On Friday 26th October, we are taking the Ashmolean Museum back to a dark period of English history as we conduct a 17th Century witch trial as part of the critically-acclaimed Spellbound exhibition. As we prepare to reveal how women were forced to confess to using witchcraft, we take a look at the most famous witch-finder of them all: Matthew Hopkins…
History has made Matthew Hopkins something of a boogeyman.
Helped in no small part by folktales, books, TV shows and films, including the 1968 Witchfinder General starring Vincent Price, he has become a symbol of the archaic past, of the madness of religious zealotry and of superstition.
But who was Matthew Hopkins, more commonly known as the ‘Witchfinder General’?
The early 17th century was a time of great anxiety about witches. King James I/VI, a man already obsessed with witchcraft, published a book called Daemonologie in 1597 that supposedly outlined a witches’ aims and methods, as well as the means to detect them. The wholesale persecution of witches in Scotland began in 1590 under James’ rule after 300 witches were accused of gathering to plot his murder – with his morbid fear of violent death, James suddenly developed a very keen interest in demonology and witchcraft which he brought with him to England, though as threats to his reign lessened, so too did his hardline stance.
Also key to fears about witches was what happened in the 1630s and ’40s – Scotland, Ireland, and then England and Wales were engulfed by the political, economic and social chaos of the Wars of the Three Kingdoms in the British Isles. Communities that had never known war were suddenly thrust into the front line in a confusing and unsettling conflict that appeared to turn the world on its head. This chaotic, divided, fearful time
Matthew Hopkins was born around 1620 in a relatively small village in Suffolk, where his family owned land. Little is known about his upbringing or his aspirations – although he might have been a lawyer and even spent time in the Netherlands. Contemporary engravings of him show him dressed in smart, sober but fashionable clothing, giving him the air of a magistrate, lawyer, or alderman – but he was none of these things.
He first appears in records around 1644 when an associate, John Stearne, accused a group of women in Manningtree, Essex, of trying to kill him with sorcery. Hopkins enthusiastically joined in with the ‘investigations’, that involved subjecting the accused to sleep deprivation and searches of their bodies by women known as ‘searchers’ or ‘seekers’, looking for a physical deformity or blemish which could be called a ‘Devil’s Mark’.
Thirty-six local women were eventually charged with witchcraft, their names given either under ‘confession’ or by townsfolk accusing others. Following a trial overseen by the Earl of Warwick, 19 of these women were hanged in July 1645.
The next month, the largest witch trial in English history was held at Bury St Edmunds in Suffolk where 18 – 16 women and two men – were hanged on evidence supplied by Hopkins and Stearne. Around a hundred more accused lingered in filthy conditions in prison, with some undoubtedly succumbing to disease and the elements.
Buoyed by their success, Hopkins and Stearne began to travel around eastern England – Essex, Suffolk, Norfolk, Cambridgeshire, Bedfordshire and Huntingdonshire as self-appointed ‘witchfinders’. They were aided by their ‘prickers’, women who searched the bodies of the accused for Devil’s Marks, extra nipples at which a witch’s ‘familiar'(animals with names and personalities, sent by the devil, who would do the witch’s bidding) suckled. Such marks would sometimes be ‘pricked’ to see if the victim showed any pain. Hopkins is believed that have used prickers with retractable points to feign insensitivity in his victims.
Despite most of it being technically illegal, Hopkins and Stearne used a number of ‘tests’ – essentially torture – to ascertain whether a woman was a witch, all based on contemporary superstition. This involved ‘walking’ a woman to exhaustion before questioning, making the accused stand or sit in a room without food or water and ‘watching’ them for hours, and the infamous ‘ducking’ or ‘swimming’ in a stream or river, where the accused would be bound, tied to men on each bank, and thrown into water to see whether see sank or floated.
As hysteria grew, Hopkins spent 1646 conducting his witch hunts, demanding a healthy sun in return – it was reported that Ipswich in Suffolk had to raise taxes to pay for his ‘services’. Both he and Stearne claimed to have a license to seek witches and some contemporaries believed that Parliament, or at least one of its representatives, had granted Hopkins a commission ‘to discover witches’. But there is no evidence he wielded the same kind of authority as William Dowsing, the ‘Iconoclast General’ who held a commission from the Parliamentarian general the Earl of Manchester. At the very least they would have had letters of safe conduct (wandering the countryside without cause during a civil war could prove to be a lethal activity) Hopkins and Stearne also operated bylocal knowledge and by invitation.
Various sources claim that between 200 and 300 people were executed as the result of Hopkins and Stearne’s activities but they stopped when attention began to mount regarding their motivations, expertise, and authority. The Puritan cleric John Gaule clashed with, and preached against, Hopkins and his book, Select Cases of Conscience touching Witches and Witchcraft, exposed the self-appointed witch-finder’s methods. Gaule’s campaign worked and in 1647, at the postponed Norfolk Assizes, a group of gentlemen influenced by his writings produced a series of probing question for Hopkins which claimed he used “unlawfull courses of torture to make them say any thing for ease and quiet?” that was “an abominable, inhumane and unmercifull tryall of those poore creatures, by tying them, and heaving them into the water; a tryall not allowable by Law or conscience”.
Hopkins retired to Manningtree, where he wrote the self-justifying book, A Discovery of Witches, which tried to rebuff Gaule by detailing his methods and recounting his hunts. Aided by the explosion in demand for the printed word, the book became a minor sensation and not only helped lead to his enduring reputation but undoubtedly influenced the Salem Witch Trials that occurred decades later in Massachusetts.
By and large, the jig was up – the political climate was changing as the nature of the Civil War changed and witch trials became fewer in number (though there were further persecutions yet to come later in the century). Hopkins, too, was fading – he died a young man in 1647, most probably from tuberculosis. He was buried in the village churchyard of Mistley Heath in which is now an unmarked grave. A legend that he was swum and hanged as a witch himself was false, even if it would have been a fitting end.
The witch trials in East Anglia in the 1640s remain one of the most remembered and evocative ‘witch scares’ from history and we’ll examine the reasons why we so remember Hopkin and Stearne’s reign of terror in a future blog post…
Gilbert Geis and Ivan Bunn: A Trial of Witches: A Seventeenth-century Witchcraft Prosecution
Malcolm Gaskill: Witchfinders: A Seventeenth-Century English Tragedy
Malcolm Gaskill: Witchcraft: A Very Short Introduction