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Agnes Sampson (died 28 January 1591) was a Scottish healer and purported witch. Also known as the "Wise Wife of Keith", Sampson was involved in the North Berwick witch trials in the later part of the sixteenth century.
Sampson lived at Nether Keith, a part of the Keith Marischal barony, East Lothian, Scotland. She was considered to have healing powers and acted as a midwife. The indictment against her indicated that she was a widow, with children.
In the spring of 1590, James VI returned from Copenhagen after marrying Anne of Denmark, daughter of the King of Denmark-Norway. The Danish court at that time was greatly perplexed by witchcraft and the black arts, and this must have impressed King James. The voyage back from Denmark was beset by storms. In the following months a witch hunt began in Denmark, started by the Danish admiral Peder Munk. One of its victims was Anna Koldings, who gave the names of five women, including Mail, who was married to the burgomaster of Copenhagen. The women confessed they had been guilty of witchcraft in raising storms that threatened Anne of Denmark's voyage, and sent devils to climb up the keel of her ship. In September 1590 two women were burnt as witches at Kronborg. James decided to set up his own tribunal in Scotland.
The story of the arrest, trial and confessions of Agnes Sampson and the others accused of witchcraft is known from versions found in a pamphlet printed in London in 1591, the Newes from Scotland, and from contemporary letters and trial records.
Arrest and torture
By the autumn of 1590, Scotland was aflame with witch hunts, and many of those sent to trial were questioned by the King himself. Agnes Sampson was accused by Gillis Duncan and arrested along with others, and questioned regarding her role in the storm raising. She was put to torture and confessed and her body was shaved to reveal a "privy mark" or witches' mark. These events were described in the 1591 London publication Newes from Scotland:
This aforeaside Agnis Sampson which was the elder Witch, was taken and brought to Haliruid house before the Kings Maiestie and sundry other of the nobility of Scotland, where she was straitly examined, but all the perswasions which the Kings maiestie vsed to her with ye rest of his counsell, might not prouoke or induce her to confesse any thing, but stood stiffely in the deniall of all that was laide to her charge: whervpon they caused her to be conueied awaye to prison, there to receiue such torture as hath been lately prouided for witches in that country: and forasmuch as by due examination of witchcraft and witches in Scotland, it hath latelye beene found that the Deuill dooth generallye marke them with a privie marke, by reason the Witches haue confessed themselues, that the Diuell dooth lick them with his tung in some priuy part of their bodie, before hee dooth receiue them to be his seruants, which marke commonly is giuen them vnder the haire in some part of their bodye, wherby it may not easily be found out or seene, although they be searched: and generally so long as the marke is not seene to those which search them, so long the parties that hath the marke will neuer confesse any thing. Therfore by special commaundement this Agnis Sampson had all her haire shauen of, in each parte of her bodie, and her head thrawen with a rope according to the custome of that Countrye, beeing a paine most greeuous, which she continued almost an hower, during which time she would not confesse any thing vntill the Diuels marke was found vpon her priuities, then she immediatlye confessed whatsoeuer was demaunded of her, and iustifying those persons aforesaid to be notorious witches.
(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.)
According to the Newes from Scotland, Agnes Sampson confessed to causing the storm that drowned Jane Kennedy by sinking a dead cat, to which her companions had attached parts of dead man, into the sea near Leith. The same charm raised the storm that had threatened the king on his return from Denmark. The English ambassador Robert Bowes wrote in December 1590 that Sampson had confessed and mentioned attempts to obtain the king's shirt or other personal linen in order to work charms. On 27 January she confessed that the Devil had offered to help her and her children because she was a poor widow. The Devil appeared to her as a black man, a dog, or a hay rick. She had attended a witch's convent at North Berwick with her son-in-law. They collected bones and powdered them for charms against the pains of childbirth.
Sampson said that Robert Bowes was "a little black and fat man with black hair", who had given the accused gold in a cellar while James VI was in Denmark to make a charm with a toad to hurt the king and make him infertile. Bowes noted that this personal description was inaccurate. Sampson said she had made a wax image of her father-in-law for a woman who complained about his behaviour.
According to the pamphlet Newes from Scotland, Agnes Sampson was interviewed by James VI, who was sceptical of the material in the confessions, and she told him things about the conversation he had on wedding night with Anne of Denmark in Oslo, that she could not have known:
Item, the saide Agnis Sampson confessed before the Kings Maiestie sundrye thinges which were so miraculous and strange, as that his Maiestie saide they were all extreame lyars, wherat she answered, she would not wishe his Maiestie to suppose her woords to be false, but rather to beleeue them, in that she would discouer such matter vnto him as his maiestie should not any way doubt off. And therupon taking his Maiestie a little aside, she declared vnto him the verye woordes which passed betweene the Kings Maiestie and his Queene at Upslo in Norway the first night of their mariage, with their answere eache to other: whereat the Kinges Maiestie wondered greatlye, and swore by the liuing God, that he beleeued that all the Diuels in hell could not haue discouered the same: acknowledging her woords to be most true, and therefore gaue the more credit to the rest which is before declared.
(Item, the said Agnes Sampson confessed before the Kings Majesty sundry things which were so miraculous and strange, as that his Majesty said they were all extreme liars, whereat she answered, she would not wish his Majesty to suppose her words to be false, but rather to believe them, in that she would discover such matter unto him as his majesty should not any way doubt of. And thereupon taking his Majesty a little aside, she declared unto him the very words which passed between the Kings Majesty and his Queen at Oslo in Norway the first night of their marriage, with their answer each to other: whereat the Kings Majesty wondered greatly, and swore by the living God, that he believed that all the Devils in hell could not have discovered the same: acknowledging her words to be most true, and therefore gave the more credit to the rest which is before declared.)— News from Scotland
James VI had not been convinced of Sampson's guilt prior to this last confession, but afterwards changed his mind. On 27 January 1591 the charges of witchcraft against her were drawn up with fifty three points or "articles of dittay".
Edinburgh Burgh treasurer's accounts itemise the cost of Agnes Sampson's execution, giving the date of the purchases as the 16 January 1591 and the cost as £6 8s 10d. Scotts. Robert Bowes wrote that her execution took place on 28 January 1591.
Sampson is referenced in Traitor, the seventh episode of American Horror Story: Apocalypse, as having perfected a poison powder that is only fatal to men, after one of the warlocks claims to have invented the powder himself.
Agnes Sampson also serves as the inspiration for the short horror story The Last Witch of Berwick House by T J Podger (2019).
- Calendar State Papers Scotland, vol. 10 (Edinburgh, 1936), p. 464 '[Confession of Agnes Samsone] "Certane notes of Agnes Samsone her confession, 27 Januarii 1590; quhairupon sche was convict be ane assise and brint in Edinburgh 28 day for ane witch."'. A note of her execution has a date of 16 January 1591. In Scotland in this period the Julian calendar was in effect and the year began 25 March. This article uses the Julian calendar (as does this source) but always treats 1 January as the beginning of the year.
- Thomas Thomson, The historie and life of King James the Sext (Edinburgh, 1825), p. 241
- Chambers, 210.
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- Ethel Carleton Williams, Anne of Denmark (London, 1970), pp. 38-9.
- Newes from Scotland (Roxburghe Club: London, 1816).
- Newes from Scotland (Roxburghe Club: London, 1816), sig. B3.
- Calendar State Papers Scotland: 1589-1603, vol. 10 (Edinburgh, 1936), p. 461.
- Calendar State Papers Scotland, vol. 10 (Edinburgh, 1936), pp. 430 no. 505, 464-7 no. 526.
- "News from Scotland". Sacred-texts.com. Retrieved 29 December 2011.
- James Thomson Gibson-Craig, Papers Relative to the Marriage of King James the Sixth of Scotland (Edinburgh, 1836), pp. xiv-xvi.
- Marguerite Wood, Extracts from the records of the Burgh of Edinburgh (Edinburgh, 1927), pp. 333-4.
- Calendar State Papers Scotland, vol. 10 (Edinburgh, 1936), p. 464.
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- Chicago, 135.
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- Chicago, Judy. The Dinner Party: From Creation to Preservation. London: Merrell (2007). ISBN 1-85894-370-1
- "James VI: February 1591", in Calendar of State Papers, Scotland: Volume 10, 1589-1593, ed. William K. Boyd and Henry W. Meikle (Edinburgh, 1936), pp. 456–480. British History Online http://www.british-history.ac.uk/cal-state-papers/scotland/vol10/pp456-480 [accessed 2 August 2019].
- Pitcairn, Robert, Criminal Trials in Scotland: From A.D. 1488 to A.D. 1624, vol. 1 part 2 (Edinburgh, 1833), pp. 230-241