Wednesday, October 30, 2013

The Devil's Halloween in the Kirkyard of North Berwick and Francis Stewart, Earl of Bothwell

by Linda Root

copyright by Russ Root Art & Design

When I  read the name Bothwell  I think of James Hepburn, the 4th earl, Marie Stuart's controversial, egotistical, erudite and macho third husband, the one who either kidnapped and raped her or sold her on the idea of pretending that he had.  A good way for the couple to silence critics of her hasty marriage to the principal suspect in her second  husband Darnley's  murder was to paint it as a kidnap-rape. Back in those times, one way for a woman to avoid the stigma  of a ravishment was to wed the rapist. If Bothwell had been a wee bit less arrogant, it might have worked.

The next Earl of Bothwell, the 5th one, was  every bit as arrogant  and no less audacious. Lord Francis Stewart was James Hepburn's nephew, and he had a most intriguing pedigree. It is strange that so self-assured a man did not leave a portrait behind.  His mother Jean Hepburn was James Hepburn's only sister, but his father Lord John Stewart was the favorite among several illegitimate siblings of the Queen of Scots. Thus, Marie Stuart was both a natural aunt and an aunt by marriage to a man that many Scots regarded as a demon or a witch. One of the Scots who came to regard him in that light was his cousin King James VI.

Those of you who are familiar with the better known of the Bothwells, the Queen of Scots' third husband Lord James Hepburn, may recall that one of the allegations brought against him was that he and other members of his family dabbled in the occult, and that they had cast some sort of spell on Marie Stuart to keep her in  Hepburn's thrall.

His former mistress was Janet Beaton, Lady of Branxholme and Buccleugh, who was Jean Hepburn's close friend  and who was so closely linked  to occult practices that Walter Scott wrote a poem (The Lay of the Last Minstrel in which she appears as 'The Wizard Lady of  Branxholme.'. It is considered the work that established Sir Walter Scott as a rising literary talent.

She was not the only one of Bothwell's female friends with a colorful reputation. Reports of scandal involving Francis's mother Jean made it all the way to the English court, compliments of Sir Thomas Randolph, ambassador from the throne of Saint George to the throne of Saint Andrew.  And Randolph seemed to have the inside scoop, since he was the lover of one of the Four Maries, Marie Beaton, Janet Beaton's niece.  

During the six year personal rule of the Queen of Scots, witchcraft was not the major issue that it became during the rule of her son, who even wrote a book about it.  Dabbling in the occult was not unknown among the Scottish aristocracy, although it had not gained the notoriety it evoked in eastern Europe and Scandinavia. The king's cousin, Margaret Flemyng, Countess of Atholl, had been present in his birthing chamber to cast the Queen of Scots' labor pains on Lady Reres, whose birth name was Margaret Beaton.

Janet Beaton's sister, Lady Margaret Flemyng was believed to sponsor a coven of Dianists in Blair, perhaps the original Blair witch project. When James VI reached adulthood, he had concerns about his cousin Margaret Flemyng's link to Dianism, but he did not strike out against her. His attack on witches came later.

When the 4th earl kidnapped and allegedly raped the queen on April 24, 1567, he carried her off to Dunbar Castle, which had been given to him by Parliament the week before. That is one of the aspects of the rape story that gives it credibility.  Not only was Hepburn in good stead with Parliament, on the last night of the Parliamentary session, the Earl threw a dinner party at which a long list of the most powerful men in Scotland gave him a written endorsement as a potential husband of the queen.

He presented it to her the following day thinking she would be delighted, and she turned him down. There is a good argument that the rejection cause him to resort to violence. At any rate, he ambushed her and carted her off to Dunbar Castle, with or without her collusion. While she was his purported prisoner there, she was attended by the Beaton sisters and Bothwell's sister, Lady Jean. Her apologists later claimed that she was not a wanton, she was bewitched.

Entrance to stables at Crichton
With so much witchcraft in his family history, it is fair to assume that while growing up at Crichton and Hailes, the youthful Francis Stewart, 5th Earl of Bothwell, had more than a casual exposure to the occult.  His father died shortly after his birth and he had been raised  by a group of very formidable and non-conforming women.

Like most Scottish aristocrats, he finished his education in Europe, and after a stint at the Sorbonne, he studied art in Naples where he became even more attracted to the occult. He returned to Scotland to ingratiate himself to his cousin James and soon became a significant member of the privy council.

He also remained a devoted Marian, and in 1587 when Marie Stuart was the victim of state sanctioned murder, he became an outspoken critic of the king. He made no secret of his disgust with James VI for failing to march south to avenge his mother, and the king had him locked  away for fear that he would  build himself an army and take care of the matter himself.

As was the practice between the two young cousins, it all blew over, and by the time James VI had decided on a bride, he and his cousin Frank were on friendly terms, or so James thought. When the king sailed to Denmark to claim his bride, he left Bothwell with substantial power. James VI had unwittingly turned his back on a demon in disguise.

Then came All Hallows Eve of 1590 when the witches upstaged the Danish wedding festivities of James Stuart, King of Scots,and Princess Anna of Denmark, by planning a Halloween gathering in the churchyard at North Berwick. Several of the party goers were said to have flown about on broomsticks and the Devil himself was Guest of Honor.  It is more than a little bit likely that there were hallucinogens in the many bonfires and that the devil had spiked the punch.

copyright Russ Root
There was a dark purpose to this 16th century Halloween party, and it was political.  King James VI was on his way to Denmark to collect his bride, the Danish Princess Anna, and not all Scots were in favor of the union. The kirk's graveyard was close to the pier and North Berwick was the perfect site for conjuring up a storm at sea. Generally the North Sea in autumn didn't need much conjuring to set it raging. And the devil directed the entire affair.

At the trials that came later there was testimony from those who touched him. His hand was hard and brittle, not unlike what one would expect if some animal parts had been coated with the juices from a lac beetle. The devil spoke to his minions in a low resonant voice through a mask that some said resembled a goat's head and others described as mostly hidden from view by a hooded cape that did not quite cover a nose that resembled an eagle's beak.

No one seemed clear as to how the Lord of Evil got there or how he left, but most witnesses agreed that there was some sort of smoke cloud and some foul-smelling vapors. There was also a good deal of libation being passed around.

Agnes Sampson, Agnes Thompson, Dr. James Fian, Barbara Napier and Euphemic McCalyan seemed to be in charge. The latter two women were high born and well known to Edinburgh society. Both had played substantial roles in the planning of the affair, and Mistress Napier had offered her kitchen as a place to concoct a witch's brew. Dr. Fian contributed the mandatory black toad. Agnes Sampson produced a wax effigy of the king to be cast into a fire when the Devil so directed.

The entire enterprise was not just a one night affair. There were minor experiments and practice sessions but the meeting in the kirkyard with the Devil in attendance was the grand finale. At some point in the revelries, Fian directed the others into the abbey church and the presence of their master. While no one at the subsequent trials identified the devil by name, the dialogue he delivered from the pulpit suggested that he was an ardent fan of the Earl of Bothwell and a bitter critic of the king. Bothwell himself did not appear personally that night, at least not out of costume, but his name was bandied about as the solution to most of Scotland's problems. When his congregation went back outside to perform their rituals, the honored guest disappeared in a cloud of white smoke.

And then, there were the cats. Stories differ as to whether there was one black cat or many, and they range from the moderately bizarre to the utterly inhumane. By some accounts a black cat was tortured, decorated with human body parts that had been exhumed from an opened grave, passed through a bonfire so its fur, or what was left of it would take on the scents and hallucinogenic properties of certain herbs and spices that had been added to the fire, (which would explain why so many witnesses testified later that they had been flying around on broomsticks and axe handles).

At any rate, at some point, one or several tormented cats were thrown into the sea. Some reports suggest that an immediate squall ensued and others indicated that the squalling was coming from the still living cats who managed to swim to shore. Later efforts may not have been as spectacular but they were easier to control once it was decided to strangle the cats before casting them into the surf.

Wikimedia commons, Chosovi. 
There were by some reports as many as two hundred people at the ceremony, but initially it attracted little attention. Although witchcraft was forbidden in Scotland, it had not been treated as a serious problem until King James ended up drinking a kingly share of ale and beer with his Danish hosts.

The Danes were well known for two characteristics--they loved the spirits they could swallow and hated those who went bump in the Danish night.  They convinced the king that witches were  to be dealt with harshly. It was well known that in the original  nuptial plans, James had not intended to sail off to Denmark with John Maitland of Thirlestane  so he could consummate his proxy marriage. Presumably the bride was coming to him.

But three unusually fierce early storms had driven her back each time she embarked. Thirlestane was inclined to blame it on the notorious North Sea, but the Danes were certain that witches were to blame. With a little digging, the events at North Berwick became big news.

{{PD-Art}}Wikimedea Commons
When James arrived back in Scotland, he launched a major investigation, and when it came time to interrogate the suspects, he personally participated. One of the first to reveal the details of the plot was a servant girl named Gelie Duncan, whose employer had noted her numerous nocturnal absences and found them suspicious enough to investigate.  As with most widespread investigations, the minor players were the one who got caned, racked and toasted.

Gelie confessed to the king that she had actually played a jews' harp at the Halloween gathering while the others danced a reel, and James was so fascinated that he called for one and had her play it while she did her devil's dance.

Many of the subsequent interrogations were conducted in the king's presence, and the earl of Bothwell's name kept coming up. The most damning evidence came from Robert Graham, a reputed necromancer whose statements revealed the long-time interest of Francis Stewart in the dark arts. The king realized His own Majesty had been the target of the gathering in North Berwick, and that he was facing something far more sinister than his cousin Margaret of Atholl's curious childbed incantations. This was treason.

Bothwell was indeed tried for treason by conspiring to bring about the death of the king.  Like his Uncle James had done in 1567 when tried for the queen's second husband Darnley's murder, the Earl of Bothwell packed the town with Borderers and others of his followers, and he was acquitted by men who sensed that the members of a jury that found the Earl of Bothwell guilty would not leave the Tollbooth alive. Bothwell spoke out in his own defense and did what most other Scottish aristocrats had found to be effective --he blamed the entire affair on Chancellor Thirlestane, who was nothing but an upstart of common birth.

Thereafter, Francis Stewart's conduct grew more and more bizarre. People referred to him as Wild Frank. He became increasingly aggressive with the king and on one occasion accosted him while he was sitting on the privy.

He managed to spend the next few years alternately harassing and charming King James and Queen Anna, but eventually he alienated himself from the Protestant kirk which began criticizing him from its pulpits. To retaliate, the militant Protestant became a militant Catholic and attempted to engage the  great northern Catholic houses in rebellions that achieved little more than getting the earls of Huntly and Errol exiled.

By then, James had conducted his interrogations and with the aid of a variety of creative torture devices, the prosecutors got their convictions. Some of the high profile females were strangled and then burned and a couple of the low born women were burned alive. Eventually Dr. Fian was also strangled and thrown into the fire. He had confessed to all sorts of sins after the inquisitors ripped his fingernails and toenails out.

Bothwell eventually found himself friendless and fled first to France and then to Spain where he lived off the dole of kings Felipe II and III. He continued plotting against his cousin James VI and made a number of unsuccessful attempts to launch an invasion from the Spanish Netherlands. By the end of the century, the Free Dutch Republic and the English had all but bankrupted the Hapsburg kings of Spain; the Archdukes of the Spanish Netherlands, Albert and Isabella, wanted nothing to do with Stewart's madcap plans, and Bothwell's financial support dissolved. He ended up in Naples where he spent the remainder of his life dabbling in the occult. His wife and eight children remained in Scotland at the indulgence of the king.

1. For a full account of the affair, do not miss :
Watson, Godfrey, Bothwell & The Witches, Robert HaleI, London, 1975.
2.Although his son and his son's descendants used the title in spite of the attaint, Francis Stewart was the last holder of the undisputed Bothwell title, and the male line died out in 1683.
3. Original artwork by permission of the artist Russ Root of Joshua Tree, California: all other art is in the public domain.

Linda Root is a former supervising prosecuting attorney. In 2009 after reading Alison Weir's account of the murder of Lord Darnley, she began working on a 'murder book' aimed at presenting evidence of Marie Stuart's complicity in her second husband Darnley's murder. Instead she became fascinated by the life and times of the ill-fated Queen of Scots, and turned to writing historical fiction.  Her books in the Queen of Scots suite include The First Marie and the Queen of Scots; The Last Knight and the Queen of Scots; The Midwife's Secret-The Mystery of the Hidden Princess and The Other Daughter, Midwife's Secret II.  All are available at She is currently putting the finishing touches on the fifth book, 1603: The Queen's Revenge, and beginning a sixth, this one The Reluctant Countess: The Bittersweet Life of Lady Jean Gordon. Root live in Yucca Valley, California, with husband Chris and two giant mixed malamutes Maxx and Maya.

1 comment:

  1. Excellent post as always Linda. I will share this on my page. Wild Frank is an interesting character. So much to learn!


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