He is a man that doth disclaime that ever he detected a witch, or said, Thou art a witch; only after her tryall by search, and their owne confessions, he as others may judge.
Matthew Hopkins is believed to have been responsible for the killing of around 300 women between the years 1644 and 1646. Many of these women were accused of witchcraft by children. They were convicted on 'evidence' such as 'third nipples' considered to be a witches mark; any strange boil, scar or birthmark seen as the devil's mark, a 'dead spot' that wouldn't cause pain or bleed when pricked; or even owning a cat (not necessarily black) or other pet. Some now believe that these 'witches marks' were tumours or other similar growths, as boils (which are often assumed to be the most likely candidates) would have been quite common at the time.
They are most commonly insensible, and feele neither pin, needle, aule, &c. thrust through them.
The numbers may not seem high today, but in those days, that was a huge amount. Local magistrates would pay Hopkins up to 20 shillings for each 'witch' he uncovered who was then found guilty of witchcraft - the daily wage at the time was around 2 1/2p. He often boasted that he held the 'Devil's list of all English witches'. He had two assistants, John Stearne and Mary Phillips, who would assist in the 'questioning'.
The Problem Of Witches
Witchfinders became popular due to the Witchcraft Act of 1563, which made it illegal to be a witch. This was more widespread in Scotland at the time, many more women were persecuted as witches there than in England. It only became considered a serious crime in the reign of James I (1603-1625), when the law was changed to the Witchcraft Statute of 1604.
Matthew Hopkins was never in the direct employ of Parliament. He had appointed himself Witchfinder General and used the turmoil of the English Civil War to his advantage, allowing him to run roughshod over East Anglia without any challenge from any lawful authority.
Popular to contrary belief, witches in England were not burned at the stake. The punishment was death - by hanging. They were also not tried for heresy, as they were in other European countries, but maleficium - evil deed directed at the victim by the power of Satan.
Witches were believed to fornicate with the devil, kill babies, drink blood, desecrate the cross and conjure demons. Many people blamed any misfortune on witches.
The Man Himself
Hopkins is a man of mystery - barely any documentation exists to prove that he was ever born, or even died. He is believed to have died and been buried in Mistley in 1647, whether the victim of retribution on behalf of the women he murdered, or through natural causes is unknown. The most popular version of events states that Hopkins was eventually put to his own methods by an angry mob, but many historians think he retired with his ill-gotten gains and eventually died of 'consumption' (tuberculosis). He is believed to have been the son of a Puritan minister from Great Wenham. He became a solicitor, but attempts to start up a practice failed twice. He was drawn to his new trade after overhearing women discussing their meetings with the devil.
Unearthing The Witches
His methods were mainly bloodless, as torture was illegal, and this was his way of 'getting round' the law. In modern times, all the methods that Hopkins used would be considered to be torture. Sleep deprivation, making the victim walk or run up and down without rest and 'pricking' the skin led to a great deal of distress to innocent women, most of whom were elderly and made the mistake of owning pets that Hopkins considered to be 'familiars' who would feed on blood from the 'third nipple'.
Prisoners would often be kept in cold, windowless cells and made to sit on uncomfortable wooden stools1. If the prisoner was seen to doze off, they would be 'Walked', literally frogmarched around the cell, until they had woken up again. Although never confirmed, one of the rumoured methods used to cause confusion was greeting prisoners with a 'good morning' or 'good afternoon' at random times of day, especially if they had just awoken. Pricking the skin consisted of Hopkins and his accomplices using retractable knives to poke the women, causing them to voice their pain. The blade was withdrawn into the hilt to enable him to poke an area, causing no noise and no blood to spill from the victim. He also used solitary confinement, cross legged binding and starvation - none of these was considered torture under the law, but they still made women confess to crimes they did not commit. Women were tied up - left thumb to right toe, and right toe to left thumb, and thrown into water. The idea was that if the accused floated, she had been saved by her master, the devil, and so was guilty for rejecting the baptismal water. If she sank and drowned, she was innocent, but at least she died without a stain on her character. In order to aid buoyancy the 'witches' would often be dressed in loose fitting shifts, which would form air pockets around the prisoner’s body when she was thrown into the water. The natural urge to gasp in a lungful of air would also have made victims more buoyant.
Witches deny their baptisme when they Covenant with the Devill, water being the sole element thereof, and therefore saith he, when they be heaved into the water, the water refuseth to receive them into her bosome
He carried out his interrogations mainly at inns in Manningtree and Mistley2, with trials being held at Chelmsford assizes. Trials were a mockery; East Anglia was known as the 'Witch Country' due to the hysteria of the people. Courtrooms were noisy, chaotic places, often making it impossible to hear the charges, let alone the testimony.
His first victim was Elizabeth Clarke of Manningtree; evidence she gave under torture led him to another five women. To save her own life, one of them led Hopkins to more victims, creating a total of 32. Clarke was a widow, as many of his victims were. With no man beside them for protection, widows were easy targets. Hopkins gave his evidence at Colchester Castle, and the trial took place at Chelmsford. In all, 28 women were convicted at that trial. Four died in gaol and the rest were hanged.
After his first success, Hopkins began touring East Anglia in an effort to unmask the area's witches. His record was 19 witches hanged in one day. He moved into Suffolk after Elizabeth Clarke's trial, as a result of things he had heard during her interrogation at Manningtree. He was searching for Mother Hovey, and began to look at her birthplace in Hadleigh. Nothing came of that search, but undeterred, he carried on. He would let it be known that he was approaching an area, and would then charge a fee for a consultation and initial survey, as well as his charge for each conviction. How many magistrates and judges let him do his work unmolested, for fear that perhaps his eye would fall upon them? There was no legal counterargument against a charge of witchcraft.
He didn't only persecute women - one of his victims was an 80-year-old vicar. John Lowes had held his position in the village of Brandeston in Suffolk for 50 years. Considered to be cantankerous and eccentric, the villagers wanted a new vicar. In reality, he was simply a Catholic who preached that way, instead of the Puritan way, and an old man set in his ways. His parishioners had previously tried to make witchcraft charges stick. On the first attempt to remove him from the vicarage, he took the side of one woman in a quarrel, Ann Anson. Unfortunately she ended up convicted of witchcraft and hanged. After this, attempts were made to make the charges of witchcraft stick to Lowes himself, but none were successful. The parishioners approached Hopkins, who took him in for questioning. Eventually, he was tried and convicted after Hopkins usual methods had succeeded, and he was hanged.
Matthew Hopkins was accused of being in league with the Devil which was why he was able to spot witches; his pamphlet 'The Discovery of Witches' was written as a reaction to this. It was published in London in 1647.
Hopkins carried on his trade for 18 months, putting to death more women than all of the other witchfinders put together.
His memory inspired at least one film, Witchfinder General (1968), known in the US as Edgar Allan Poe's 'Conqueror Worm'. The film actually has nothing to do with the poem; the American distributors changed the title because Vincent Price was doing a series of Poe-inspired films at the time and they wanted to release it as part of the series.
More 'witches' were hanged in Essex than any other English county.
Sadly, even after Hopkins had left the scene, the witch-hunts and hysteria continued for over 40 years in East Anglia, although not in the same organised way. The last woman to be convicted and hanged for witchcraft in England was a woman named Alice Holland in Exeter in 1684.
The Museum of Witchcraft at Boscastle holds two black and white reproduction images of Hopkins.