Saturday, July 25, 2015

James VI and I and Witches, Both Friend and Foe

by Linda Root

Witches were not a new phenomenon in 1578 when James VI decided he had been bullied and manipulated long enough and took control of Scotland 's government.  At the time, staying clear of kidnappers and potential usurpers was more of a problem than warlocks, daemons and witches.

Comprehensive legislation targeting the occult had been passed by Parliament during his mother’s reign but was seldom enforced unless an accused practitioner ran afoul of a power group or had assets coveted by others. Thus, between over-reaching barons who sought to kidnap him and tutors who considered physical abuse a means of instilling kingliness, young James approached adulthood with more threatening monsters than those drawing their powers from the Netherworld. He hardly needed to add witches to the mix.

Tutor George Buchanan
There are no glaring signs of paranoia concerning the occult in the young king’s profile until he faced the initially unhappy prospect of a dynastic marriage. By then, James had been King of Scots for nearly twenty years, and he understood dynastic politics. As much as he enjoyed the circle of poets and philosophers populating his salon at Stirling, they could not give him the one thing needed to secure his crown. For that, he needed an heir, and to produce one necessitated procuring a wife. Therefore, he entered into negotiations with the Danes for the hand of one of the King of Denmark’s sisters. The chosen one was adolescent Princess Anne, who was fourteen.

The king’s unhealthy concern with witchcraft and the occult began with his marriage to Anne of Denmark. They wed by proxy in August 1589 at Kronborg, Denmark, with George  Keith, 5th Earl Marischal, sitting in for James in their bridal bed. North Sea storms nearly left Queen Anne shipwrecked as she sailed to Scotland to meet her spouse. As it was, instead of sailing to her coronation, she ended up marooned in Oslo.  The already daemonophobic Danes were convinced witches were to blame.

In what one of his biographers has called the one romantic episode of his life, the King of Scots braved both witches and the North Sea, commandeered a less than enthusiastic Chancellor Thirlestane and sailed to Scandinavia to fetch his bride.  It was less than smooth sailing, but he made it safely to a Scandinavian port. While in Denmark, he shared his apprehensions concerning interference from the Underworld with his brother-in-law the King of Denmark and apparently got an earful from King Christian. Then he learned that a congregation of covens had been held at North Berwick where they tossed tortured feral cats into the surf and offered incantations to the Devil to churn the seas. There is ample evidence a group of Scottish witches indeed congregated on All Hallows Eve in a North Berwick churchyard, harboring a malicious intent.

The guest of honor was said to have been the Devil himself, although there were hints it was the king’s dynastically ambitious first cousin Wild Frank Stewart in disguise. By the time James managed to get his youthful bride home to Scotland to be crowned,  he was ready for a witch hunt. While he did not publish his learned treatise entitled Daemnologie on the subject ( until 1597, as soon as James had Queen Anne safely in her marriage bed, he began enforcing the legislation passed during his mother Marie Stuart’s reign.  For once he did not sit back and let his minister John Maitland, Lord Thirlestane handle it. He supervised the trials of the accused North Berwick Witches himself and sometimes took part in interrogations.

Substantial evidence was introduced in the various trials indicating the incident at North Berwick was aimed at him, not Danish Queen Anne. Even more shocking to the king, the event seemed to have been choreographed by Cousin Frank, who stood very close in line to take the throne if some ill befell his cousin James. There were even allegations that Francis Stewart, 5th Earl of Bothwell, was the Devil Incarnate. But with James, once he freed himself from the anti-Marian influences of the men who had controlled his unhappy childhood, blood flowed thicker than water, and Wild Frank went unpunished. Only his purported minions were strangled and burned, including a brutally tortured old woman named Agnes Sampson, all, of course, under the supervision of the Scottish Kirk.

By 1599 when he wrote a treatise on kingship to his young son Henry Frederick, Duke of Rothesay, James was aware accusations of witchcraft were often motivated by a lust for profit or revenge. He advised the prince to be skeptical of allegations coming from those with something to gain from a conviction. Nevertheless, a fear of witches had been planted in the king’s fertile brain.

But in the world of James Stuart, King of Scots, not all traitors or witches were created equal. Wild Frank Stewart was not his only cousin to have links to the Underworld overlooked. The king’s formidable cousin Margaret Flemyng was believed to be the leading Dianist in Scotland. During his examinations of the female defendants in the North Berwick Trials, James became aware of the moral frailty of the fairer sex.

The Devil found women easy targets. But their inherent vulnerability made them easier to forgive. What is more, Margaret was the Countess of Atholl, and her husband was an essential player in the king’s government. Attacking his much-loved wife would have been counterproductive. Moreover, the Countess had been present at his mother’s bedside on the occasion of his birth and two days later had been nearby when his father Henry Stuart, Lord Darnley, erstwhile King of Scots, acknowledge the infant James as his own begotten son. Thanks to his mother’s enemies, James Charles Stuart’s pedigree had been subject to debate, and the king looked favorably upon anyone who provided proof of his legitimacy.

The king surely knew the story explaining why Cousin Margaret was in the birthing chamber of the Queen of Scots. She was chosen, not in spite of, but because of her reputation as a witch. She was not present to assist the well-respected midwife Margaret Houston nor as a potential nurse or birthing coach. She was there to employ her talents as a Dianist. Her duty in the birthing chamber was to cast Queen Marie Stuart’s labor pains upon their mutual friend Mary (aka Margaret) Forbes, Lady Reres.  The means, of course, was through the use of incantations. Even the deeply religious Queen of Scots was amenable to the use of witchcraft when the situation called for it.

Not a great deal of documentation is extant concerning Margaret Flemyng’s life, but what survives is enough for us to wish there were more. There is no evidence she was ever officially confronted concerning her Dianist beliefs and practices. When James assumed personal rule in 1578, he appointed her husband, James Stewart, Earl of Atholl to the chancellorship in spite of his open embrace of Catholicism and his wife’s reputation as a white witch. Her link to occult practices was overlooked due to her kinship to the king and the power of her husband, John Stewart, Earl of Atholl. Stewart remained in high office until he was poisoned at a dinner party hosted by his rival James Douglas, Earl of Morton, in April 1579. Margaret had a good idea of who poured the tainted wine. What part incantations might have played in Morton's execution two years later in June 1591 is anybody's guess.

We are uncertain as to Margaret Fleming’s birth date and date of death, but we know she was among the oldest of her parents’ eight children, a daughter of Lord Malcolm Flemying of Biggar and Princess Janet (Jonet) Stewart, one of King James IV’s several legitimatized bastards.
Lad Janet Flemyng, La Belle Ecossaise
  Lady Flemying was the aunt of Marie Stuart, Queen of Scots. Lady Margaret was married three times. All three of her spouses predeceased her. Her first husband, Lord Robert Graham, was Master of Montrose, presumptive heir of his childless brother. He and Margaret had several daughters, but only one son, who became the third Earl of Montrose when his father was killed in action at Pinkie Cleugh in 1547, fighting alongside Margaret’s father Malcolm Fleming, and at least one of her brothers-in-law.

Those of us who are entranced by Scotland’s ability to produce colorful heroes will recognize Margaret Fleming as the great-grandmother of the martyred warrior The Great Montrose, James Graham, First Marquis of Montrose, one of 17th Century Scotland’s most appealing gentlemen warriors.

The Great Montrose (Margaret's great grandson)
After Pinkie, Dame Margaret did not remain a widow for long.  In 1549, she was contracted to wed Thomas Erskine, Master of Mar. During their marriage, he may have been the Regent James Hamilton, Earl of Arran’s Ambassador to England. No notations exist as to his place of death or whether he and his bride spent time in England. According to documents from the period, substantial wealth was settled on Lady Margaret as a result of the deaths of her first two husbands. The third was the most formidable of the three—John Stewart, 4th Earl of Atholl.

As Countess of Atholl, Margaret Fleming came into her own. She was a first cousin to the Queen of Scots and the half-sibling of a legitimatized bastard of the King of France through her mother Janet Stewart, Lady Flemyng, who had taken time off as Marie Stuart’s governess to bear a son to Henri II.

While Margaret’s history is colorful, no single fact is as noteworthy as her reputation as  a leading Dianist—a white witch—at a time when witches were usually drowned or burned, or both. 

The child originally called Charles James Stewart was born in Edinburgh Castle on June 19, 1556, in what some historians have described as a fortified room within the royal apartments of what was considered an impregnable castle. While the Queen continued to reside in Holyrood Palace, after the murder of her personal secretary and favorite David Rizzio, she considered the palace vulnerable.

Those permitted to move with her to the hilltop castle were few and vetted. One of the least welcome was her husband Henry Stuart, Lord Darnley, the unacknowledged King of Scots, who had played a principal role in David Rizzio’s murder, possibly hoping for a miscarriage which might leave him in a position to seize the throne. His political machinations since were well known to the queen.

Marie Stuart was no fool. She populated the Castle with a security team. Although her brother Moray and her loyal champion Bothwell were enemies, she managed to negotiate a truce allowing each of them and their henchmen to lodge within the castle in case she needed their protection. No doubt Darnley was the focus of her concerns. Small wonder that her personal friend John Stewart, Earl of Atholl was present outside the fortified room.

Those among her ladies chosen to accompany her into the inner sanctum were an unusual group.  Only one of her lifelong companions known as the Four Maries was present in a principal role—the plump blonde Marie Beaton, wife of Alexander Ogilvie of Boyne. She did not come alone. She brought her kinswoman Lady Reres. The Countess of Atholl joined them in the chamber. The midwife was Margaret Huston (Houston), a midwife popular with aristocratic Scottish women and who may have delivered the countess’s son John.

While some accounts, notably those of Marian distracter George Buchanan, describe Lady Reres as the infant’s designated nurse, it is more likely she was to be the prince’s governess. In virtually all other accounts, the nurse was named Alice. In a journal article entitled The Coffin in the Wall [1] appearing in the Scottish Historical Review, Alice Forbes, writing in the early 20th century, supports a theory claiming Lady Reres’s function at the birthing was due to her own advanced pregnancy, in case a substitute infant was needed in a crisis.  Forbes speculates that such a need arose, and  a son born to Lady Reres was the child christened at Stirling in December. In the same article, the theory is discredited by co-author R.K.Hannay, who finds the popular report in which the Countess of Atholl was commissioned to use incantations to caste the queen’s labor pains on Dame Mary Forbes, Lady Reres, more feasible than a tale embellished with a changing.

Author Anne Forbes article claiming a lineage linking her bloodline to the present royals has a certain appeal, but the facts do not support the rumor. She generally follows the oft disputed version of Marie Stuart’s history propounded by Agnes Strickland, Prince Labanoff and the Queen’s French Secretary during her captivity, Claud Nau, the same questionable source who declares the Queen gave birth to a child while imprisoned at Loch Leven.

Ms. Forbes account gains credibility due to a nineteenth century discovery of a small coffin in the wall near the Royal Apartments.[2] She rests her case on a purported eyewitness account of a man who had business in the castle at the time of the Queen’s delivery and saw Lady Reres in bed and in apparent pain. 
Anne Forbes'  interpretation does not make James Stuart a changeling or menopausal Lady Reres an expectant mother, but it does suggest that in the minds of Lady Reres and perhaps the Queen, the incantations worked.  While rumors claiming the prince to be the son of David Rizzio dogged King James for most of his life, the one claiming he was the son of Lord and Lady Reres did not take hold.


In the early pages of my 2011 debut novel, The First Marie and the Queen of Scots, my young protagonist Marie Flemyng protests her exodus from Scotland in the entourage of the five-year-old Queen of Scots to her brother James, 4th Lord Fleming:
“Since faither died, you are the laird. You can have me put ashore. I can live with Margaret.”
“Your sister is a widow expecting a child. She has enough to handle without a spunky sister.”
“When I am grown I will be just like Margaret.”

The Queen's cousin Marie Flemyng became a formidable woman, indeed. She was the chief of the Four Maries and, later, the wife of Foreign Secretary William Maitland,who was  regarded by Elizabeth Tudor as 'the flower of the wit of Scotland.' In spite of some  poorly researched statements to the contrary, they were a devoted couple. When she joined her husband William Maitland inside besieged Edinburgh Castle during the years of the Lang Siege (1570-1573), she left her young children at Blair-Atholl in the care of her older sister Margaret. Had she been less a partner to her famous husband, she might have remained there and let Maitlland face the endgame without her. After Maitland's death while awaiting a sham trial for treason, her enemies implied she too was a Dianist, a member  of her sister's coven at Blair. Both she and her sister Margaret remained on friendly terms with their cousin King James VI and outlived most of their critics and enemies.  They are remote ancestors of The Duke of Cambridge through a line extending through Janet, Lady Fleming from Henry VII,  traced through the line of Diana, Princess of Wales.


While I do not find Ann Forbes’ speculation as to the birth of King James VI and I compelling, I discount Hannay’s argument based upon her age as calculated from the birthdate of her two sons as unfounded. The best argument in support of Ms. Forbes on that point comes from the Flemying family itself.  Margaret Flemyng’s mother Janet Stewart, Lady Flemyng, gave birth to an illegitimate son of the King of France in 1551 when she was 40.  My youngest son was born when I was 43. I do not find child birth at age 46 impossible, even in those times.  However, other accounts describe Lady Reres as a heavy, grey-haired woman aged beyond her years.

Sources such as Prince Labanoff, who relied on Claud Nau who was the Queen’s secretary many years after, are suspect. Nau was almost certainly an agent of the Guises and would have altered his reports to please his benefactors. Anything from the pen of George Buchanan or his followers is suspect.  However, the reports dealing with Margaret Flemyng’s role as a Dianist white witch run as a common thread in accounts of James VI and I’s birth.

Historians who touch upon the Four Maries sometimes dwell upon the irony of Calvinist William Maitland’s children having been brought up as Roman Catholics and thus attribute staunch Catholic beliefs to the Flemyings of Biggar. However, Alison Weir in Mary, Queen of Scots andthe Murder of Lord Darnley lists barons Flemying and Livingston among the Protestants. Further reading suggests the Flemings and Livingstons, whether Catholic or Protestant, were religiously flexible moderates with loyalties firmly in the camp of the Queen. Princess Janet Stewart, Lady Flemying, was drawn to the New Learning, and I presume the same of her younger daughters Marie and Agnes. The older children, especially James, 4th Lord Flemyng, and Margaret, Countess of Atholl, are best described as enlightened Catholics. The religion of the Maitland children is more a result of having spent their formative years at Blair-Atholl in the household of the Catholic Earl of Atholl, John Stewart, than any influence their absent mother may have had upon them.  Expatriate James Maitland is a recurring character in my Legacy of the Queen of Scots series.

[1] The Coffin in the Wall.: Alice Forbes and R. K. Hannay, The Scottish Historical Review, Vol. 15, No. 58 (Jan., 1918), pp. 146-158:


ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Linda Root is the author of The First Marie and the Queen of Scots, a fictionalized life of Marie Flemyng, chief of The Four Maries; The Last Knight and the Queen of Scots, a shamelessly embellished but heavily researched fictional biographical novel of Sir William Kirkcaldy of Grange; and the four books of The Legacy of the Queen of Scots series, The Midwife’s Secret: The Mystery of the Hidden Princess; The Other Daughter; 1603: The Queen’s Revenge, and soon to be published In the Shadow of the Gallows. All are or soon to be available on Amazon and as Kindle books.  She shares a California mini-rancho with husband Chris, two giant wooly malamutes, 23 hens and a rooster named Henry Eight. Root lives in Yucca Valley, California where she retired as a Supervising Deputy District Attorney in 2004, following 23 years as a major crimes prosecutor.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.