We dig up the life and times of Matthew Hopkins, the self-proclaimed Witchfinder General. A man that, in just 2 years, was responsible for around 60% of all witch trials in England spanning 3 centuries. He hailed from a Puritan, East Anglian background, an area of England that would later see heavy emigration to America and a people that would carry their beliefs into the Salem Witch Trials.
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Matthew Hopkins: The Witchfinder General
In the 1600s there were many ways to make a living. Job titles were as diverse as today. Agricultural professions thrived in the rural areas, skilled craftsman were plenty with every town and hamlet boasting blacksmiths, gunsmiths, tailors and weavers. At the top end of society, clerks, lawyers, wig makers and doctors paraded themselves boldly through the cobbled streets.
Matthew Hopkins chose a slightly different path. Bestowing upon himself the job title of “Witchfinder General”, his was a short career spanning just two years, however what it lacked in longevity, it made up for in results. This is Dark Histories, where the facts are worse than fiction.
Political & Religious atmosphere of the time
The 17th Century was a turbulent period of great upheaval. The thirty year war raged across mainland Europe, devastating communities who were gripped by famine, sickness and fear. On the shores of England, society crumbled and further broke down with the outbreak of Civil War in 1642 that lasted until the beginning of the next decade and led to an almost complete collapse of traditional authority throughout the land. The wars in England were revolutionary in nature with both nationalism and religion as driving forces. The people were not only concerned with how the country was to be governed, pitting Royalists against parliamentarians, but also how their religion was to be controlled. Catholics struggled to maintain their grip whilst protestant uprisings, driven by a core of Puritans fought for a simpler form of worship. The devastating, drawn out and complicated years of turmoil created a vacuum at the heart of society as traditional hierarchies, cornerstones across communities and most importantly for today’s tale, legal systems crumbled.
Within this vacuum, a dark cloud of fear bred, feeding on a devoutly religious and deeply superstitious population who felt increasingly isolated. Royalist figures, such as Prince Rupert of the Rhine, who had gained notoriety through rumour and hearsay for their warring ruthlessness were charicutured into demonic forces and as the imagery persisted, so to the superstitions grew. Communities, looking for protection and finding none from traditional authorities, instead turned inwards, seeking new answers in old thinking to timeless problems.
Throughout European history, superstitious fear had long held a grasp over societies and culture, often when traditional structures broke down in times of strife. As established, the 17th Century was no stranger to strife and as such, a devoutly religious population began looking back at these old traditions steeped in folklore, seeking to find a comprehendable answer for complex problems. Sickness, poor crop yields and family losses were often blamed on outside forces and were often demonic or supernatural in nature. As far back as the late 10th Century saw an unnamed woman and her son drowned at London bridge for falling under suspicion of witchcraft. Over the next 300 years, sporadic hangings and drownings were undertaken in the name of Heresy throughout Britain for misdemeanors as diverse as necromancy, stigmata and at times, straight murder, which whilst grotesque, as in the case of a Jewish murderer who wrapped one of his victims in a second victims skin in the 13th Century, had little to no supernatural leanings.
The 14th and 15th Centuries saw a slow ramping up of trials for heresy, which slowly evolved into a complicated hierarchical categorisation in law, one such category being the use of demonic sorcery, eventually spawning the Witchcraft Act in 1542, outlining the act of Witchcraft by name as a felony, punishable by death. This act forbade the use of witchcraft to:
“use devise practise or exercise, or cause to be devysed practised or exercised, any Invovacons or cojuracons of Sprites witchecraftes enchauntementes or sorceries to thentent to fynde money or treasure or to waste consume or destroy any persone in his bodie membres, or to pvoke [provoke] any persone to unlawfull love, or for any other unlawfull intente or purpose”
In 1563, a second witchcraft act named “An act against conjurations, enchantments and witchcrafts” passed in England, which promised to put to death anyone who used magic to:
“use, practise, or exercise any Witchcraft, Enchantment, Charm, or Sorcery, whereby any person shall happen to be killed or destroyed.”
In many respects it was actually more lenient on the accused, only punishing witchcraft with a death sentence when it caused death or harm to a third party. For everyone else, a years imprisonment was deemed punishment enough.
With the need for the law to highlight such misdemeanors and lay out punishments in writing, one can assume that the act of witchcraft itself was rampant throughout Britain, at least in the minds of the devout. It was, in fact, less so in Britain than in mainland Europe, though the lore was still strong and seeded the mind with enough common belief that in 1590, even the King himself fell foul to what he labelled as witchcraft in a tale that was never questioned as a fiction. The now famous story follows King James VI as he voyaged across the sea to Copenhagen in order to marry Princess Anne of Denmark. On their return to Scotland, the ship suffered violent storms, enough to force the Captain to dock in Norway for several weeks whilst they passed. The escorting fleets Admiral naturally blamed the storms on witchcraft and back in Denmark, several people were found guilty, after confession, of causing the storm using witchcraft along with casting out Imps to climb aboard the King’s ship. When King James caught wind of the trials, back home in Scotland, he too ordered a trial to begin, later to become known as the “North Berwick Witch trials”. They were the first of their kind in Scotland and saw over one hundred accused, imprisoned and tortured, leading to many confessions. King James then went on to write “Demanlogie” in 1597, detailing extensively procedures and justifications for persecuting witchcraft from a Christian perspective.
In 1604, the witchcraft act was amended once again, this time it remained, for the most part unchanged, however it was broadened to include the commune of a person with a demonic familiar, or invocation of evil spirits. The act of 1604 might seem like only a slight change, however, by broadening the criteria for a successful conviction in this way, a witch no longer had to be caught, and more importantly proven, to be causing harm to another with sorcery. A simple confession of commune with a demonic familiar or demon itself was from this point onwards, enough evidence for the party to be found guilty.
Eight years later, in 1612, the pendle witches, 9 women and 2 men were held to trial under accusations of murder by witchcraft, witchcraft to cause harm to animals, witchcraft to cause sickness, cannibalism and child murder. Of the eleven who were to stand trial, nine were found guilty and sentenced to hanging, one was found not guilty and one died in prison whilst awaiting trial.
Pendle was infamous and though at the time, it caused fear, this gave way in time to satire, dramatisations and eventually even comic caricature. This was a mood that would sharply change as the wars raged and society broke down in the hamlets and towns around England however, and the Pendle trials would plant violent seeds that would help lay the groundwork for what was to become the most brutal series of witch trials in European history, all of which would be headed by just one man, aided by an amended Witchcraft Act that very much played to his carefully crafted MO, Matthew Hopkins, the self-proclaimed Witchfinder General.
Matthew Hopkins early life is one steeped in obscurity and myth. Whilst there are no surviving documents concerning the man directly, there are enough periphery records that help us to flesh out who he was and divide the facts from the fiction.
Hopkins was born in Great Wenham, the county of Suffolk, England. He was the 4th of six children. His parents, James Hopkins and Marie Hopkins were both devoutly religious Puritans and his father worked as the minister for St. Johns church of great Wenham. In the will of one Daniel Wyles, dated 1619 is the following entry:
“James hopkins, preacher of the word of God at Great Wenham and to his wife, leaving 6s 8d each to their children, James, Thomas and John when able to read a chapter in the new testament, to buy a bible.”
From this we know that Matthew was not born by 1619, suggesting he would have been born in the following several years with most sources attributing his birth no later than 1620. His father’s will was also signed by the executor, a man by the name of Nathaniel bacon. Bacon was a hardline puritan, Anti-Catholic and held considerable power in the region, where he served in several political positions. His mother, Marie Hopkins was born to a Huguenot family who had left france in 1572, when 40 thousand Huguenots left france following the St. Bartholomew’s day Massacre and settled in East Anglia, the region of England encompassing Norfolk, Suffolk and Cambridgeshire. Suffolk itself was a Puritan stronghold and heavily backed the parliamentarians during the civil war
Hopkins educational records are equally sparse, though from his later writings, we know that he could both speak and write English and Latin with a degree of competency. Given that at the time, it was not at all unusual for local ministers to be appointed as Primary teachers as the role of education was annexed out to the churches, it would not be a stretch to assume he was home schooled, which would certainly account for the lack of records. Equally, as he grew older, it would not be untoward to assume he may have schooled for further education abroad somewhere on the European continent. Given his family’s ties with shipping interests in the area, as evidenced in his father’s will dated 1634, having some French or Flemish ties it would not have been unusual to seek higher education on the continent and would once again explain the lack of any formal educational records for Hopkins. This is further backed by his first known job as a Clerk for a shipping company, where the language and knowledge gained from Europe would certainly have helped greatly.
There are many legends that state Hopkins worked as a lawyer, mostly due to the manner in which he would later work as prosecutor during the witch trials he became so famous for, however, there is little hard evidence that he ever worked higher in the legal profession than that of Clerk. In fact, in a document titled “Notes and queries of 16th November, 1850”, a manuscript belonging to one W.S. Fitch of Ipswich refers to Matthew Hopkins as:
“A lawyer of but little note”.
Whilst this manuscript has never been found, in 1974, during his research efforts for his book “Matthew Hopkins: Witchfinder general” published in 1976, Richard Deacon put out an appeal for information regarding Hopkins early life. He received a letter from a man named Mr A. T. Percival, who claimed that:
“As a youth he worked as a clerk for a ship owner at Mistley and it was through this experience that he gained the chance later to buy some property in Mistley, which included an interest in the old Thorn Inn. I was always told by my Grandfather that the so called Fitch manuscript was really only part of several diaries compiled by W.S Fitch of Ipswich and that the item in the notes and queries was only partially correct. My Grandfather was a member of the Fitch family and he used to say that the phrase quoted in Notes and Queries was misleading. What Fitch had said was that Hopkins “Made little note in the law”, and not that he was a lawyer. I imagine he was something of a clerk today. The Fitch manuscript also made it clear that Hopkins received some of his education in Holland and that it was from the low countries that he obtained the idea of becoming a witch hunter.”
It is clear that the details of Matthew Hopkins upbringing are shrouded in obscurity, however from the previous, we can speculate to a degree whilst remaining true to the facts we do have. It seems fair to assume that his family would have been fairly well off and that he would have had a religious Puritan upbringing. It is also fair to say that he had some knowledge of the law, more than likely gleaned from working as a Clerk, though as an actual Lawyer seems a stretch to a certain degree and one might further assume that as a lawyer, he would almost certainly have left a greater paper trail. Lastly, we can say that it is more than likely he would have been aware of the witchcraft traditions of the area, which ran deep. Suffolk and Essex was the seventeenth Century version of a British Bible Belt, the same Puritan population had been the home of the pilgrims who set out for Massachusetts in 1620. Folk belief and religious devotion created a heady mix and In 1582, Brian Darcy had overseen the St Osyth Witch Trials. These trials were, up until Hopkins lifetime, the largest held in England and it seems unlikely to think that Hopkins would have had no knowledge of this local history.
As the mid-1640s drew in, the civil war raged. Traditional legal systems had broken down.The weather was noticeably poor all round with wet summers and cold winters bringing sickness and poor food production, whilst inflation eroded wealth. These were all contributing factors that would open the door for fear to stretch its fingers out to every corner of the country. Matthew Hopkins was aged between 22 and 25 years old and he had a plan. The scene was set for him to embark on his most famous and peculiar of careers.
In 1644, Matthew Hopkins crossed paths with a man named John Stearne. Stearne was equally as puritanical as Hopkins, though as his elder, better read and more learned in the local folklore of witches and demonic influence. Stearne had discovered a small sect of witches in Manningtree, where Hopkins was residing. He later wrote an account of the discovery in his published pamphlet titled “Of the Discovery of Witches”. He detailed his first run in with witchcraft as such:
“The Discoverer never travelled far for it, but in March 1644 he had some seven or eight of that horrible sect of Witches living in the Towne where he lived, a Towne in Essex called Maningtree, with divers other adjacent Witches of other towns, who every six weeks in the night (being alwayes on the Friday night) had their meeting close by his house and had their severall solemne sacrifices there offered to the Devill, one of which this discoverer heard speaking to her Imps one night, and bid them goe to another Witch, who was thereupon apprehended, and searched, by women who had for many yeares knowne the Devills marks, and found to have three teats about her, which honest women have not”
The woman in the tale was Elizabeth Clarke, an old, poor widow with only one leg who lived in Manningtree. The main evidence, according to Hopkins were the three teats found on her body after she had been stripped and searched. These teats were known as “Devils Marks” and were used by witches, according to lore, to feed blood to a demonic familiar in exchange for evil deeds. Naturally, they were in most cases simple blemishes of the skin, scars, liver spots, warts or any number of skin ailments, however as long as they were out of place, they would be deemed as evidence enough. Elizabeth Clarke was placed in Jail and Hopkins and Stearne went about the business of coaxing a confession from her. It is here that the importance of the amendment to the Witchcraft Act in 1604 comes in to play. Hopkins and Stearne did not need to catch the accused in the act of any demonic activity, they simply needed a confession that they had, somehow or another communed with a demonic force, including an animal familiar.
Torture was an illegal practice in 1645, however, there were very few sympathisers with an accused witch, not least due to their initial unpopularity with the local population and besides, there was very little structured authority to uphold such laws anyway. This allowed Hopkins and Stearne to carry out several practices to aid in gaining a confession. They kept Elizabeth for four days and four nights in a jail cell, and carried out a practice they called “watching”, an innocent enough title, however the reality was far more sinister. Quite different from the passivity suggested, “watching” involved sitting the accused in a jail cell, watched by guards who would, when seeing signs of the accused falling asleep, stand them up and walk them back and forth in their cell until they were exhausted, before sitting them back down and then repeating whenever sleep threatened. Hopkins would later justify this treatment as necessary to find evidence of visitations from their familiars, which, according to his writings, often happened. The accused would also be starved and berated for the duration, accused of all manner of witchcraft and sorcery. A nod to a question of guilt was all that it took for the sleep deprived, emotionally distressed, starved and exhausted prisoner to be found guilty and thrown in prison to await their trial.
On the fourth night of such treatment, Elizabeth Clarke finally gave in, admitting guilt to communion with no less than five animal familiars, a white kitten by the name of Holt, a fat spaniel with no legs named Jarmara, a black rabbit named Sack and Sugar, Newes the Polecat and Vinegar Tom, a greyhound with the head of an Ox. These names were, according to the seemingly unimaginative Hopkins: “Names no mortal man could invent.” And with the admittance of guilt, Elizabeth Clarke was condemned to trial.
At the same time, she named five other witches from the village, Anne West and her Daughter Rebecca West, Anne Leech, Helen Clarke and Elizabeth Gooding. Clearly sorcery was an epidemic, Stearne and Hopkins switched roles, Stearne became his assistant and second in command and they added three more members to their crack squad, Mary Phillips, whose speciality lye in finding Devils Marks, Edward Parsley and Frances Mills. They set about Manningtree and the surrounding area interviewing over one hundred people accused in one manner or another of witchcraft and demonic communions. Of these one hundred, thirty two were eventually found guilty. Elemanzer, Pyewacket, Peck in the Crown and Grizzle Greedigut were just some of the recorded names of Animal Familiars found to have roamed in the small area, communing with this large volume of sorcerers in dark alleyways, or more than likely in the minds of the accusers and even in some cases, they were simply household pets. This mass rounding up of undesirables became known as the Chelmsford Trials and culminated on the 29th July, 1645 with 32 guilty, 29 of which were condemned to hanging. Only one, Elizabeth Gooding stood firm against Hopkins torture and never admitted any guilt.
It was time for Hopkins to take this show on the road, for there were communities that needed saving and money to be earnt. Hopkins gave himself the flamboyant and now infamous title of Witchfinder General and the crew worked on traditional methods of witch hunting that would cause a fine stir amongst the Hamlets and Towns across East Anglia. They reimagined a common practice from past trials named “swimming” and had the accused tied from thumb to their opposite big toe, they then tied a rope around their waist and with one man on one side of a body of water and a second on another, they “swam” the victim by dunking them in the water, those that sank were innocent and those that floated were accused of casting aside their baptism and so now, as they had repelled the lord, the water too repelled them, outing them as a witch. This practice was never used as evidence in a trial, it was simply a very public method of shaming a victim and at the same time promoting Hopkins services.
A second method used by Hopkins and one which was the speciality of Stearne was named “witch pricking” whereby the accused would be pricked by a sharp needle and if no blood surfaced or no pain was felt, then Stearne would proclaim to have hit a concealed Devils Mark. This was made all the easier, when using an instrument that was spring loaded, as Stearne was said to have used.
Hopkins and his crew worked tirelessly, rounding up large numbers of the accused from the local population. They aggravated local grievances, dug up long-standing gossip and were all too happy to lend an ear to a person with a grudge against their neighbour. Overwhelmingly, people with a modicum of wealth accused those poorer than themselves and who they felt had caused them some manner of local trouble. Marginalised groups made up the core of Hopkins “witches” with old women, widows, orphans, the poor and the homeless most often feeling the sharp stab, or perhaps blunted push, of Stearnes witch-pricker.
One may at this point judge Hopkins to be a violent man, driven by bloodlust. In reality however, he was something much worse. In the handful of cases when the accused passed Hopkins tests, all accusations were dropped immediately and simple death was not a driving force, for if a victim died during the tests and interrogations, hopkins risked the law turning upon himself and would equally lose money he otherwise would have gained from a successful guilty sentence. The heart that drove his scheme was one of a zealot who genuinely believed that what he was doing was correct in the eyes of God and of course, it paid handsomely too.
Hopkins rode through East Anglia, clearing towns of witches wherever he was invited. A keen marketer, hangings were often dispersed throughout the region, often under the guise of a certain hamlet being home to either an accuser or an animal familiar. In reality this had the knock on effect of working as a macabre form of promotion and these small towns queued up to pay him vast sums of money to clear out their witches.
By the 26th of July 1646 he was in Norfolk were another twenty witches met their fate.
In September he was in Yarmouth by special demand of the authorities where he was recalled again in December. He also visited Ipswich and shortly after Aldeburgh where he was paid £6 for his services, before moving on to Stowmarket where he charged £23. At a time when the average daily wage was 2.5 pence, these were extortionate sums.
Throughout his travels hitting larger towns, he also stopped in King’s Lynn where he charged £15 and many other small hamlets and villages. Wherever they went, fear and apprehension followed and the accusations rolled in.
He laterly justified the extortiante expense to the local populations in his pamphlet as such:
“He never went to any towne or place, but they rode, writ, or sent often for him, and were (for ought he knew) glad of him.”
This form of vigilante, travelling magistrate would not normally have flown and very few would have been “glad of him”, with strict rule of law and border controls in place, but in a time of civil war and when the local legal system had broken down, with the crown appointed officials ousted by the parliamentarians, Hopkins form of justice was indeed welcomed. This good feeling however, would not last forever.
Within the space of a few months, Hopkins had over 200 alleged witches awaiting trial locked up in jails throughout East Anglia. This in itself began to cause problems as it was not only costly, but difficult to manage at a time of war. Still, unconcerned with this, the crew maintained their high rate of accusations until the 27th of August, 1645, the date of the Bury St. Edmunds trials. These trials consisted of 18 locals rounded up by Hopkins and successfully tried for witchcraft. Around 120 more were jailed in a pair of barns requisitioned as a jail and there is evidence that many more died in these two barns whilst they awaited trial.
Perhaps unsurprisingly given the misogyny of the time, one of the most well documented cases undertaken by Hopkins during his siege of Bury St. Edmunds and perhaps the most important in his undoing, was of a male witch, Reverend John Lowes, an 80 year old minister. Whilst it is relatively unusual that it was the trial of a man and the vast majority of Hopkins witches were Female, it was not the gender of the victim that caused Hopkins reputation to suffer, but his social standing as a Reverend. Lowes was thought to have been something of a contentious character locally and many were keen to accuse him of witchcraft. He was subsequently found to have a teat on his head and two beneath his tongue and was “swam” in very public fashion in the moat of Framlingham Castle. Under interrogation, he admitted to having six imp familiars which he had ordered to sink a ship, killing fourteen men and though this admission was later retracted, it was to no avail and he was hanged along with the seventeen others found guilty.
John lowes was the first foray for Hopkins into what could well have been a politically motivated coupe and the public humiliation of Lowes did not go unseen. People began to express concern over the manner in which admissions were being withdrawn, along with the sheer volume of witches being rounded up and the treatment that Hopkins and Co. were dealing out towards those accused. Editorials in parliamentary papers were speaking out against his torturous actions and Hopkins was ordered to cease his “swimming” activities. Whereby before, Hopkins had boasted he had access to “the devils book” which, he told, documented every witch in England, he now began to distance himself from such rumours as they threatened to turn against him.
As 1646 began to draw to a close, The reverend John Gaule, a Puritan cleric of Great Staughton preached openly about Hopkins actions and even begun to associate Hopkins himself with demonic actions. He stood by Lowes as a Godly man and contested his innocence after his death. Gaule set about collecting evidence of Hopkins torture and used it as a centre point when he wrote and published a book named “Select Cases of Conscience Touching Witches and Witchcraft”. In this book, he questioned the existence of Imps and animal familiars, made distinctions between the good workings of a magician and the spells of a witch and scathingly, took Hopkins treatment of those accused to task. In the book, he wrote of the accused:
“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”
Public opinion at this point disintegrated for Hopkins at a rapid rate. He found that rather than saviour of the people, he was now being viewed as suspicious in his own right and condemned by the men of power throughout the region. Sensing a losing battle, he retired to Manningtree, cutting his losses and wrote his pamphlet, in which he attempts to justify many of his actions as “the Witchfinder general”.
In his short career as witch hunter, spanning less than two years, Hopkins was responsible for between 200 and 300 women trialed as a witch, making up 60% of all witch trials between the early 15th Century and the late 18th Century. In total more people were hanged by his hand than in the entire 100 years previous.
Hopkins life was as short as his career and despite modern legend that he was captured and hanged for witchcraft himself, the reality of his death was much simpler. He died on the 27th August, 1647, in his home in manningtree, Essex to Tuberculosis, aged at most 27 years old. He was buried in the graveyard of the church of St Mary at Mistley heath.
After his death, the perception of witchcraft and sorcery gradually changed and the trials slowly declined. In 1735, the witchcraft act was replaced by a further amendment which instead charged witchcraft as a form of con-artistry, and labeled offenders as practicing the pretense of witchcraft rather than witchcraft proper. This Act, amazingly stood in place in English law until 1951, when it was repealed and replaced with the fraudulent mediums Act, which itself was discarded in 2008 as consumer protection regulations took its place.
Hopkins existed in a time when there was a considerable vacuum in law enforcement. It was a time of great stress and fear among the populace and people looked to find answers to the common question of “why me?”. Crucially, it can be seen that the witches familiars were never seen to better the circumstances of the witch, only worsen the circumstances of their enemies. This point is telling in itself and when paired with the often outcast and downtrodden nature of the vast majority of the accused, it becomes apparent that personal grudges and puritanical beliefs were a driving force behind many accusations. It was on several levels a complex, perfect storm that allowed for a man like Hopkins to thrive. Montague Summers, English author and Clergyman held no punches when he wrote of Hopkins:
“He was an Orthodox Puritan of narrowest views, enough so far as his own pockets were concerned and his crusade up and down the Eastern counties, which created something like a reign of terror at the time, has caused his name to stink in the nostrils of all decent persons ever since.”