From News from Scotland

[Click on image to enlarge] There is an eerie resemblance between the title of Marlowe's source for his play — The Historie of the Damnable Life and Deserved Death of Doctor John Faustus (1592) — and that of an anonymous pamphlet — News from Scotland, Declaring the Damnable Life and Death of Doctor Fian, a Notable Sorceror — published in London the previous year. Both texts veer between episodes of low comedy and depictions of agony and horror. Unlike the story of the legendary Faustus, however, News from Scotland records the judicial torture and execution of an actual person.

Doctor Fian was one victim of a hunt for witches believed to have plotted the death of James VI of Scotland (later James I of England) and his new bride, Anne of Denmark. English readers may have found the conduct of their future king as worrying as the diabolical conspiracy reported here; the hunt for witches in Scotland was bloodier and far more extensive than in England, and Scottish law — unlike English — permitted the use of torture to obtain confessions.

[The Torture and Execution of the Doctor Fian]

As touching the aforesaid Doctor Fian, alias John Cunningham, the examination of his acts since his apprehension declareth the great subtlety of the Devil, and therefore maketh things appear the more miraculous. For being apprehended by the accusation of the said Geillis Duncane aforesaid, who confessed he was their Register, >> note 1 and that there was not one man suffered to come to the Devil's readings but only he, the said Doctor was taken and imprisoned, and used with the accustomed pain provided for those offenses, inflicted upon the rest as is aforesaid.

First, by thrawing >> note 2 of his head with a rope, whereat he would confess nothing.

Secondly, he was persuaded by fair means to confess his follies, but that would prevail as little.

Lastly, he was put to the most severe and cruel pain in the world, called the boots, >> note 3 who after he had received three strokes, being enquired if he would confess his damnable acts and wicked life, his tongue would not serve him to speak. In respect whereof the rest of the witches willed to search his tongue, under which was found two pins thrust up into the head, whereupon the Witches did say, "Now is the charm stinted," >> note 4 and showed that those charmed pins were the cause he could not confess any thing. Then was he immediately released of the boots, brought before the King, his confession was taken, and his own hand willingly set thereunto, which contained as followeth.

First, that at the general meetings of those witches, he was always present; that he was clerk to all those that were in subjection to the Devil's service, bearing the name of witches; that always he did take their oaths for their true service to the Devil; and that he wrote for them such matters as the Devil still pleased to command him.

Item, he confessed that by his witchcraft he did bewitch a gentleman dwelling near to the Saltpans, >> note 5 where the said Doctor kept school, only for being enamored of a gentlewoman whom he loved himself. By means of which his sorcery, witchcraft and devilish practices, he caused the said gentleman that once in 24 hours he fell into a lunacy and madness, and so continued one whole hour together, and for the verity of the same, he caused the gentleman to be brought before the King's Majesty, which was upon the 24th day of December last, and in His Majesty's chamber, suddenly he gave a great scritch >> note 6 and fell into a madness, sometime bending himself, and sometime capering so directly up, that his head did touch the ceiling of the chamber, to the great admiration of His Majesty and others then present. So that all the gentlemen in the chamber were not able to hold him, until they called in more help, who together bound him hand and foot. And suffering the said gentleman to lie still until his fury were past, he within an hour came again to himself, when being demanded of the King's Majesty what he saw or did all that while, answered that he had been in a sound sleep.

Item, the said Doctor did also confess that he had used means sundry times to obtain his purpose and wicked intent of the same gentlewoman, and seeing himself disappointed of his intention, he determined by all ways he might to the same, trusting by conjuring, witchcraft and sorcery to obtain it in this manner.

It happened this gentlewoman being unmarried, had a brother who went to school with the said doctor, and calling his scholar to him, demanded if he did lie with his sister; >> note 7 who answered he did, by means whereof he thought to obtain his purpose, and therefore secretly promised to teach him without stripes >> note 8 so he would obtain for him three hairs of his sister's privities, at such time as he should spy best occasion for it. Which the youth promised faithfully to perform, and vowed speedily to put it in practice, taking a piece of conjured paper of his master to lap them in when he had gotten them. And thereupon the boy practiced nightly to obtain his master's purpose, especially when his sister was asleep.

But God who knoweth the secrets of all hearts, and revealeth all wicked and ungodly practices, would not suffer the intents of this devilish Doctor to come to that purpose which he supposed it would, and therefore to declare that he was heavily offended with his wicked intent, did so work by the gentlewoman's own means, that in the end the same was discovered and brought to light. For she being one night asleep, and her brother in bed with her, suddenly cried out to her mother, declaring that her brother would not suffer her to sleep. Whereupon her mother, having a quick capacity, >> note 9 did vehemently suspect Doctor Fian's intention, by reason she was a witch of her self, and therefore presently arose, and was very inquisitive of the boy to understand his intent. And the better to know the same, did beat him with sundry stripes, whereby he discovered the truth unto her.

The mother therefore being well practiced in witchcraft, did think it most convenient to meet with >> note 10 the doctor in his own art, and thereupon took the paper from the boy, wherein he should have put the same hairs, and went to a young heifer which never had borne calf nor gone to the bull, and with a pair of shears, clipped off three hairs from the udder of the cow, and wrapped them in the same paper, which she again delivered to the boy, then willing him to give the same to his said Master, which he immediately did.

The schoolmaster so soon as he had received them, thinking them indeed to be the maid's hairs, went straight and wrought his art upon them. But the doctor had no sooner done his intent to them, but presently the heifer or cow whose hairs they were indeed, came unto the door of the church wherein the schoolmaster was, into the which the heifer went, and made towards the schoolmaster, leaping and dancing upon him, and following him forth of the church and to what place so ever he went, to the great admiration >> note 11 of all the townsmen of Saltpans, and many other who did behold the same. The report whereof made all men imagine that he did work it by the Devil, without whom it could never have been so sufficiently effected. And thereupon, the name of the said Doctor Fian (who was but a very young man) began to grow so common among the people of Scotland that he was secretly nominated for >> note 12 a notable conjuror.

All which, although in the beginning he denied, and would not confess, yet having felt the pain of the boots (and the charm stinted, as aforesaid) he confessed all the aforesaid to be most true, without producing any witnesses to justify the same, and thereupon, before the King's Majesty, he subscribed the said confessions with his own hand, which for truth remaineth upon record in Scotland.

After that the depositions and examinations of the said Doctor Fian, alias Cunningham, was taken, as already is declared, with his own hand willingly set thereunto, he was by the master of the prison committed to ward, and appointed to a chamber by himself, where forsaking his wicked ways, acknowledging his most ungodly life, showing that he had too much followed the allurements and enticements of Satan, and fondly practiced his conclusions >> note 13 by conjuring, witchcraft, enchantment, sorcery, and such like, he renounced the devil and all his wicked works, vowed to lead the life of a Christian, and seemed newly connected towards God.

The morrow after upon conference had with him, he granted that the Devil had appeared unto him in the night before, apparelled all in black, with a white wand in his hand, and that the Devil demanded of him if he would continue his faithful service, according to his first oath and promise made to that effect. Whom (as he then said) he utterly renounced to his face, and said unto him in this manner, "Avoid Satan, avoid, for I have listened too much unto thee, and by the same thou hast undone me, in respect whereof I utterly forsake thee."

To whom the Devil answered that "Once ere thou die thou shalt be mine." And with that (as he said) the Devil brake the white wand, and immediately vanished forth of his sight.

Thus all the day this Doctor Fian continued very solitary, and seemed to have care of his own soul, and would call upon God, showing himself penitent for his wicked life. Nevertheless the same night he found such means that he stole the key of the prison door and chamber in the which he was, which in the night he opened and fled away to the Saltpans, where he was always resident, and first apprehended. Of whose sudden departure when the King's Majesty had intelligence, he presently commanded diligent inquiry to be made for his apprehension, and for the better effecting thereof, he sent public proclamations into all parts of his land to the same effect. By means of whose hot and hard pursuit, he was again taken and brought to prison, and then being called before the King's Highness, he was reexamined as well touching his departure, as also touching all that had before happened.

But this Doctor, notwithstanding that his own confession appeareth remaining in record under his own handwriting, and the same thereunto fixed in the presence of the King's Majesty and sundry of his Council, yet did he utterly deny the same.

Whereupon the King's Majesty, perceiving his stubborn wilfulness, conceived and imagined that in the time of his absence he had entered into new conference and league with the Devil his master, and that he had been again newly marked, >> note 14 for the which he was narrowly searched, but it could not in any wise be found. Yet for more trial of him to make him confess, he was commanded to have a most strange torment, which was done in this manner following:

His nails upon all his fingers were riven and pulled off with an instrument called in Scottish a "Turkas," which in England we call a pair of pincers, and under every nail there was thrust in two needles over even up to the heads. At all which torments notwithstanding the doctor never shrunk any whit, neither would he then confess it the sooner for all the tortures inflicted upon him.

Then was he with all convenient speed, by commandment, conveyed again to the torment of the boots, wherein he continued a long time, and did abide so many blows in them that his legs were crushed and beaten together as small as might be, and the bones and flesh so bruised that the blood and marrow spouted forth in great abundance, whereby they were made unserviceable for ever. And notwithstanding all these grievous pains and cruel torments he would not confess anything, so deeply had the Devil entered into his heart, that he utterly denied all that which he had before avouched, and would say nothing thereunto but this: that what he had done and said before was only done and said for fear of pains which he had endured.

Upon great consideration therefore taken by the King's Majesty and his Council, as well for the due execution of justice upon such detestable malefactors, as also for example sake, to remain a terror to all others hereafter that shall attempt to deal in the like wicked and ungodly actions, as witchcraft, sorcery, conjuration, and such like, the said Doctor Fian was soon after arraigned, condemned, and adjudged by the law to die, and then to be burned according to the law of that land provided in that behalf. Whereupon he was put into a cart, and being first strangled, he was immediately put into a great fire, being ready provided for that purpose, and there burned in the Castle Hill of Edinburgh on a Saturday in the end of January last past, 1591.

The rest of the witches which are not yet executed remain in prison till farther trial and knowledge of His Majesty's pleasure.

© 2010 W.W. Norton and Company :  Site Feedback  :  Help  :  Credits  :  Home  :  Top of page