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Transcript - Shakespeare's Restless World - Programme 10

Toil and Trouble: Model of a Bewitched Ship

I'm on Leith Pier near Edinburgh and I am standing on the spot where historically Scotland faced the world. For centuries Scottish ships set off from here, making the perilous journey across the North Sea to the European mainland and the wider world beyond.

In the autumn of 1589 a young Scot undertook this dangerous voyage, sailing from Leith to Norway and Denmark, and then back the following spring. The young man was the King of Scotland, James VI, and his ship was beset by such terrible storms that it nearly perished. James came to believe that the storms were more than just the usual bad Scottish weather. They were the work of evil Scottish witches.

All: Double, double, toil and trouble;

Fire burn and cauldron bubble.

(Macbeth, 4.1.35-6)

All: Fair is foul, and foul is fair.

Hover through the fog and filthy air.

(Macbeth, 1.1.9-10)

In Macbeth, Shakespeare opens the action by bringing us face to face with three extremely dangerous witches and throughout the play the 'Weird Sisters' at their whim cause mayhem on land and sea. It was precisely this kind of witchly mayhem that led to the building of a finely crafted ship that was put on display in Leith in the late 16th century.

Today it's shown here, in the National Museum of Scotland. It's in fact a model ship, just 65 cm high. Made of wood, its hull is thickly painted in red and gold, and its figurehead is a boldly carved gold lion, and on the sides hefty white mermaids clutch their tails and sea Gods wave their tridents.

At first glance you might think this model ship was a toy, but it was made not for the amusement of children, but as an offering to God. Ship models now usually serve as records of actual vessels but this one, it seems, was made to give thanks for survival at sea and for delivering the ship's passengers and cargo from the clutches of tempest-brewing witches.

For modern audiences it can be hard to grasp why Macbeth, a successful practical soldier, pays so much attention to what the witches tell him. But Shakespeare's public would most definitely have understood, for many of them, witchcraft was part of the fabric of daily life as social historian Keith Thomas explains:

'To ordinary villagers, labourers, small farmers, shopkeepers, witchcraft was the power to work physical effects by some supernatural occult means. Witches were divided into good witches, white witches, and bad ones, black witches. The good witches healed people by charms or prayers or some other form of mysterious activity. The black witches were people who did harm by occult means, typically by injuring people's animals, their livestock, or worse by injuring or killing children, men or women.'

First Witch: Where hast thou been, sister?

Second Witch: Killing swine.

(Macbeth, 1.3.1-2)

'And out of this there grew a huge literature of learned demonology which described how black witches flew through the air to black masses where they conducted obscene rituals, had sexual intercourse with the devil and, most important, made a contract with the devil. In other words they were heretics. They had renounced God for the devil.'

Macbeth: What is't you do?

Witches: A deed without a name?

(Macbeth, 4.1.47-48)

'The Reformation was immediately followed by witchcraft prosecution at a fairly intensive level, a concerted drive on the part of everyone, Catholics as well as Protestants, to complete the Christianisation of the population at large. And in the process, that sharpened the eye for any heresy - so people who turned to charmers and cunning folk, something had to be done about them. It was particularly the case in countries where the clergy were very influential: Scotland, a very good example of that.'

Scottish witches were, in one crucial respect, rather different from their English sisters. They were much more likely to be political, involved in high treason rather than local misfortune. Trying to sink James's ship is exactly what you'd expect a Scottish witch to do. So, it's not at all surprising that in The Scottish Play Shakespeare puts witches centre-stage, and in doing so he creates in Macbeth what becomes (and across the whole of the English speaking world, still is) the definitive image of the witch. No Halloween night is now complete without some 'secret, black, and midnight hags' stirring cauldrons and chanting spells.

All: Fair is foul, and foul is fair.

Hover through the fog and filthy air.

(Macbeth, 1.1.9-10)

Witches are by and large foul-weather friends. Macbeth's trio will meet in thunder, lightening and rain, but it never seems to occur to them to go out in the sun, and when they do go out they raise storms, flatten crops, scatter flocks and damage property, ships founder, lives are lost. They are 'Posters of the sea and land' making ports like Leith dangerously 'tempest-tossed'. Somebody has to be to blame for such things, especially for winds that can blow an anointed King off course, and that takes us back to our ship model.

Model ships like the one in Edinburgh are rare in Britain and this is one of the few to survive. But they were very common in Denmark where around 1300 examples are still known, and that gives us a clue because looking closely at this ship I can see carved into it a large gold letter C enclosing the number 4. It's in fact the monogram of the16th century Danish king, Christian IV and this is a Danish war-ship, bristling with cannon. And the reason it is here, in Scotland, is that when the young King James sailed over the stormy North Sea in that spring of 1590, he was with his new bride, Christian IV's sister, Anne, Princess of Denmark.

James and Anne had been married at the Castle of Elsinore (on whose ramparts Hamlet would later meet his father's Ghost), and Elsinore was clearly a place where many disturbed spirits were at work. The storms that beset the Scottish royal couple were immediately interpreted by the Danes as the result of witchcraft. Six Danish witches were tried and executed.

Back in Scotland, the terrifying storms that nearly sank the Royal ship off Leith were also assumed to have the same cause. Investigations, witch hunts, were set in train, and in November 1590, Agnes Sampson from North Berwick near Edinburgh made a shocking confession before the king at Holyrood. A coven of Scottish witches had conspired against him in a contract made with Satan. Under torture, Agnes spelled out exactly what she had done:

'at the time when his Maiestie was in Denmarke, she . . . tooke a Cat and christened it, and afterward bound to each parte of that Cat, the cheefest partes of a dead man, and seuerall ioints of his bodie, and that in the night following the saide Cat was counveied into the midst of the sea by all these witches sayling in their riddles or sieves . . . and so left the saide Cat right before the Towne of Leith in Scotland. This done, there did arise such a tempest in the Sea, as a greater hath not beene seene; which tempest was the cause of the perishing of a Boate . . . It is confessed, that the said christened Cat was the cause that the Kinges Maiesties Ship at his coming forrth of Denmarke, had a contrary winde to the rest of his Ships . . .'

During her trial Agnes Sampson declared that James and Anne were saved from being drowned by their Christian faith. That alone, she said, had been able to thwart the witches. 'His Maiestie had neuer come safelye from the Sea,' she confessed, 'if his faith had not prevailed above their ententions.'

And this is the most probable explanation for our model ship: as a Danish-style offering made for the protestant church in Leith, the Church whose Minister had actually married the royal couple. Put there to thank God for the safe deliverance from storm and spell of the Scottish king and his new Danish queen, and to reinforce that point, the ship was displayed not far from where the self-confessed witch, Agnes Sampson, had admitted she'd tossed the christened cat into the sea.

Agnes Sampson was convicted, garrotted and then burnt on 28th January 1591. Her execution cost �6 8s and 10d Scots and I'm standing now in the place where she was burnt, the esplanade in front of Edinburgh Castle, and I'm with the historian Julian Goodare of Edinburgh University who has made a special study of Scottish witchcraft:

'Yes, it takes several hours to reduce a body to ashes and it is a very dramatic event, we know that crowds gathered at these executions. The North Berwick trials weren't the first Scottish witch trials or even the first panic, but they were the first to be a real media event - they involved the King and that attracted attention. A pamphlet was written called Newes from Scotland, published in London, in order to impress the English and in order to show the English that the King is serious about witches.'

A quick glance at Newes from Scotland makes it very clear that sensational tabloid journalism is an old British tradition. Here we're offered details of a doctor in league with the devil, of a sorcerer burnt at the stake. The luridly worded cover promises readers more: it 's going to reveal all about how certain cat-owning Scottish ladies of North Berwick tried 'to bewitch and drowne his Majesty in the sea coming from Denmark, with such other wonderfull matters as the like hath not been heard at any time.'

Inside there are pictures as well. On a page with a ship going down in the background, you can see four witches stirring a cauldron. But why did James arrange for this tabloid account of the witches' trial to be published in England? Julian Goodare:

'One of the things that Newes from Scotland says is that the witches asked the devil why he is conspiring against James of Scotland, and the devil answers 'because the King is the greatest enemy that I have on earth', which is arguably quite a flattering statement.

This is politically important to James in the 1590s because he wants to be seen as a credible successor to Queen Elizabeth and he wants to impress the English. James himself then actually sits down and writes an academic treatise about witchcraft called Daemonology which is published in 1597. That gets republished in 1603 when James VI of Scotland succeeds Elizabeth and becomes James I of England.'

So when the English welcomed James as their new king, what they already knew about him was that he was powerful enough to take on the devil and many watching Macbeth for the first time would have known at first, or at second hand, the contents of Newes from Scotland. When they heard of sea-faring witches travelling to Aleppo in a sieve, consorting with cats, and assembling dead men's body parts, they would associate such behaviour with witches from Scotland and plots against the king

First witch: Her husband's to Aleppo gone, master o' the Tiger.

But in a sieve, I'll thither sail . . .

First witch: Here I have a pilot's thumb,

Wracked as homeward he did come.

(Macbeth: 1.3.7-8 . . . 1.3.28-29)

Third witch: Liver of blaspheming Jew,

Gall of goat, and slips of yew

Slivered in the moon's eclipse,

Nose of Turk, and Tartar's lips,

Finger of birth-strangled babe,

Ditch-delivered by a drab

(Macbeth: 4.1.26-30)

All: Double, double, toil and trouble;

Fire burn, and cauldron bubble.

Second witch: Cool it with a baboon's blood;

Then the charm is firm and good.

(Macbeth: 4.1.35-38)

James survived plotting by witches, but further threats lay in store, which have also become part of our national folklore. In the next programme James confronts not Satanic drowning, but a plot with gunpowder.

Shakespeare quotations are taken from:

Macbeth (London: Penguin, 2005). ISBN-13: 978-0-141-01369-5