I have walked a great while over the snow,
And I am not tall nor strong.
My clothes are wet, and my teeth are set,
And the way was hard and long.
I have wandered over the fruitful earth,
But I never came here before.
Oh, lift me over the threshold, and let me in at the door!
The cutting wind is a cruel foe.
I dare not stand in the blast.
My hands are stone, and my voice a groan,
And the worst of death is past.
I am but a little maiden still,
My little white feet are sore.
Oh, lift me over the threshold, and let me in at the door!
Her voice was the voice that women have,
Who plead for their heart's desire.
She came—she came—and the quivering flame
Sunk and died in the fire.
It never was lit again on my hearth
Since I hurried across the floor,
To lift her over the threshold, and let her in at the door.
Before we begin, it is important to know that this episode deals with torture and executions that took place during the European witch persecutions.
It can be graphic at times and if this is not something you want to listen to, please feel free to skip this episode.
“All wickedness is but little to the wickedness of a woman.”
This revealing sentence first appeared in 1486 in a witch-hunting manual known as The Malleus Maleficarum, which in English translates to, the Hammer of the Witches.
Written by Heinreich Kramer, a German clergyman, this text would go on to change the course of history, and result in the torture and executions of thousands of women.
It seems as though, whenever we discuss the witch-hunts of early modern Europe, there is a rush of people who can’t wait to shout “but men were executed too,” and while that is true to an extent, make no mistake that this period was flat out a woman-hunt.
The men who were tried and convicted were typically defenders of the women in their lives, or questioned the authority of the caballers in their misguided pursuit of justice.
Men weren’t above suspicion, but they weren’t the main target either.
The next point that gets brought up is, “yea, but women accused other women of being witches too.”
And to that I say, “yea, internalized misogyny is a hell of a drug.”
So This period of time spanning 1450 to 1750 began with German Catholics, but Protestants were more than happy to jump in and participate as well over the years, with some of the most brutal crimes taking place in England and Scotland.
Which I think goes to show it wasn’t JUST about defying certain sects of the church.
This was undoubtedly a huge motivator don’t get me wrong, and the church is where this misogyny was built, but it was also just about them enjoying control and abuse and keeping people (women) in line.
One story in particular, has stuck with me since I first heard it, and that is what I will be sharing with you today.
In 1597 King James the 6th of Scotland, or King James the 1st of England, depending on your persuasion, wrote a text called Demonology.
This book’s purpose was to convince skeptics of the realities and dangers of witchcraft.
According to James, there were witches hiding around every corner, and they were usually participating in some sort of unholy sexual ritual with the devil, before they took a break to cast their spells and curses.
He had a lot of experience in this topic.
You see, seven years prior, Scotland became the epicentre of witch trials, with James at the helm of the investigation.
In the halls of the Palace of Holyroodhouse in Edinburgh, wanders the ghost of a distraught woman who was put to death by the callous king.
The spirit of Agnes Sampson has been seen on countless occasions. She appears fully naked and shaved of all her hair.
Her body is said to be marked with the scars of her brutal and inhumane torture.
Agnes was accused of witchcraft in 1590 by another woman named Geillis Duncan, who named her while in the throws of her own torture.
At this time, the only way to get it all to stop was to confess, name coconspirators or…die.
The trials that saw Agnes killed, are known as the Berwick Trials, and they are special for a number of reasons.
The main reason is that this was the first mass witch-persecution in all of Scotland. The level of confessions and people apprehended was unprecedented.
The second reason this series of trials stands out, is due to the involvement of the king himself. Normally others did their dirty work, but for him this was personal.
According to King James, the magnitude of confessions was confirmation of what he already knew in his heart: witches were part of the group of people out to get him, and that needed to be stopped.
Being King, meant there was a constant threat to your life. Maintaining the status quo with you in charge was hard work.
Real threats could be sniffed out, but the threat of the otherworldly was dangerous because it could sneak up on you unseen.
If James was to be believed, there were so many witches running around the East Lothian area, it is truly a wonder how they got anything done in daily life.
What kicked off this particularly devastating witch killing period was a storm…and some ships.
In 1589, 23 year old King James had decided on the perfect bride for himself, 14 year old Anne of Denmark……yea…its gross.
The child queen of Denmark was meant to arrive in Scotland by boat, but violent storms had prevented it.
James decided it would be best if he travelled there to escort his wife back to Scotland.
Mainland Europe, at this point, was in a witch frenzy, so naturally, they were to blame for preventing the marriage between the kingdoms.
James spent 6 months watching the witch-hunts on his trip, and became convinced of satan’s mistresses devious existence.
There was one thing that bothered James about the trial procedure however. He felt that many were executing people without proper evidence.
The cruel irony of it all, is that Demonology was written those few years later as a way to prevent unjustified executions……but as you’ll see, the process of the King was not unlike the process he criticized while in mainland Europe.
So, James and Anne return by ship, and their voyage is rocked by storms and was a complete misery.
One ship, that was carrying gifts just for his new bride sank. Can you just imagine? How terrible for them.
Nevertheless they survive, and begin their new life together.
A little while later, At the tail end of 1690, James received some disturbing news.
That storm where he lost some possessions, well…..it was witchcraft.
According to Gillis Duncan, a young house girl for a man named David Seaton, it was her coven who had brought the storms.
David had grown suspicious of Gillis over the last few weeks, and her odd behaviour, which he said was her sneaking out at night, and took it upon himself to torture her.
The most likely situation is that Gillis had been rebuffing David’s sexual advances and would sneak out at night for some solace with a lover or friend.
Powerful men weren’t used to rejection, so he likely wanted to punish her.
And it is in these throws of pain, she named her accomplices.
The most suspicious of all? Agnes Sampson.
Agnes was a well known midwife from Edinburgh, and the oldest person that Gillis named.
It was a natural assumption at the time that she could be the coven leader.
Being a midwife was dubious enough to people of this era. They were of course, a necessary part of life, but anyone who provided women with bodily autonomy, was looked at with a little more uncertainty.
Poor old Agnes was brought in for questioning before James. She refused to give in to his questioning, so he ordered that she be stripped and searched for the witches mark.
Stripping and searching was the first step in a “proper” interrogation.
This was a humiliating procedure where a group of people would take the accused into a room, remove their clothes and shave them of all their hair in order to find a “devils mark.”
A devils mark was a blemish or mole where Satan or his minions would feed off the witch after consummating their relationship.
It is written that women would act out this search on the suspected witch, for modesty’s sake, but I'm not sure I believe that.
I think there were instances where men did the search of their female prisoners themselves to heighten their shame and bring quicker confessions.
By the time I go through the steps of an interrogation, I believe you will agree with me that the men capable of these brutal torture methods, didn’t suddenly get a conscience when it came to seeing their victim naked. They likely revelled in it.
So here is this woman, Agnes, who had provided safety and dignity to other women in is what is likely the most difficult time of their lives, now being stripped of hers in the most humiliating way.
Naturally, the witches mark was found on Agnes, because who doesn’t have a mole or blemish on their body.
It’s discovery meant she was allowed to be tortured further.
Then next step they took was sleep deprivation, alongside the use of a particularly nasty device called a Witch’s Bridle.
The Witch’s Bridle, or Scold’s Bridle, is an iron instrument that resembles a cage, with four sharp prongs stuck into the mouth, two into the tongue and two into the cheeks.
This barbaric device was originally designed as a form of punishment for outspoken women of the era.
A wife domestic, good and pure
Like snail should keep within her door
But not like snail in silver track
Place all her wealth upon her back
A woman should like echo true
Speak but when she’s spoken to
But not like echo still be heard
Contending for the final word
Like a town clock, a wife should be
Keep time and regularity
But not like clocks r so clear
That all the town, her voice might hear
That small poem appeared in an 1844 magazine called the Rover: tales, poetry and engravings.
If the magazine is to be believed, those chilling lines were uttered with regularity throughout the 17th and 18th centuries.
This contraption Agnes was forced to wear would've been excruciating, and to make matters worse, James himself watched as his men chained her to a wall while she wore it.
They kept her awake for three days.
As the hours and days passed, in and out of the Witch’s Bridle, she was hit and whipped with ropes, her scalp was crushed and twisted repeatedly between two ropes, until she could take no more.
Once she did that, her torture was stopped.
The weirdest part happens next, King James actually didn’t believe her confession. He assumed she was making it up
Likely, out of fear of further torture, Agnes took a risk that sealed her fate.
She whispered in the kings ears the words he had said to his young bride on their wedding night.
It was likely an educated guess. Agnes was a midwife, she knew all the lines men said to women before laying down with them.
What those words were, nobody knows, but it convinced James of her guilt.
Agnes would be tried and sentenced.
During the trial, some of her torture was documented:
This aforesaid Agnes Sampson which was the elder Witch, was taken and brought to Holyrood Palace before the Kings Majesty and sundry other of the nobility of Scotland, where she was straightly examined, but all the persuasions which the Kings majesty used to her with the rest of his counsel, might not provoke or induce her to confess any thing, but stood stiffly in the denial of all that was laid to her charge: whereupon they caused her to be confined away to prison, there to receive such torture as hath been lately provided for witches in that country: and for as much as by due examination of witchcraft and witches in Scotland, it hath lately been found that the Devil doth generally mark them with a privy mark, by reason the Witches have confessed themselves, that the Devil doth lick them with his tongue in some private part of their body, before he doth receive them to be his servants, which mark commonly is given them under the hair in some part of their body, whereby it may not easily be found out or seen, although they be searched: and generally so long as the mark is not seen to those which search them, so long the parties that hath the mark will never confess anything. Therefore by special commandment this Agnes Sampson had all her hair shaven off, in each part of her body, and her head thrawen with a rope according to the custom of that Country, being a pain most grievous, which she continued almost an hour, during which time she would not confess any thing until the Devils mark was found upon her privates, then she immediately confessed whatsoever was demanded of her, and justifying those persons aforesaid to be notorious witches.
Agnes was taken to execution on January 28th 1591, which coincidentally is the date I wrote this script.
She was garrotted (which is a form of strangulation), before being burnt at the stake.
A plaque in Edinburgh marks the spot where many innocent women were senselessly killed after suffering immense torture.
But I don’t believe this commemoration brought Agnes any peace….after all, her ghost remains in Holyrood, likely reliving her hideous ordeal over and over.
I’m really sorry Agnes.
This has been Memento mori oracle podcast, where I Claire Goodchild go through my memento mori oracle deck and tell the stories behind each card.