Agnes Sampson, also noted as, Agnis Sampson, Agnes Samsone, Agnes Samson and Agnes Sampsone in other records, was a Scottish folk healer and midwife, but probably more well known, sadly, as an alleged witch that was later condemned to death by strangulation and burning in the North Berwick Witch Trials. She was born around 1530 in Keith, East Lothian in Scotland, married to John Sampson with several children and was called the ‘Wise Wife of Keith’ because she was well known for her healing abilities. She was an extremely well-respected member of her local community and people would visit her for her healing and counsel. She would use herbs from the land and other natural remedies mixed with prayer to treat her patients.
But this tale doesn’t start with Agnes herself, this terrible, barbaric and tragic tale starts with King James VI, a 14 year old princess and a storm.
King James VI and his fiancé, the then 14 year old Princess of Denmark, Anne, were arranged to be married. During the wedding ceremony a proxy was ordered to stand in for King James VI during the ceremony but after the ceremony, Anne decided to join her new husband and King across the seas but was hit by a huge storm. There was a second marriage ceremony between Anne and King James VI where, this time, King James VI was in attendance and it was on this journey back to Scotland that a second massive storm hit them, this time bigger than the one that had originally headed over Anne the first time. This storm was so ferocious that it almost killed King James VI and his new bride, Anne.
By this time witchcraft, superstition and other oddities were at their height in Denmark and witchcraft trials and the condemnation of witches were already rife. It seems that this left a lasting impression on the young King James VI and this made, the already impressionable King, detest the thought of witches being in his country and with that his panic ensued.
Rather than seeing the storms as a natural weather phenomenon, King James VI blamed witchcraft and stated that all witches should be found and condemned to death just as his new wife had almost been killed by their ‘storm raising’ spells.
So, at this point we find ourselves in Scotland, 1590. A maidservant to Lord Seton, named Geillis Duncan (or Gillis Duncan in some reports), was noted to be incredibly good with herbal healing. After witnessing her sneaking out of the estate during the night, David Seton, a representative of Lord Seton, questioned her on what she was doing and why.
Geillis immediately protested her innocence, but the questioning turned into interrogation and then torture. She was strip searched and the ‘devil’s mark’ was allegedly found on her body. She confessed, under torture, and was sentenced to imprisonment for practising witchcraft. Whilst imprisoned she gave names of ‘other witches’ she knew in the local area, one of which was Agnes Sampson. Geillis claimed to have been bewitched by the other witches and told investigators that she had been attending the devil’s sabbath. She also said that she had been forced to take part in a plot to kill King James VI.
Agnes was later arrested and accused of witchcraft. James VI oversaw the interrogation of Agnes Sampson which involved shaving all the hair from her body, burning by friction her head with rope, thumbscrews, beatings and rape. This clearly wasn’t just questioning, this indeed was the horrific torture of a once loved and respected woman, who everyone in the local community trusted with not only their lives, but those of their entire families including their children.
Agnes Sampson was forced to confess to attending the devil’s sabbath, making a wax image of King James VI, and plotting to kill him. She was also forced to confess to having sex with the devil and to having eaten the flesh of babies, but these so-called confessions were under torturous conditions, literally fighting for her life. Her body was badly beaten and broken. Under this kind of physical and emotional duress, it is not surprising that she confessed and to say anything that her torturers wanted to hear.
Above is the official confession of Agnes Sampson. From the parts that can be read, the transcription of this confession is below. I would like to thank The National Archives for this photo and transcription.
Page One, From Top into line 8 of main text:
- Certain notes of Agnes Samsone her
- confession 27 January 1590 whereupon she was
- convicted by an Assize [legal court] &
- burned in Edinburgh, 28 day
- for a witch
- Imprimis [Firstly] the said Agnes confesses that after the death of her hus-
- band the devil appeared unto her in the night till she was
- [?] and pensive [thinking] for the sustentation [keeping]of her and her bairns [babies]
- bidding her be of good cheer and leave of that care for her
- children, promising that if she would serve him she nor
- they should lack nothing. And being motivated with her poverty
- and his fair promises of riches and revenge of her enemies,
- took him for her master and renounced Christ.
Page Two, Third Paragraph:
- Item, she confesses that upon a complaint of a woman of the
- forwardness [person who is difficult to deal with] of her father-in-law and her earnest desire
- to be quit of him, she made a picture of wax and raised
- a spirit at a waterside beside a brier bush [prickly shrub], desiring her
- to enchant it to serve for his destruction, and send it to the said
- woman to be put under his bed sheet or bed head.
Page 4, Second Paragraph:
- Item, she confesses that she raised the devil by her
- evocations [act of summoning the spirits] to ask if a gentlewoman should live or die.
- He appeared to her in likeness of a black dog before supper,
- she being alone. But after supper, having the gentle-
- woman’s three daughters with her, of whom one
- would have drowned herself in the well out of the which
- the dog came and whether he went, and was hardly
- stayed through the violent pulling and holding of
- her sisters and the said Agnes Samsone the said
- gentlewoman was made a quarter of an hour thereafter.
On 27th January 1591, Agnes Sampson was convicted and found guilty of being a witch, practising witchcraft and plotting to kill the King using magic. The next day, 28th January 1591, she was strangled to death and then her body burned at the stake on Edinburgh’s Castle Hill.
Agnes’ life has been replayed in books, plays, documentaries and films. She is also a featured figure on Judy Chicago’s installation piece The Dinner Party, being represented as one of the 999 names on the Heritage Floor. There have been poems written about her and for her and many people flock to Castle Hill in Edinburgh to stand where she died to mourn.
Agnes Sampson’s case is one of the most well-known examples of witchcraft in Scotland and is told throughout the UK as a reminder of the dangers of religious persecution and the power of superstition. Her story also serves a reminder of the importance of tolerance, education and understanding. She was simply doing her job as the village healer and midwife and yet she was killed just because she had a love for herbs and prayer. My dearest Agnes, you will never be forgotten.