(Yes, this is recycled information – Historical tales are often like that!)
Matthew Hopkins’s has gone down in history as the notorious ‘Witchfinder General’; a title, by the way, thought to have been given to Hopkin’s – by himself! It is also believed that he was responsible for the executions of around 200-300 women and men between 1644 and 1647. Whilst this score might seem small compared to those in Europe, it constituted around 60% of the combined total number of executions in England during 160 years prior to 1647. The gruesome spree of executions for witchcraft in Europe (then the Holy Roman Empire of Germany, Netherlands, Switzerland, Lorraine, Austria including Czech lands – Bohemia, Moravia and Silesia) were estimated to have reached around 30,000.
Matthew Hopkins was born in 1620 and in truth, very little is known of him before 1644 when his witch trials began, and there are no surviving contemporary documents concerning him or his family. We know, of course, that he was born in Great Wenham, Suffolk and was the fourth son of six children. His father, James Hopkins, was a Puritan clergyman and vicar of St John’s of Great Wenham, in Suffolk. In the early 1640’s Hopkins moved to Manningtree, Essex, a town on the River Stour, about 10 miles (16 km) from Wenham. According to tradition Hopkins used his recently acquired inheritance of a hundred marks to establish himself as a gentleman and to buy the Thorn Inn in Mistley. From the way that he presented evidence in trials, Hopkins is commonly thought to have been trained as a lawyer, but there is scant evidence to suggest this was the case – he probably had a gift for ‘oratory’.
According to his book ‘The Discovery of Witches’, Hopkins began his career as a witch-finder after he overheard various women discussing their meetings with the Devil in March 1644 in Manningtree; it is not know if this led to any accusations of the women concerned. What is fact, is that the first accusations which did lead to a trial were made by John Stearne – and it was Matthew Hopkins who was appointed to assist him in the investigations. The trial itself was held in Chelmsford, Essex in 1645, where twenty-three women were accused of witchcraft and tried by Justices of the Peace, presided over by the Earl of Warwick. Four of these died in prison and nineteen were convicted and hanged. The Chelmsford witch trial established Matthew Hopkins and John Stearne as Witchfinders, and it was from this point that they went on to claim that they had received an official commission from Parliament to further uncover and prosecute witches. On the back of this claim the two, full of enthusiasm and accompanied by assistants, were to travel from town to village in the Eastern region to execute their commission.
In 1644, Matthew Hopkins was 24 years of age when he joined forces with a John Stearne; and together, the pair certainly proved to be prolific. But it was Hopkins who stood out as the man who possessed the firmest belief in what he was doing – numbers indicate his zeal cannot simply be explained away by the generous rewards he was given by those grateful for his services. This zeal may well have found its roots in Hopkins’ childhood and adolescence, but, frustratingly for those interested in his motives and his mind-set, there is very little known about his background, other than a few parish records; these throw little light on the influences that made Hopkins the man he was.
Matthew Hopkins, together with his associate, John Stearne, is believed to have been responsible for the deaths of 300 women between the years 1644 and 1646. It has been estimated that all of the English witch trials between the early 15th and late 18th centuries resulted in fewer than 500 executions for witchcraft. Therefore, presuming the number executed as a result of “investigations” by Hopkins and his colleague is at the lower end of the various estimates, their efforts accounted for about 60 per cent of the total. In their short crusade Hopkins and Stearne sent to the gallows more people than all the other witch-hunters in England of the previous 160 years.
Following the Lancaster Witch Trial of 1634, William Harvey, physician to King Charles I of England, had been ordered to examine four women accused of witchcraft at a time when belief in witches was nearly universal and to deny their existence was heresy-worthy and punishable. To his credit he considered scientific principles and the women were found innocent. However, from this trial there came a requirement to have material proof of being a witch. Matthew Hopkins’s thinking here was not necessarily to prove any of the accused had committed acts of “maleficium”,- magical acts intended to cause harm or death to persons or property, – but the fact they had made a covenant with the Devil. This is the difference between Hopkin’s approach and that of the Justice of the Peace who investigated the Pendle Witches in 1612. By making covenant with the Devil, witches became heretics to Christianity, which became the greatest of their crimes and sins. Within continental and Roman Law witchcraft was ‘crimen exceptum’: a crime so foul that all normal legal procedures were superseded. Because the Devil was not going to “confess”, it was necessary to gain a confession from the human involved.
Methods of investigation:
Matthew Hopkins’ methods of investigating witchcraft drew inspiration from the ‘Daemonologie of King James’ which was directly cited in Hopkins’ pamphlet, ‘The Discovery of Witches.’ He also took note of the best selling legal handbook of the day, Dalton’s ‘Counterey Justice’, in which Magistrates were advised “not alwaies to expect direct evidence [from witches], seeing all their works are the works of darknesse” Further, torture was actually illegal in England at the time of Hopkins and, surprisingly perhaps, depriving someone of sleep for days on end was not considered to be torturing them! Hopkins was careful to stay within the law – and fortunately for him this still enabled him to utilise many methods that would fill most people with horror. Often the accused would be “watched” for days on end to see if ‘imps’ or ‘familiars’ would appear and suckle on the suspect’s blood. It seems to be a common thread that when someone had been “watched” for a few days they were very much more willing to confess. Also, the reports of the watchers’ findings often spoke of the “Witches Teat” being found in, on or around the private parts of the accused. For such pure souls, the Puritans seemed to be rather obsessed with private parts! Then, on occasion, the accused would be “walked”, forcibly exercised to the point of exhaustion to encourage confession.
Another of Hopkin’s methods was the infamous “swimming” test, based on the idea that as witches had renounced their baptism, water would reject them. Hopkins was, in fact, warned against using this method without receiving the permission of the accused first. The problem with ordeal by water was that the test was regarded as a superstition: by law it was an assault to swim a witch – and if he or she drowned it was murder. However from the early to mid 17th century the object of the witch trial changed from proving maleficium to that of proving a pact with the Devil; this resulted in the swimming test becoming more widespread. It involved tying the hapless suspect, usually right thumb to left toe, and left thumb to right toe and lowering into water. All those who “swam” (floated) were considered to be witches. Those who sank and drowned were innocent!
Hopkins and his assistants also looked for the Devil’s mark. This was a mark that all witches or sorcerers were supposed to possess that was said to be dead to all feeling and would not bleed – although in reality it was usually a mole, birthmark or an extra nipple or breast. If the suspected witch had no such visible marks, invisible ones could be discovered by pricking, the witch finder therefore employed “witch prickers” to prick the accused with knives and special needles, looking for such marks, and places where the accused would feel no pain, normally after the suspect had been shaved of all body hair. It has been claimed that Hopkins had a trick up his sleeve when it came to this one. It was thought that a witch would have areas on her body that would not bleed – either because they were the place where the devil had kissed her to seal their pact, or because this was the spot from which she suckled her ‘familiars’. The woman would be pricked with a needle, and if the skin did not bleed, then this was proof of her guilt. Hopkins may well have had a special pin made with a retractable blade – the point retracting into the handle when it met resistance. This way, he could quickly establish a suspect’s guilt.
It was also believed that the witch’s ‘familiar’, an animal such as a cat or dog, or mole or insect or even a child, would drink the witch’s blood from a “witches teat”, as a baby drinks milk from the nipple. Local women would be employed to search the accused female witches. One belief was that’ familiars’ suckled the witch to remind him or her of their ‘fealty’ to the devil, a dark parallel to holy communion. Sometimes the ‘familiar’ would suckle blood and in exchange would perform acts of harm, for example killing off livestock belonging to those the witch bore a grudge to.
The confessions of those accused of witchcraft were strikingly similar. Often the ladies are seduced by the devil and repeatedly took him into their beds. They will have ‘familiars’ [spirit animals] which will do their bidding which is invariably to the ill of their neighbours. The ‘familiars’ will kill livestock or neighbours children or the neighbours themselves or make people ill. Never is it recorded that the familiars better the circumstances of the witch only worsen the circumstances of his or her ‘enemies’. Such are the similarities between the many confessions that it is tempting to think that the words were put into the mouths of the accused by the inquisitor.
Hopkins’s first victim is thought to have been 80-year-old Elizabeth Clarke. This poor woman was ripe for suspicion – she was old, poor, and was missing a leg. She was kept awake for three days, and under this extreme stress, understandably broke down – admitting to having had carnal relations with the devil. It seems ridiculous to us now – but all those years ago this would have been believed. Poor Elizabeth implicated others, and was hanged – the first of many.
The Social, Political and Religious Background:
The witch-fever that gripped East Anglia for around 14 months between 1645 & 1646 happened at a historic & tumultuous time in English history. England was in the midst of a bloody civil war between the forces of King Charles I and the forces of Parliament. The country was in chaos, the normal workings of the state were not functioning. Circuit courts were not running normally and justice was being administered in a disjointed way at a local level. Before the war had started the eastern counties were solidly Puritan, rabidly anti-Catholic and ever vigilant for heresies. As the war progressed and times grew harder fear and suspicion of neighbours mounted and scores were settled by accusations of witchcraft. Matthew Hopkins and his associates were adept at turning local gossip and innuendo into formal accusations of witchcraft.
The towns and villages of the Eastern Counties had lost most of their able men who were off fighting in the war. The farms were not being worked; crops were rotting in the fields without sufficient folk to harvest them. The weather was unseasonably bad. The poor were dirt poor and the folk whom they normally relied upon for charity and alms were stretched by the straightened circumstances of the war and not able to give. Resentments grew. Many of those accused of witchcraft were from the beggar class or were old widows who took alms from the parishes but did not give alms. Add to this the widespread Calvinist belief in the elect, the idea that it is a predestined choice of God who will go to heaven and who is damned to hell. It was the idea that some folk are born to sin and some are born to be pure. Some folk are born to be heretics and some are born to be doctrinally pure. Some folk are born to be witches and some folk are born to be witch finders. It was a time of real fanaticism. Ignorance and dogmatic belief in the scripture went hand in hand with genuine belief in the supernatural.
Many folk genuinely believed that it was the end times: signs and portents and omens were widely reported in pamphlets:
“Have there not been strange Comets seen in the air, prodigies, sights on the seas, marvellous tempests and storms on the land? Have not nature altered her course so much that woman framed of pure flesh and blood bringeth forth ugly and deformed monsters?”
On the 21st May 1646 a meteorite fell in a cornfield in Swaffham, Norfolk, setting it ablaze. Hailstones the size of pigeons eggs fell from the sky. Hysterics said it was judgement day. On the same day in Newmarket, Suffolk, a vision of three men fighting in the sky was seen suggesting war in the three kingdoms of England, Scotland & Ireland. The war between the Puritan Roundheads and the Royalists was interpreted widely as a war between Christ and the Devil. The civil war was punishment for the Nation’s sins.
The witch-hunts undertaken by Hopkins and aided by Stearne mainly took place in the Counties of Suffolk, Essex, Norfolk, Cambridgeshire and Huntingdonshire, and also beyond East Anglia in the counties of Northamptonshire and Bedfordshire. This is a large area of England. A lot of ground was covered. At times Hopkins and Stearne worked together, at other times they worked independently. They hunted for witches throughout the area of strongest Puritan and Parliamentarian influences which formed the powerful and influential Eastern Counties from 1644 to 1647.
In times of peace witch trials would take place at County Assizes, the accused would be tried by juries of strangers directed by professional judges. At this time of the Civil War the assize system in East Anglia collapsed. It was this judicial vacuum that Matthew Hopkins filled with a massive witch hunt. To undertake this and at such a scale, both Hopkins and Stearne would have required some form of letters of safe conduct to be able to travel throughout the counties. In fact, they were often invited to towns & villages to do their witchhunt.
Hopkins and Stearne, accompanied by the women who performed the pricking, watching and searching techniques were soon travelling over Eastern England, in demand from the puritan townsfolk eager to root out evil in their midst. Together with their female assistants, they were well paid for their work, and it is quite possible that the money itself was a motivating factor, although Hopkins states in his pamphlet ‘A Discovery Of Witchcraft’ that “his fees were to maintain his company with three horses”, and that he took “twenty shillings a town”. The records at Stowmarket show their costs to the town to have been £28 and three-pence, plus his travelling expenses – the usual daily wage at the time was sixpence. He used his apparent commission from Parliament to persuade the local community to levy a special tax.
In Suffolk, Hopkins discovered that the church minister of Brandeston, John Lowes an old man of seventy ‘was naught but a foul witch’. It appears that Lowes had been a quarrelsome old man and was sorely disliked by many in his parish. At first he stoutly denied his guilt, but a confession was gained when he was subjected to Hopkins’s most approved method of using his watchers who,
“kept him awake several nights together while running him backwards and forwards about his cell until out of breath. After a brief rest, they then ran him again. And thus they did for several days and nights together, till he was weary of his life and scarce sensible of what he said or did”. It was in this state of mind that Lowes finally confessed, “he had covenanted with the devil, suckled ‘familiars’, being Tom, Flo, Bess and Mary, for five years, and had bewitched cattle. He had also caused a ship to sink off Harwich with the loss of fourteen lives”.
As well documented as this infamous trial at Bury St. Edmond was, it is also perhaps, the best illustration of just how the prejudice and hysteria against witches during those times, affected even the High Court’s and justices of the land. No record or suggestion was ever made to check whether a ship had floundered off Harwich.
A later pamphlet by Stearne stated that Lowes “was joyfull to see what power his imps had”. Lowes later retracted his confession, but this didn’t save him, and since he was not allowed a clergyman to read the burial service for him, he recited it himself on his way to the scaffold at Bury St Edmunds on the 27th August 1645.
After the Bury St. Edmond witch trials, people began to question the alleged commission from Parliament. The Moderate Intelligencer, a parliamentary paper published during the English Civil War expressed, in an editorial of 11th September 1645, unease with the affairs in Bury. A special judicial commission was formed, the “Commission of Oyer and Terminer”. Its task was to deal specifically with the backlog of witchcraft trials in eastern England, and Hopkins was ordered to stop his Swimming activities. This apart, witch trials now began in earnest and such was the state of witchcraft hysteria in the Eastern Counties, another 18 were tried in quick succession and hanged. No sooner had these sessions began, than they were quickly abandoned because the Royalist forces of the rebellion were approaching Bedford and Cambridge. When, however, they eventually restarted, another fifty witches were executed.
With his career as the Witch-Finder General firmly established, Hopkins and his faithful band of assistants, travelled at break-neck speed throughout the Region to urge on these trials with fatal rapidity. By the 26th of July 1646 he was in Norfolk where another twenty witches met their fate. In September he was in Yarmouth by special demand of the authorities, and was recalled there again in December – it is not known how many died there as a result of Hopkins’s two visits. He also visited Ipswich and shortly after Aldeburgh before moving on to Stowmarket. Along the way he also stopped at King’s Lynn and many other small towns and villages, but wherever they went fear and apprehension followed.
However, time was running out for Hopkins, as he overextended himself with his zeal and possible greed. Toward the end of 1946, the tide began to turn against him. At a time when most people feared him, criticism was launched against him by the courageous efforts of an old country parson, “John Gaule” the Vicar of Great Staughton in Huntingdonshire. Hearing that Hopkins was preparing to visit his part of the country, Gaule preached openly against him from the pulpit and started collecting evidence of his excessive methods and use of torture. Gaule published his findings and his condemnation of Hopkins in a book called “Select Cases of Conscience Touching Witches and Witchcraft” (London, 1646). The book was well written and convincing, and public opinion was aroused against the abuses it exposed:
“Every old woman with a wrinkled face, a furrowed brow, a hairy lip, a robber tooth, a squint eye, a squeaking voice or scolding tongue, having a rugged coat on her back, a skull cap on her head, a spindle in her hand & a dog or cat by her side, is not only suspect but pronounced for a witch”
By the end of 1646 Hopkins’s credibility and activities were petering out. In Norfolk, Hopkins was questioned by Justices of the Assizes, about the torturing and fees. Hopkins was asked if methods of investigation did not make the finders themselves witches, and if with all his knowledge did he not also have a secret, or had used “unlawful courses of torture”. It was rumoured that Matthew Hopkins had ‘The Devils Book’, a directory of all the witches in England. Then, in early 1647, Matthew Hopkins parted company with his faithful assistants and retired back to Manningtree where his infamous career had started. There, he published his book “The Discovery Of Witches” in May of that year, which was a rebuttal of the enquiries he had been subjected to in Norfolk.
Matthew Hopkins died on August 11th 1647 from suspected Tuberculosis. Histories which say that he was lynched or swum are likely to be wide of the mark as far as accuracy is concerned. In life, he brought fear, suffering, pain and death to many, and it can only be hoped that when he faced his own inevitable end, he felt at least some small remorse for what he had done – However, was it maybe the case that his religious mania comforted him as he passed away in his own comfortable bed; a comfort and place that was denied to his poor victims.
The Real Matthew Hopkins, Witchfinder General
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