Witchfinder General

Britain of the mid-17th century was a very dangerous place indeed. The land was wracked by bloody civil war: a titanic struggle between the nobility and the professional classes, Catholics and Protestants, King Charles I squaring off against Oliver Cromwell and the forces of Parliament. Between the years of 1642 and 1651 the opposing factions turned Scotland into its battleground while England was primarily left to its own devices. The result was a state of anarchy, where nobody was safe.

Even in areas unaffected by direct military activity, the severity of the times and events carried tremendous weight – fear and economic upheaval are deadly, self-promoting friends, and in the countryside of England, sectarian fears (at the least) unleashed deadly men consumed with a dread focus – the rooting out of witches. It was against this backdrop that one of the most notorious figures in British history took the stage. Little is known about him. He simply appeared from the ether and then disappeared again; but for 18 months he was to initiate a reign of terror across much of south-east England. He was Matthew Hopkins, the man who carried with him the title of Witchfinder General.

Hopkins first made himself known in March of 1645, roaming the Counties of Suffolk, Norfolk and Essex. These areas were firmly under the control of Parliament and the Puritan remit ran unchallenged. The uncertainty, nervousness and anxiety that comes with war and the Puritan paranoia regarding Godlessness and Witchcraft, provided a fertile hunting ground for Hopkins. For the next year and a half he was responsible for the execution of some 300 suspected witches. A figure higher than all other cases of this nature combined for the previous 150 years.

Fears of witchcraft had waxed and waned across Europe, punctuated by panics and subsequent witch hunts, from the mid-15th century through to the 18th. The height of the hysteria between 1550-1650, ‘The Burning Times’, hit Europe the hardest where the Catholic Church was the weakest (Germany, Switzerland, France) and Reformation made its greatest impact. Britain was no exception, in the years after Henry VIII broke with Catholicism Scotland was second only to Germany in the burning of the accused.

The origins and early life of Matthew Hopkins are a complete mystery, no factual evidence about him has ever been uncovered, and no birth certificate, no educational records nor death certificate exist. Matthew Hopkins is known only through speculation and second hand sources. Some say he was the son of James Hopkins, a puritan clergyman with connections to the colony at Salem, Massachusetts and perhaps young Matthew spent his childhood in New England. Some theorize that he was a struggling lawyer as evidenced by his grasp of law during the trials he set in motion. What is known however is that instigated his first case against an old and infirm woman by the name of Elizabeth Clark in March 1645.

English law with regards to handling witchcraft cases differed from the rest of Europe. Torture was illegal and witches in England were not tried for heresy but for the act of maleficium, or evil deeds, and were not therefore liable to be burned at the stake but hung instead. So as not to leave incriminating evidence, Hopkins then devised subtle methods of torture while interrogating Clarke. Under his interrogation with the aid of John Stearne, by all accounts a thug with a penchant for cruelty, Clarke was stripped naked and searched for the “witches mark”. She “was found to have three teats about her, which honest women have not" (Here Hopkins had seized on a passage from King James’s Demonology as a means of detecting witches:  Witchcraft meant keeping imps and familiars.  “Witches suckled imps and familiars, not just to feed them, but more to aggravate a witches damnation”). Elizabeth was then kept without food or sleep for three consecutive nights, and on the forth night of her torture, she weakened and confessed to being a witch, at the same time accusing five other women of witchcraft.

Her confession alleged that she kept and nourished five familiars, Holt – a white kitten, Jarmara – a fat spaniel, Sack and Sugar – a black rabbit, Newes – a polecat and Vinegar Tom – a long legged greyhound with a head like an ox, broad eyes and a long tail.  According to Hopkins no less than eight people swore they had seen these familiars.  In the course of her interrogation the other witches she implicated as accomplices included:  Anne West and her daughter Rebecca, Anne Leech, Helen Clarke and Elizabeth Gooding.

As the investigation continued, Hopkins began rousing his neighbours to denounce others, and to cope with the growing demand for his services was forced to take on more assistants.  John Stearne became his second-in-command, Mary ‘Goody’ Phillips whose specialty was finding witch marks on the bodies of those accused then joined him, while Edward Parsley and Frances Mills made up the rest of the team.

Together they interviewed and interrogated over one hundred people, many of whom were quick to confess under interrogation, and further names of imps and familiars were revealed, names such as:  Elemanzer, Pyewacket, Peck in the Crown and Grizzel Greedigut, to which Hopkins commented:  "names that no mortal could invent".  The final number of those accused was thirty-two, with only Elizabeth Gooding refusing to acknowledge her guilt.  After being examination by local justices, all were remanded to the county sessions at Chelmsford.

During the subsequent trial Hopkins charged Elizabeth Clarke with ‘entertaining’ evil spirits, and on the 25th March 1645, gave the following deposition to the court:

“The said Elizabeth forthwith told this informant and one Master Stearne, there present, if they would stay and do the said Elizabeth no hurt, she would call one of her white imps and play with it on her lap.  But this informant told her they would not allow it.  And they staying there a while longer, the said Elizabeth confessed she had carnal copulation with the devil six or seven years; and he would appear to her three or four times a week at her bedside, and go to bed with her and lie with her half a night together, in the shape of a proper gentleman, with a laced band, having the whole proportion of a man.  And he would say to her, “Bessie, I must lie with thee”.  And she never did deny him”.

After the mish-mash of charges and counter charges, the trials of the accused were held at Chelmsford on the 29th of July 1645.  Robert Rich, the Earl of Warwick, a renowned and venomous Presbyterian was appointed as the presiding ‘President of the Court’.  In those troublesome times of rebellion the ordinary assizes had been suspended and special courts had to be set up to deal with the growing witch hysteria.  The Chelmsford trials resulted in 29 people being condemned and Hopkins later commented, "in our Hundred in Essex, 29 were condemned at once and 4 brought 25 miles to be hanged at where their Discoverer lives, this for sending the Devil like a Bear to kill him".  Ten of the accused were hanged at Chelmsford and the others were executed in various hamlets and villages throughout the locality, further adding to the witch hysteria.

During the Chelmsford trials Hopkins gained a great deal of glory and publicity, and was even expanding his operations into Suffolk.  After the success of the Chelmsford trials, Hopkins quickly became the sought after expert and charged extortionately for his services.   He declared himself the “Witch-Finder General” with an alleged special commission from Parliament to rid the country of witches.  Advertising openly he exploited the Puritans hatred of Devil worship and the villager’s fear of witchcraft, and what with the political turmoil of the Civil War, he had no shortage of business.

On one occasion using his pretended commission from Parliament, he directed the officials of Stowmarket in Suffolk, to levy a special tax on it’s citizens to pay his expenses and those of his assistants.  Records show that he extorted twenty-eight pounds and three pence from them, at a time when the prevailing wage of the day was only sixpence, but Hopkins defended his high fees arguing that ferreting out witches required great skill, and not a little courage when a witch was confronted.

His modus operandi was to turn gossip and innuendo into formal accusations of Witchcraft and Devil worship.  In this he was enormously successful, as most villages had at least one old hag rumoured to be a witch.  His victims however were mainly old, poor and the most feeble and defenseless members of the community, or those unpopular against whom others held grievances.  He also boasted that he possessed a “Devil’s List”, containing a coded list of all the witches in England.  He used this list to condemn the innocent, and then used torture to extract a confession from them. With his knowledge of the law, he was adept at using his evil ingenuity to disguise the use of torture as ‘interrogation’, and therefore stayed within the confines of the law.

He first would have his victims thrown into a isolated prison cell, stripped naked, beaten, starved and kept from sleep, while using the pain and humiliation psychologically against them.  If this didn’t work he would use his more brutal and favored technique, starting with “Pricking”.  Pricking was an excruciatingly painful ordeal to endure and involved the use of evil looking pins, needles and bodkins to pierce the skin looking for insensitive spots that didn’t bleed. If any were found they would then be interpreted as a mark of the Devil.  If none were found the victim was made to sit cross-legged on a table or stool, then bound in the posture with cords and left alone for up to 24 hours or until such time as the cramps and pain set in.  Naked and bare foot they would then be forced to walk up and down the cold stone floor of the cell without respite until their feet began to blister and bleed. Next would be the public spectacle of “Swimming” in which the accused was bound and thrown into water, if they floated they were deemed to be guilty.  The idea was based on the belief that as a witch rejected the water of baptism, so the element of water would reject them in turn, and they would float in an unnatural manner. Either guilty or innocent, of course, the accused witch was eliminated as a real or a potential emissary of Satan on Earth.

In a very short time people had come to fear Hopkins. Terror spread wherever he went, yet just as quickly as he appeared he was gone. Many historians claim he died on consumption in 1647 though there is no concrete evidence to support this. Another apocryphal tale claims that he himself was accused of witchcraft and “floated”…fitting end indeed.

Still…court records of the Salem trials decades hence list a ‘Matthew Hopkins’ involved in the proceedings…

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  1. zerodtkjoe
    Posted October 20, 2010 at 12:45 am | Permalink

    Thanks for the info

  2. Lizzie
    Posted December 10, 2011 at 2:21 am | Permalink

    I’ve been looking for this type of information for my research. Thanks

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