Witchcraft Trials


Although torture was forbidden to be used as an instrument to obtain confessions from witches in England, it was allowed in Scotland where half of all those accused of witchcraft from 1537 to 1722 were burned at the stake, a total of 1,350 to 1,739 victims—at least three times as many as were hanged in England—with women comprising 86 percent of that number.

The first recorded execution of a witch in Scotland occurred in July 1537 when Janet Douglas, also known as Lady Glamis, was burned at the stake in Edinburgh. Lady Glamis died not because she was the victim of a trial inspired by the witch craze of Europe, but because she had been found guilty of using her abilities as a witch to murder.

In 1583, Englishman Reginald Scot (1538–1599) wrote The Discovery of Witch-craft, which was his answer to the Malleus Maleficarum (1486) and what he considered the abuses being conducted against accused witches in Scotland, where torture was freely used to wring confessions out of those unfortunate enough to have gone to trial. Scot considered the witch-hunters to be sexually obsessed madmen who took delight in inflicting sadistic tortures on their victims. A person being put to torture could be made to confess to any charge, Scot argued. And if the witches were really so powerful, he questioned why had they not enslaved the human race centuries ago?

Scot's book so infuriated King James VI of Scotland (1566–1625) that he himself wrote a treatise on the reality of demon worship and the power of witches entitled Demonologie to refute The Discovery of Witchcraft. A few years later, when he ascended the throne of England, one of King James' first official acts was to order the public burning of Scot's book.

The last witch in the whole of the British Isles to be executed was Jenny Horn of Sutherland, Scotland, who was burned at the stake in 1722. Horn had been tried together with her daughter, who, the jury decided, was a victim of her mother's witchcraft, rather than an accomplice.

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