An iron ring set in the stone pillar of a 15th-century chapel in the Scottish city of Aberdeen may not look like much, but historians say it could be a direct link to a dark chapter in the city’s past — the trial and execution of 23 women and one man accused of witchcraft during Aberdeen's "Great Witch Hunt" in 1597.
"I was skeptical, to be honest — the ring is not all that spectacular, but it is actually quite genuine," said Arthur Winfield, project leader for the OpenSpace Trust in the United Kingdom, which is restoring the chapel as part of a community-based redevelopment of the East Kirk sanctuary at the historic Kirk of St Nicholas, in central Aberdeen.
Winfield told Live Science that two places within the kirk (the Lowland Scots word for "church") had been equipped as a prison for witches snared in the Aberdeen witch hunt: the stone-vaulted chapel of St Mary, and the tall steeple of the kirk, which was at that time the tallest structure in the city. [See more photos of the "witch prison" in the Scottish church]
Winfield said that neither location would have been warm in the winter of 1597, when those accused of witchcraft awaited trail, and likely their execution: "In the winter nowadays, the temperature gets down to 3 degrees [Celsius] in St Mary's Chapel, and I guess it would be even colder up in the spire."
Witch hunting in Scotland in the 16th century was not carried out by mobs with pitchforks, but by royal commissions at the orders of the king. As a result, Aberdeen’s city archives today hold meticulous original records of the witch trials and executions in 1597, including payments to a local blacksmith for the iron rings and shackles installed to imprison accused witches at the Kirk of St Nicholas.
The city records also detail the costs for the rope, wood and tar later used to burn the convicted witches at the stake, at Castle Hill and Heading Hill in Aberdeen, before large crowds of onlookers. As a small mercy, most of the condemned were strangled to death before their bodies were burned, according to the University of Edinburgh’s online Survey of Scottish Witchcraft.
The Great Witch Hunt
Chris Croly, a historian at the University of Aberdeen, told Live Science that Aberdeen’s Great Witch Hunt of 1597 was one phase of a wave of witch persecutions across Scotland sparked by the witchcraft laws of King James VI of Scotland (who became James I of England in 1603).
"It is often said that Aberdeen burned more witches than anywhere else — that may not be entirely accurate, but what is absolutely accurate is that Aberdeen has the best civic records of witch burning in Scotland, and so it can appear that way," Croly told Live Science.
He said the wave of witchcraft persecutions that began in Europe in the 15th century and reached Scotland in the 1590s, continued into the Americas in the 17th century and led to the infamous witch trials at Salem in Massachusetts in 1692 and 1693. [Black Magic: 6 Infamous Witch Trials in History]
Many Protestant and Catholic authorities at the time were united in a belief that witchcraft was the result of witches "communing with the devil" and that biblical scripture justified their execution. "That's how this wave can sweep through both Protestant and Catholic countries," Croly said.
One the most famous cases of the 1597 witch trials in Aberdeen involved two members of one family. The mother, Jane Wishart, was convicted of 18 counts of witchcraft, including casting spells that caused illness in her neighbors; inducing a mysterious brown dog to attack her son-in-law after an argument; and dismembering a corpse that hung on a gallows, to provide the ingredients for her magic.
Wishart's son, Thomas Leyis, was also convicted of heading a coven of witches that had danced with the devil at midnight in Aberdeen's fish market area. Both mother and son were strangled and burned, and the city records note that it cost "3 pounds, 13 shillings and 4 pence" to provide enough peat, tar and wood for Leyis’ pyre.
Buried beneath the kirk
In 2006 and 2007, the East Kirk of St Nicholas was the scene of a major archeological excavation before restoration work could be done to develop the former church as a community center. The redevelopment effort is known as the "Mither Kirk Project," from the Lowland Scots words for "mother church."
No remains of the accused witches were found at the site, and Croly noted that they would have been buried elsewhere, on "unhallowed ground." But the excavations had provided archaeologists with an extraordinary look at the lives of the people of the city from the 11th to the 18th centuries, he said.
Over the course of the excavation, the remains of more than 2,000 people, including 1,000 entire skeletons, were disinterred from grave sites that lay under the floor of the East Kirk, said Croly, who was Aberdeen’s city historian at the time of the excavations, and worked closely with city archaeologists on the project. [8 Grisly Archaeological Discoveries]
Most of the bodies were buried before the 1560s, when the Protestant Reformation in Scotland forbade burials inside churches, but the practice was profitable and continued in a small way until the 18th century, he said.
The excavations had also found evidence of earlier church buildings beneath the existing kirk that dated to the 11th century, and the graves of nine babies that had been laid out together in an arc near an 11th-century wall — possibly the victims of an epidemic of disease, Croly said.
Now that archaeological tests on the bodies from the kirk have been completed, the Mither Kirk Project plans to hold a ceremony later this year to reinter the bodies in a vault beneath the current floor level.
At a later date, the former "prison for witches" in St Mary's Chapel will be redeveloped as a "contemplative space," said Arthur Winfield, the project leader for the OpenSpace Trust. "That space will be kept as an area of peace and tranquility — essentially, it is going to be respected for the chapel that it was, and will be again," he said.
Original article on Live Science.
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Tom Metcalfe is a freelance journalist and regular Live Science contributor who is based in London in the United Kingdom. Tom writes mainly about science, space, archaeology, the Earth and the oceans. He has also written for the BBC, NBC News, National Geographic, Scientific American, Air & Space, and many others.