History has made Matthew Hopkins something of a boogeyman.
Helped by folktales, books, TV shows and films, most famously the 1968 Witchfinder General starring Vincent Price, the figure of this self-appointed inquisitor has, ironically, taken on almost supernatural qualities as a symbol of evil and inhumanity.
Hopkins – along with hundreds of magistrates, Justices of the Peace, local lords, lawyers, and clerics over 400 years – used torture, coersion, and hearsay tosecure convictions that may have been legal at the time (though it’s questionable whether Hopkins operated with any legal or civil authority whatsoever) but which nonetheless resulted in the deaths of hundreds of innocent women and men.
This dark, heady mix of superstition, fear, greed, and plain old sexism is a lamentable part of our national history, so why do we remained so intrigued, even fascinated, by the witch trials and witch-finders of the 17th Century?
In addition to the schlocky horror of Witchfinder General, Arthur Miller’s seminal 1953 play, The Crucible – which portrayed the infamous witch trials in Salem, Massachusetts, in 1692/3 – bears some part in the public awareness of the witch trials that took place in England and its North American colonies in the 17th Century. Long a staple of school curriculums, with its bold allegory and stark staging The Crucible has helped form many people’s perceptions of such prosecutions as morally and ethically unfair and abhorrent, a consequence of small-town animosity and superstition.
For many people, the witch-finder is an enduring symbol of the archaic past – cruel, illogical, fanatical. With their tall hats and black clothes they practically become panto villains. In Witch Hunt: The Persecution of Witches in England, researchers David and Andrew Pickering say that although witchcraft accusation accounts for a fraction of the punishments meted out by the courts in the period “this crime has received the most attention both because of our enduring fascination with the supernatural, and also, when we see beyond the illusory magic, because of its apparent absurdity”. The moral absolutism of the witch trials – the poor, innocent victims against their tyrannical and bloodthirsty prosecutors – make them a safe bet for straightforward portrayals for a general audience and there are numerous tourist attractions that turn witch trials into entertainment, converting innocent victims into figures of ghoulish menace and their persecutors into black-clad near-demonic exterminators.
There is also the allure of corrupted power and sex. There was such a deep and abiding fear of sex in the 17th Century that witches become a kind of allegory for female sexuality being suppressed by a misogynistic make power, and it’s easy to see the repressed sexuality inherent in many of the convictions: one of England’s later trials took place in 1716 and involved Mary Hickes and her nine-year-old daughter Elizabeth, who were hanged in Huntingdon for merely taking off their stockings “in order to raise a rainstorm”. And in 1645, a widow named Mary Bush confessed to witch-finder John Stearne:
[T]he Devil appeared to her in the shape of a young black man, Winding, by her bed side, which spoke to her with a hollow voice, and came into bed to her, and had the use of her body, and asked her to deny God and Christ…she said he was colder then [sic] man, and heavier, and could not perform nature as man, and that soon after she had consented to the Covenant and given her blood, there came two things more like mice, which used to suck her about twice a week.
In The English Civil War: A People’s History, Diane Purkiss says the witch is “not solely or simply the creation of patriarchy” – but that women also “invested heavily in the figure as a fantasy which allowed them to express and manage otherwise unspeakable fears and desires”. When frightened and under duress, accused women would offer narratives about demonic sex, their vernacular language of sin wrapped up in sexuality, and it is plain that many ‘confessions’ were little more than women relating difficult, socially-unacceptable, or traumatic experiences. Add into this our perception of the Puritans as dour anti-fun killjoys who suppressed a more traditional, pseudo-pagan, pre-Reformation ‘Merry Old England’ replete with endless drinking, dancing and courtship, and it’s easy to see why the witch-finder has become an enduring symbol of destructive male power.
The fascination with the witch-finders long outlasted them – even by the time of Hopkins and Stearne, the number of witch trials was declining and Puritan preachers such as John Gaul actively campaigned against them as a relic of superstition and England’s Roman Catholic past. The disruption of the English Civil War had provided an opportunity for self-advancement by presenting oneself as an authority – and Hopkins profited handsomely from his activities – but increasingly over the 17th Century evidence was being received skeptically and the witchfinders were not tolerated for long. The historian Mike Stuchbery recently said on Twitter that he doesn’t see Hopkins “as a boogeyman” but rather “just a man who took the opportunity presented by fear, anxiety & chaos to benefit himself. I’m sure he believed, on some level, in witches – I just think he saw it also as a path to fame and riches. More parasite than mad prophet”.
So why are we still fascinated by witch trials and witch-finders? A stark, alluring figure, brimming with pent-up sexuality and righteous fury, the witch-finder is a symbol of a past we believe we have now left behind, a past of repression, fear, and superstition. Our enduring interest in them helps, in a way, to assure us that we are thoroughly modern, rational individuals who would not succumb to such outdated ways of thinking. However, the world is still full of men like Matthew Hopkins – opportunists only too willing to sacrifice others in their pursuit of riches and glory.