him to keep his vow and serve him. Fian said that he castigated the arch-fiend, telling him, “I utterly forsake thee.” 6
The devil then supposedly broke the white wand and said, “That once ere thou die thou shall bee mine.” 7
Soon after this, Fian managed to steal the keys from his jailer and escape. His freedom did not last long, for the king’s men soon caught up with the supposed malefactor and detained him. John Fian then endured more horrendous tortures. This time, however, he confessed to nothing, even after his feet were completely pulverized.
“His nails vpon all his fingers were ruined and pulled off with an instrument called in Scottish a Turkas, which in England wee call a pair of pincers, and under every nayle there was thrust in two needels ouer euen up to the heads. At all which tormentes notwithstanding the Doctor neuer shronke anie whit, neither woulde he then confesse it the sooner for all the tortures inflicted vpon him. Then was hee with all conuenient speed, by commandement, conuaied againe to the torment of the bootes, wherein hee continued a long time, and did abide so many blowes in them, that his legges were crushte and beaten togeather as small as might bee, and the bones and flesh so brused, that the bloud and marrowe spouted forth in great abundance, whereby they were made unseruiceable for euer. And notwithstanding al these grieuous paines and cruell torments hee would not confesse aniething, so deepely had the deuill entered into his heart, that hee vtterly denied all that which he had before auouched, and woulde saie nothing.”8
When the inquisition felt nothing else could be gained from their examination, Fian was put to death.
Later, King James would become more sceptical of the purported abilities of witchcraft. Speaking of witch trials in a letter to his son, Henry, James expressed that, whilst he believed some witches existed, many “miracles now-a-days prove but illusions, and ye may see by this how wary judges should be in trusting accusations” 9
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