Following the North Berwick Witch Trials of 1590, overseen by King James VI, an accusation of being a witch would, for many, lead to a terrifying ordeal and likely death.
It was not until towards the end of the 17th century that the belief in witchcraft finally started to subside and in 1735 the earlier acts were repealed, bringing the witch hunts to an end.
When Janet Douglas faced trial in March 1679, it should have been fairly straight forward, yet the trial took a curious twist. Janet was accused of having a familiar (an imp like creature that assisted the witch) and of consulting with evil spirits.
Overseeing her trial in Edinburgh were the Duke of Rothesay and the Archbishop of St Andrews, James Sharp.
The Witch Trial
Janet is said to have put up an unusual, yet confident defence. She said she was no witch but was in fact a witch hunter who sought out those practising witchcraft to undermine their plots.
Archbishop Sharp did not propose a public execution for Janet, but instead, put forward that she should be sent to the King’s plantations in the West Indies.
Janet responded directly to the Archbishop asking ‘My Lord, who was with you on Saturday night last in your closet betwixt twelve and one o’clock?’. It is said that all colour drained from the Archbishop’s face, and the trial was ended with nothing more being said.
Archbishop Sharp Revelation?
The Duke of Rothesay asked to speak to Janet privately and asked her who had been with the Archbishop on that night. Initially, she refused to say, but on an assurance that he would ensure she was not sent to the plantations in return for the information, she replied it was a ‘muckle (large) black devil’.
Could it be that Janet’s claims to be a witch hunter be true? I am not suggesting it was a devil he met, but Archbishop Sharp was said by many to have been in league with the devil due to his merciless persecution of the Covenanters, and his reaction to Janet’s question certainly had indicated he did have something to hide about what he was doing the previous Saturday night, going into the Sunday morning.
The Aftermath & Sharpe
The records show Janet was released with an order to leave the Kingdom within 15 days, leaving her to decide where she went, or more likely to slip discreetly back into a nearby community.
As for Archbishop Sharp, less than 2 months later his coach was stopped by Covenanter loyalists while travelling to St Andrews. He was dragged out and was murdered in front of his petrified daughter as she pleaded for his life to be spared.
His phantom coach is seen continuing the journey from the murder site to St Andrews, as well as 2 other locations within the town.
His ‘closet’, mentioned by Janet, is believed to have been a reference to the small room he used as a private office in a building on the Pends in St Andrews, which was demolished in the early 19th century with a reputation as being one of the most haunted places in the town. The Archbishop’s presence is, however, still reported in the building constructed in its place.
With the Archbishop’s spirit seemingly remaining active, could it be that he is still protecting the secret that Janet had uncovered?