The story of the ghost of Agnes Sampson, known as The Wise Wife of Keith in Scotland is a story where a simple midwife was accused of witchcraft so powerful she caused a storm trying to kill her own queen.
Agnes Sampson was a Scottish healer and a purported witch. Sampson was born in the village of Kirktoun, East Lothian in Scotland and worked as a midwife. She was believed to have healing powers long before she was accused of being a witch.
She became known as the Wise Wife of Keith and was involved in the North Berwick trials that happened during the 16th century, one of Scotland’s most notorious witchcraft trials. Agnes Sampson is also known for being one of the main accused at this trial.
There were and still are many tales about who Agnes Sampson really was. Some of them are true tales, some tall tales. She is said to have been married three times, once to William Keith with whom she had two children. She is also said to have been married to two other men and had 14 children with each man.
So how did this simple midwife become the center of a conspiracy of witches trying to sink the ships belonging to their new queen and threatening her own King? To find out we have to travel across the pond to the court in Denmark-Norway and their fear of black magic and a series of unfortunate events on the sea.
The Storm of Contrary Winds
By the autumn of 1590, Scotland was deep into witch hunts, and many of those sent to trial were questioned by the King himself. Today, the city of Edinburgh and the rest of the country is riddled with the memory of those who were burnt at the stake as a witch. King James VI, the son of Mary, Queen of Scots had just returned from Denmark-Norway where he had married Anne of Denmark who was only 14 at their wedding.
The Danish court at this time was extremely wary of all things black magic and witchcraft. The fear of demons and witches had tightened the European continent and it was probably a fear that the Scottish King James adapted and brought back as well after spending time there.
The King of Scotland was impatient awaiting his bride from Denmark to cross the seas after the wedding to stay by his side, but on her voyage to Scotland the fleet experienced heavy storms and ended up starting not only one, but two major witch trials that ended in several executions.
A Series of Unfortunate Events
So how did a simple midwife like Agnes Sampson get accused of something that happened all the way over in Denmark? To this we have to go through the Danish court and the witch trials that happened there before it started in Scotland.
Peder Munk of Estvadgård was a Danish navigator, politician and ambassador and in charge of carrying the fleet of 18 ships with Anne of Denmark to Scotland to bring her to her throne by her King. They set out on their voyage in 1589 from Copenhagen and were riddled with bad fortune, taking years to reach their final destination.
First they had to stop in a port in Norway to repair a leaking ship and had to stay there for a very long time, on their way to a very impatient king. When they reached The River Forth in central Scotland a ferry boat collided with one of the vessels in a storm and all of the passengers drowned. This was all attributed to witchcraft.
Back in Denmark, the navigator Peder Munk blamed it all on witchcraft, especially on a certain woman whom he had insulted and believed to be the main witch behind the storms. This became the beginning of the Copenhagen witch trials, which ended in executing 17 people by burning.
This inspired the King to hold his own trials, and it would be known as the North Berwick Witch Trials, and Agnes SAmpson was one of the main accused.
Accused of Witchcraft
More than a hundred suspects were arrested in North Berwick, several of them confessed during torture and named other people. Agnes Sampson was accused by Gillis Duncan, another one of the accused.
Duncan was really the one that linked the other accused of causing the storms that ended up sinking the Queens ships. She worked as a servant and confessed after torture that she was a witch and there were several more. The reason she was accused herself was that she was far too skilled of a healer in her master David Seton’s mind who also thought that Duncan had been sneaking out at night.
Agnes Sampson ended up being one of the more significant accused persons, as an elderly and respected woman that had healed more than one in the local area. Many attributed their good health to her good work. Now, they all turned on her because of the rumors and her unfortunate circumstances. The fact that she was a widow with children and acted as an independent woman and educated midwife was a part of the indictment against her. She had also been accused of witchcraft and investigated before.
The Wise Wife of Keith was imprisoned and put to torture for a long time before saying anything. She started off refusing to confess at first, but after a long time in the dark and in pain, she as the rest of the accused gave up.
In the end she was brought before King James VI himself and a council of nobles at the Palace of Holyroodhouse. Sampson denied all the charges, but they kept torturing her until she said otherwise. Her head and body hair were shaved and she was pinned to the wall of her cell with a witches bridle. This was a torture instrument with four sharp prongs pressed into the mouth, meant to humiliate as well as hurt the ones wearing them.
She was forced to stay awake with no sleep in her cell with a rope around her head, always reminded just how close to death she really was. And in the end, how freeing that prospect must have seen compared to the torture she went through.
Finally, after all that torture, Agnes Sampson confessed to whatever they asked of her in front of her own king who oversaw the trial. In all she confessed to 53 indictments against her, including attending a Sabbat she led and that she was indeed a witch with supernatural power she used to harm others with.
According to her testimony, she ended up saying she made a charm that caused a storm that ended up drowning Jane Kennedy. She sank a dead cat with parts of a dead man into the sea near Leith. The same charm she used to threaten the King and his wife on her voyage.
It was her last testimony that was her downfall in the King’s eyes. In it, she disclosed things he and his wife had on their wedding night in Oslo. A conversation she had no way of knowing:
“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
Execution and Haunting
King James was allegedly not completely convinced of Agnes Sampson guilt until her last confession. After it however he changed his mind and sent her to be burned. On 28th of January 1591 she was taken to the scaffold on Castlehill where she was garroted before being burnt at the stake.
Although the exact numbers of the executions are hard to be certain of, it is estimated that around 1500 people were killed as witches by the state of Scotland during this time.
Agnes Sampson’s naked ghost is said to roam the castle grounds, bald headed roaming around the Palace of Holyroodhouse.
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