Witches: James I and the English Witch Hunts by Tracy Borman

I’d had this on my reading list for a while, and when I decided to sack off TBR 20 (we all knew it was coming – more in another blog post to come) I went to Waterstones in Oxford, and this was one the three books I bought (three! Such a delight. Lots of points for the loyalty card). I’d asked for this for Christmas but not received it, so it was the one I chose to read first. I tore through it over one weekend, getting completely lost in the post-Tudor world with its drama and… well, drama. These people were very dramatic.

I learned a lot about James I, which I enjoyed, and how he came to focus on witches and their prosecution during his reign. His mother was Mary, Queen of Scots, executed over an alleged plot to have Elizabeth I assassinated. Mary’s fate had a huge impact on her son, as expected, and according to Borman he had developed a dislike of women due to the combination of a mother demonised by society, and a queen who was intent on killing her. This, Borman states, contributed to his later suspicion of, and determination to eradicate, witches.

2014 edition (image: goodreads.com)
2014 edition (image: goodreads.com)

James’ negative feelings towards witches were intensified by the storms that prevented his fiancee Anne of Denmark to cross to England. He feared they were caused by treacherous witches, something that was confounded by his research in Denmark (he had gone to fetch Anne) about witches and their powers. He returned to England, newly wed and determined to rid his country of witches. In 1599, after the Berwick witch trials, he produced a book on the subject, Daemonologie, that proves a vital resource to Borman in his attitude, but also in the influence his opinions about witches had on the population. James’ influence is perhaps the best way to characterise his involvement in most of the witch hunting that went on during his reign. Though he was very enthusiastic about prosecuting witches at the start of his reign, his interest seems to have dwindled over time. Borman freely admits this, though it makes you wonder why he needed to be included in the title of the book – seeing that his book plays a bigger role in this story than he does.

This was the first little disappointment for me when reading Witches. The second was that the ‘conspiracy that has remained hidden for centuries’, mentioned on the back cover, isn’t really that big of a deal. It’s a long story, but the gist is: the Duke of Buckingham, one of James’ favourites, may have played a role in the death of the son of the Earl of Rutland, one of James’ friends, and blamed it on witches. This is all highly speculative, and really isn’t that big a plot point in the main story of the book, which is the trail and inevitable execution of the Flower sisters, the supposed witches who were accused of causing the death of the Earl’s first son, and later his second. Even though the second son died after they were executed. Anyway.

The story of the Flower women in undoubtedly fascinating, and demonstrates how witches were identified, their reputations tarnished somehow, and how people came to believe they were capable of dark magic. It is a terrible story of mass hysteria and injustice, as well as the ease with which those in power can take advantage of the vulnerable. It is a tale worth hearing, but given that Borman’s main source of information is a pamphlet about the trial, which was written after the event, it doesn’t really feel like enough material to fill a whole book. Simply it isn’t, and so Borman pads out the pages with theories about Buckingham and Rutland – in fact after the Flower women are executed the book devolves into a family melodrama, and the witchcraft now seems irrelevant to the story. It is a strange shift in tone and so late in the book it confirms the reader’s suspicion that Borman doesn’t really have enough of a solid line of plot. There is a lot of information in this book, but it is too crammed it with not enough time given to any one thing, and too much to things which are insubstantial, such as Buckingham’s story. As with the lack of James as the text progresses, this is not what I expected when I picked up Witches and started to read.

My point is that this book is a little rough around the edges. It is poorly structured, and the elements are not cohesive. The witches, and James’ fascination with them, provide great material, which is well told, but to me it seemed like Borman needed more time to pull everything together in order to create a book that worked as a whole. Witches works well in parts, but not all together. Which is a shame, because it could have been brilliant.

*

Published in 2013 by Jonathan Cape, and in 2014 by Vintage.

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