Matthew Hopkins is perhaps the most notorious name in the history of English witchcraft, more commonly he was known as “The Witch-Finder General”. Throughout his reign of terror 1645-1646, Hopkins acquired a feared and evil reputation as a ‘fingerman’ (informer), paid by local authorities to commit perjury. Together with his henchman and fellow ‘Witch-Pricker’ John Sterne, in just 14 months, Hopkins was responsible for the condemnations and executions of some 230 alleged witches, more than all the other witch-hunters that proliferated during the 160-year peak of the country’s witchcraft hysteria.
Montague Summers (1880-1948) a Catholic Priest devoutly against witchcraft, an eminent scholar of Trinity College Oxford, a prolific author who wrote extensively about the darker sides of witchcraft, demonology and vampirism, and who believed adamantly that witches were evil servants of the devil 'Satan' who throughout history deserved all the punishments they received, describes Matthew Hopkins as: “an orthodox Puritan of narrowest views, which were certainly adopted for convenience rather than from conviction, he was energetic 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”.
An early defender and critic against witchcraft was Samuel Butler (1612-1680), an English satirist. His most famous poem was 'Hudibras', published in three parts 1663, 1664 and 1678, and which immediately became popular for its biting satire against the Puritans. He wrote:
not this present Parl’ament
Lieger to the Devil sent,
impower’d to treat about
revolted Witches out?
has he not within a year
threescore of them in one Shire?
only for not being drown’d,
some for sitting above ground.
days and nights upon their Breeches,
feeling pain, were hang’d for Witches
And some for putting knavish Tricks
Upon green Geese or Turkey Chicks
Pigs that suddenly deceast
Of griefs unnatural, as he guess'd
after proved himself a Witch
And made a rod for his own Breech.
From Samuel Butler's - Hudibras (first published in 1663).
The origins and early life of Matthew Hopkins had for centuries been a complete mystery, no factual evidence about him had ever been uncovered, no birth certificate, no educational records and no death certificate existed. It was therefore only possible to trace his origins through the use of speculative association from other known sources and second-hand information. After nearly two centuries in obscurity new evidence about his death was found in Mistley, Essex. An entry in "Notes & Queries, 1st series, vol. 10, p. 283, 7th Oct 1854", stated that:
“In an ancient parish register belonging to the parish of Midley-cun-Manningtree, commencing in 1559 is the following entry”:
“Matthew Hopkins, son of Mr
James Hopkins, Minister of Wenham, was buried at Mistley, August 12th,
There is reason to believe that this was the noted Matthew Hopkins, Witch Finder General to the associated counties, who had frequently been mentioned by various writers. Sir Walter Scott says: “He was perhaps a native of Manningtree in Essex, at any rate he resided there in the year 1644, when an epidemic cry of witchcraft arose in that town”… It is not known that any writer has made any mention of Hopkins after 1647. The inference therefore is, that the particulars in that register refer to him”.
The actual register is now in a somewhat faded condition, and is held among the archives of the combined parishes of Manningtree and Mistley (not Midley, as stated above), and is kept by the Suffolk Records Office in Ipswich. The actual entry reads:
“1647 Aug 12 Matthew s M : James HOPKINGS, Minister of Wenham, buried at Mistley”.
Brief though this confirmation is, it also mentions his father, the first factual evidence ever found concerning the origins of Matthew Hopkins. From what we learn of his father James Hopkins, leads us to a clearer insight into the early life of the notorious Witch Finder General.
Hopkins senior turns out to have been a clergyman of the Church of England. The ‘Alumni Cantabrigienses, Pt. 1, vol. Ii, 1922, p. 405, Venn’ shows that James Hopkins was Vicar of Great Wenham in Suffolk from 1612, and that he died in 1634. However, the Great Wenham parish records are incomplete for the period he was incumbent, and its earliest burial records begin in 1665, so neither is his death recorded. What has been found is the Will of one of his parishioners: Daniel Wyles of Great Wenham dated 1619, which by association gives us a little insight into the man and his family. In his Will, Wyles made a bequest to:
“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 can speculate that James Hopkins and his wife were well liked and respected in the community, and had a young family of three boys not yet able or old enough to read the bible. As Matthew Hopkins is not mentioned in this Will, we can surmise that he may not yet have been born. We can also speculate that as the boys had been named after Apostles and Saints, that Matthew may have followed soon after, making his birth date somewhere around or after 1619.
Just before his death, James Hopkins wrote and left his own Will, which was approved in 1634. Listed in the: Farrow and Barton, Index of Wills proved in the Consistory Court of Norwich, 1604-1686, it is now lodged in the Norfolk Records Office. While this Will again makes no mention to Matthew by name, it does lead us to further insights and speculation about his early life:
I, James Hopkins, of Wenham Magna in the County of Suffolk, Clerke, being weake in body but of a perfect & good disposeing mynd & memorye, I thanke God, doe Make my laste Will & Testament in Manner ffollowinge. I first of all doe freely surrender My soule into the hands of Allmighty God, trustinge that (I) shalbe receved to Mercy onely through the Righteousness & Merritts of the Lorde Jesus Christ my Saviour & I yeald my body to the Earth to be buried accordinge & Where my Executrix shall thinke Moste Meete; & Wheereas I am seised to Mee & My heires of Certayne lands & tenements in fframlingham at the Castle in the County aforesayde I give & bequeath all My Sayde Lands, & Tenements, unto Marie My welbeloved Wife & her heires payeing and dischargeing the porcions ensueing bequeathed to my Children; that is to say payinge unto eache of my sixe Children severally when & so soone as they or eyther off them shall accomplishe the age of Two and twenty yeares the somme off One hundred Markes of Currant Money of England. Never the lesse as touchinge My sonne Thomas My Mynde & Will is that my Executrix shall as soone as she can finde opportunitie send him over the seaes to such our frinds in Newe England as she shall thinke fitt & that he shall theire abyde until hee shall accomplishe the sayd age of two and twenty yeeres & so soone as he shall have accomplished the sayd age, then I will that my Executrix shall paye him the sayd somme of one hundred Marks, deductinge therefromme the Chardge which shee shall disburse in sendinge him over the seaes, by the direction of My sayd Wife; & shall (he?) not alsoe stay there until he shall accomplishe the age aforesaid, then I will that he shall not have any benefit of this My said will Nor of the sayd One hundred Marks formerly bequeathed To him & furthermore if any of my sayd Children shall departe the(i)re present life before they severally shall accomplish theire ages of two and twenty yeeres as aforsayde then the porcion of such child or children soe dyeinge shalbe Equally devided betweene the surviveors of them at there severall ages aforesayde, Item I will that my Executrix shall paye unto My sistar Lane at Elye forty shillings yeerely duringe her life, & unto Anne Lane my servant twenty nobles. Item I give to my eldest James all my bookes, & all the Reste of my Goodes & Chattles I give them to Marie my lovinge Wife whom I doe make My sole Executrix for My last Will requireinge her to take advise of true Worthy frinds Mr John Gurden of Wenham aforesaid, & Mr Natthaniell Bacon & prayeinge them to give there beste furtherance and advice unto her in all diffculte matters, that doe or Maye concerne the Executing thereof. Lastlye I leave My children to the direction & government of my wife Requireinge them to yeeld unto her all dutiful respecte as they shall answere yt to God & also Requireinge her to looke to theire educacion accordinge to her beste skill that they may be brought up in the feare of God & in such honest callinge as shall best suite with their disposiciones & estates; & I doe declare this to be My last Will and Testament; hereby Revokeinge & adnullinge all former Wills or Wrightings in the Nature of Wills, or wrightings tendinge thereunto & in witness hereof I doe here adioyne My hand & seale this twentye five daye of December in the yeere of our Lorde God One thousand six hundred thyrte & fower in the presence of John Gurdon Roger London.
As can be seen, by the time of his death in 1634, the Hopkins family had grown to include six children. Being fairly well off and comfortable, they appear to have had close associations with various parts of East Anglia, owning lands and tenements throughout Norfolk, Suffolk and Essex, most especially around Ipswich and Framlingham, and the surrounding villages of Hadleigh, Great Leighs and Great Waldingfield. It is also interesting to note their association with: “our frinds in Newe England”, reference perhaps to the puritans who left England and settled in Salem, Massachusetts during 1626, and their decision to send their son Thomas out to join them. It would also indicate that the family had contacts and connections with shipping interests.
In September 1645, John Hopkins of Wenham (almost certainly James’ son) is described in parish records as being Presbyterian and was the appointed ‘Minister of South Fambridge’ in Essex. There is also an additional note from a year later in June 1646, stating that there had been complaints that John Hopkins had neglected his work and been replaced.
Again the parish records for both North and South Fambridge are incomplete but one reference indicates: “a list of eight subscribers to brief for French Protestants”. The area of Fambridge during this time had strong Puritan associations with many links to the French Huguenots. After the St Bartholomew’s day Massacre in France 1572, an estimated 40,000 Huguenot refugees left France for England, and many settled in this area of East Anglia. Marie Hopkins is thought to have come from Huguenot stock and provided the Puritan influence in the Hopkins family.
If we speculate as before, that Matthew Hopkins was born sometime around 1619, by the time of his father’s death, he would have been a young and impressionable teenager of around 15 years. Coming from a fairly well to do family, he would undoubtedly have gained considerable knowledge of this area of Essex, an area particularly steeped in the legends and traditions of witchcraft.
His education however, still remains in the realm of mystery and speculation. No records of his attending school in Essex have ever been found, nor did he go to any University. Yet we can surmise from his later life and writings, that he must have received an adequate education. He could read and write Latin as well as English, although his style was stilted and formal. He had clearly acquired some knowledge of maritime law having worked for a time as a clerk for a ship-owner at Mistley in Essex. We can also see from his later dealings during the Witchcraft Trails, that he had an extensive knowledge of the intricacies of the Witchcraft Act and laws against Witchcraft prevalent during those times, and used those laws adroitly to his own advantage.
How then did he gain his education? Again we can only speculate and his father’s Will gives some indication. Education to the masses during the early 1600’s would at best have been rudimentary. Most elementary schools of the times would have been annexed to the local church, and the appointed Vicar or Priest would have been its primary teacher. It seems fair to assume therefore that James Hopkins may have home tutored his own children. We need also consider that those of stature and wealth would undoubtedly have employed private tutors for the education of their children, before sending them off to higher education at colleges or university. As can be seen in his will, James Hopkins was obviously concerned about the education of his children, and so left their further education to his wife.
It seems probable therefore as no records of his education exists in this country, that Marie Hopkins may have sent Matthew to relatives on the continent to further his education? This would explain the scarcity of information about his early life, being due to the fact that for a period of his youth he was abroad. If indeed he was sent abroad and had gained some knowledge of Flemish or French, and given his families contacts within the shipping trade, this would have aided his chances of being articled to a ship-owner in Mistley on his return, conceivably involved with maritime law or insurance.
The first indication that he was back and resident in the U.K, is at best circumstantial, and comes from the much quoted reference made in an article posted in ‘Notes & Queries of 16th Nov, 1850’, which refers to a manuscript belonging to one ‘W.S. Fitch of Ipswich’. This supposedly gives an account of his residence in that town as: “a lawyer of but little note” and his removal to Manningtree. However this cannot be confirmed, as the original manuscript has never been found. While again we are in the realm of speculation, supplementary though second-hand information came to light in 1974, when the eminent author ‘Richard Deacon’ conducted a detailed research into Hopkins’ life (Published in 1976 by Fredrick Muller Ltd entitled “Matthew Hopkins: Witch Finder General”). Indeed it is from this book that I make much reference.
After advertising for information, Deacon received a letter from a ‘Mr A.T. Percival of Amersham, dated 4th June 1974. In it Mr Percival claims to be a descendant of W. S. Fitch, and states:
“Most sources have indicated that Manningtree was where Hopkins resided. In fact, though he may for a time have lived there, it was the adjacent village of Mistley where he carried out most of his activities and where he lived. As a youth he had 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 Notes & 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 & 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 the equivalent of a solicitor’s 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”.
While what he says is indeed secondhand and circumstantial, it goes a long way to support what little factual information we do have.
The first factual and physical evidence that he was back and resident in England was found in the Suffolk Record Office, there they have a conveyance for a tenement in Bramford, a small town located just outside Ipswich dated 1641, and which bears the signature of Matthew Hopkins as a witness. While this does not prove he was a lawyer, it does indicate that he was back and resident in this country, involved and working to some degree within the legal profession.
Again if we speculate that Hopkins was born sometime around 1619, in 1941 he would have been eligible to collect on the inheritance left to him by his father in 1634. It seems probable therefore that having resided for a time in Manningtree and worked for a ship-owner in Mistley, having accumulated some wealth he would then have prospected for property within the same area.
Most writings about Hopkins mention the Thorn Inn at Mistley as his place of residence, and from where he began his crusade against witches. While the later is most certainly true, the former cannot positively be proved. The present building only dates back to the eighteenth century, and while we know there has been an Inn on the same site for at least four hundred years, tracing ownership is almost impossible. In the Essex Record Office indexes, there are no references to the Thorn Inn earlier than 1750.
It is possible however, that he may have had some financial interest in the Thorn Inn and surrounding property, maybe not as the owner, but perhaps as a lessee or tenant. This seems to be implicated by a mention in ‘The Tendring Witchcraft Revelations’ (the title of an unpublished manuscript by C. S. Perryman dated 1725, which incorporates material compiled by “divers informers” in 1645, 1646, 1647 and 1648-50). In it is the mention that Matthew Hopkins: “set himselfe up at Mistley Thorn, from which place he embraced for his conspiracies and to which cam his manie informers againste the Witches and at the Thorn alsoe there cam such celebrated personnes as the Number One Argus, John Thurlowe and William Lilly, the astrological prophet and almanacker”.
From this we can see that Hopkins also used the Thorn Inn as the base from which to increase his influence among the countries celebrated and political elite. John Thurlowe it turns out was the son of Thomas Thurlowe, the rector of Abbess Roding in Essex. Being about the same age as Hopkins, he had studied law as a young man through which profession they may have made initial contact. At the time of their meetings in the Thorn Inn, and as the title of ‘Number One Argus’ would indicate, he had become Cromwell’s ‘Chief of Secret Service’. In 1645, Thurlowe was appointed one of the Secretaries to the Commissioners of Parliament at the Treaty of Uxbridge, and thus may well have become Hopkins’ link to other sources of Government in London.
William Lilly, by the time of the Thorn Inn meetings had become one the countries leading and most influential astrologers. He had contacts on both sides of the political ‘civil war’ divide, as well as prominent members of the countries aristocracy. The same source above indicates that Hopkins undoubtedly consulted with Lilly: “on various matters relating to shippes and cargoes as well as some darker aspects of the Signes of the Times appertayning to witchcraft amonge other things”.
Hopkins was also able to call on influential family friends to aid and pave the way for his future campaign. In his fathers will, one of the executors was a Nathaniel Bacon. Research shows that Nathaniel Bacon (1593-1660) was the third son of Edward Bacon of Shrubland Hall. According to the ‘Tendring Witchcraft Revelations’, he was an extreme Puritan and violently anti-Catholic. In 1643, he was elected the Recorder of Ipswich, and later Recorder of Bury St Edmonds. He was also chairman of the Central Committee (sitting at Cambridge) which presided over the seven counties of the Eastern Counties’ Association. In 1645, he was involved with the Long Parliament as one of the members for Cambridge University.
Since 1642, civil war had been raging throughout the country and Essex was a backbone area for the Roundheads. Hopkins, like other ruthless men before him, was able to use the prevailing mood of uncertainty, fear, tension and anxiety to turn public opinion to his own advantage. As the war raged, the need to exchange information was perhaps what brought such a diverse group of people together at the Thorn Inn. Hopkins it seems was ideally located and able to exploit and gain through them, the approbation and support he needed for the holocaust which followed.
In March of 1645, with no more knowledge of witchcraft than was detailed in Demonology by King James the 1st (Edinburgh, 1597), The Wonderful Discovery of Witches in the County of Lancaster by Thomas Potts (London, 1613) and Richard Bernard’s A Guide to Grand Jurymen (London, 1627, 1629), Hopkins set himself up and started his lucrative career as the “Witch-Finder General”.
For his first victim, Hopkins picked on a poor one-legged old hag called Elizabeth Clarke, whose mother had been hanged as a witch before her. At his instigation, she was thrown into prison on suspicion of witchcraft. So as not to leave incriminating evidence, he then devised subtle methods of torture while interrogating her (torture was illegal in England at that time), and extracted from her a confession leading to the arrest of five other women. In his own book ‘The Discovery of Witchcraft’ (more like a little pamphlet, London, 1647), he tells us how it all started:
“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 Manningtree, with diverse other adjacent Witches of other towns, who
every six weeks in the night (being always on the Friday night) had their
meeting close to his house, and had their solemn sacrifices there offered to the
Devil, one of whom this Discoverer heard speaking to her imps and bid them go to
another Witch, who was thereupon apprehended”.
From this we can see that Hopkins implies he daringly eavesdropped on one of the witches meetings, and later claimed they threatened to kill him because of what he had witnessed.
Under his interrogation with the aid of Jack Stearne, an unsavoury rascal with a penchant for cruelty, Elizabeth Clarke after the pain and humiliation of being stripped naked, then searched and poked for witches marks, "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 alledged 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. Jack 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 trail 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. The use of torture during witchcraft trials was illegal in England, but Hopkins used it routinely, and in most of his cases excessively and cruelly. 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.
In the first instance, he 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 favoured methods of torture, 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.
Perhaps the most favoured method of torture used by Hopkins was 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. This method of trial had been used for many years, and was given more prominence when advocated as a test of witchcraft guilt by King James 1 in his book “Demonology”. As far as can be found the first records of its use in England was in 1612 when the Northampton witches were thus tested.
Simply throwing someone into a pond or river wasn’t the style of Hopkins and wouldn’t satisfy his sense for spectacle and cruelty. Hopkins developed his own method of Swimming in which his victims had to be bound in a special way. Bent double with their arms crossed between their legs, they had their thumbs tied to their big toes. A rope was then tied around their waist and held by a man on either side of the river or pond, this ostensibly to prevent them from drowning. The accused was then lowered from a platform into the water and allowed to sink and rise three times. It obviously depended on the dexterity of the men handling the rope, as to whether the accused survived or drowned. Many alleged witches died in this way.
Once his victims had been worn down by torture, Hopkins would begin his browbeating sessions, plying the accused with leading questions and demanding to know “how they became acquainted with the Devil?” All he needed for a confession was a nod or monosyllabic reply, and then he and his assistants would fill in the colourful details. Most of the charges he brought were for bewitching people or their livestock to death, causing illness and lameness, or entertaining spirits or familiars, which usually turned out to be no more than household pets. He was particular fond of extracting confessions to the effect that the accused had signed a pact with the Devil.
After the success of the Chelmsford trials, Hopkins followed it by creating another sensation in Suffolk. There he discovered that the minister of Brandeston, John Lowes an old man of seventy ‘was naught but a foul witch’. It appears that Lowes had been a quarrelsome old fellow and was sorely disliked by many in his parish. At first he stoutly denied his guilt, but a confession was gained when he was subjected to Hopkins’s most approved methods by teams of his watchers who, “kept him awake several nights together while running him backwards and forwards about his cell until out of breath. After a brief rest, they then ran him again. And thus they did for several days and nights together, till he was weary of his life and scarce sensible of what he said or did”.
It was in this state of mind that Lowes finally confessed, “he had covenanted with the devil, suckled familiars (Tom, Flo, Bess and Mary) for five years, and had bewitched cattle. He had also caused a ship to sink off Harwich, on a calm sea, with the loss of fourteen lives”. A later pamphlet by Stearne states that Lowes “was joyfull to see what power his imps had”. Lowes later retracted his confession, but this didn’t save him, and since he was not allowed a clergyman to read the burial service for him, he recited it himself on his way to the scaffold on the 27th August 1645.
As well documented as the infamous trial at Bury St. Edmond is, it is also perhaps, the best illustration of just how the prejudice and hysteria against witches during those times, affected even the high courts and justices of the land. No record or suggestion was ever made to check whether a ship had floundered off Harwich.
Hopkins by now was hell bent on a rampage, and had some 200 people locked up awaiting trial. However his actions, greed and cruelty was being noticed in high places, leading to resistance from judges and local authorities. Some even began to question his alleged commission from Parliament. As such a special judicial commission was formed, the “Commission of Oyer and Terminer”. Its task was to deal specifically with the backlog of witchcraft trials, and Hopkins was ordered to stop his Swimming activities. The commission consisted of Sergeant John Goldbolt, some local justices and two ranting clergymen, Samuel Fairclough and Edward Calamy (the elder). Trials now began in earnest and such was the state of witchcraft hysteria, in quick succession 18 people were tried and hanged. The sessions however were quickly abandoned as the Royalist forces of the rebellion approached Bedford and Cambridge. When eventually they started again, another fifty witches were executed.
His career as the Witch-Finder General firmly established, Hopkins together with his faithful band of assistants, traveled at break-neck speed urging on trails with fatal rapidity. 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. He was recalled there again in December, but who knows how many died. He also visited Ipswich and shortly after Aldeburgh before moving on to Stowmarket. There he received twenty-three pounds for his services, but how many perished we do not know. Along the way he also stopped at King’s Lynn and many other small towns and villages, but wherever they went fear and apprehension followed. No one it seemed was beyond his power or reach, as a trail of blood and misery marked his passage through the countryside.
However time was running out for Hopkins, as he overextended himself in greed and zeal. Toward the end of 1946, the tide began to turn against him. At a time when most people feared him, criticism was launched against him by the courageous efforts of an old country parson, “John Gaule” the Vicar of Great Staughton in Huntingdonshire. Hearing that Hopkins was preparing to visit his part of the country, Gaule preached openly against him from the pulpit and started collecting evidence of his excessive methods and use of torture. Hopkins while incensed, hesitated, then retaliated with a blistering letter to one of Gaule’s parishioners:
“My service to your Worship presented.
I have this day received a Letter, &c, to come to a Towne called
Great Staughton, to search for evil disposed persons, called Witches (though I
hear your Minister is farre against us through ignorance :) I intend to come the
sooner to heare his singular Judgment on the behalfe of such parties; I have
known a Minister in Suffolke preach as much against their discovery in a Pulpit,
and forced to recant it (by the Committee) in the same place.
I much marvaile such evil Members should have any (much more any of the
Clergy) who should daily preach Terrour to convince such Offenders, stand up to
take their parts, against such as are Complainants for the King and suffers
themselves, with their Families and Estates.
I intend to gave your Towne a Visit suddenly.
I am to come Kimbolton this weeke, and shall bee tenne to one, but I will
come to your Towne first, but I would certainly know afore, whether your Towne
affords many Sticklers for such Cattell, or willing to gave and afford es good
welcome and entertainment, as other where I have beene, else I shall wave your
Shire (not as yet beginning in any part of it myselfe) and betake me to such
places, where I doe, and may persist without controle, but with thanks and
recompense. So I humbly take my
leave and rest, your Servant to be Commanded,
In the mean time Guale published his findings and his condemnation of Hopkins in a book called “Select Cases of Conscience Touching Witches and Witchcraft” (London, 1646). The book was well written and convincing, and public opinion was aroused against the abuses it exposed:
"Every old woman with a wrinkled face, a furrowed brow, a hairy lip, a gobber 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 and a dog or cat by her side, is not only suspect but pronounced for a witch" - John Gaule in 'Select Cases of Conscience'.
Hopkins prudently avoided visiting Great Staughton and by the end of 1646 as his credibility and activities dwindled, he was forced to part company with his faithful assistants and retire back to Manningtree where his infamous career had started.
The fate of Hopkins remains a mystery and in the realms of speculation, for many accounts of his demise abounds. One account by “William Andrews” (a 19th century writer on Essex folklore), wrote in his book “Bygone Essex” (1892), that Hopkins was passing through Suffolk and was himself accused of being a witch. Hopkins he alleges was charged with having stolen a book containing a list of all the witches in England, he supposedly obtained the book by means of sorcery. Hopkins pleaded innocent but an angry mob had formed and he was forced to under go his own ordeal of Swimming. In some accounts he drowned, while others say he floated and was condemned and hanged. However no records of his trial exist, if ever there was one?
A more likely cause of his death was given by Stearne his faithful assistant, who relates in his own book “A Confirmation and Discovery of Witch-craft” - (London 1648), that he passed away “peacefully, after a long sicknesse of a Consumption”. Records show that he died in the nearby village of Mistley, where according to the “Church Registers” he was buried on the 12th August 1647. Today according to local legend, Hopkins’ ghost is said to haunt Mistley Pond. An apparition wearing 17th-century attire is reportedly seen roaming the vicinity, particularly on Friday nights near to the Witches Sabbats.
A History of Witchcraft (Sorcerers, Heretics and Pagans) - By Jeffrey B, Russell
The Encyclopedia of Witches & Witchcraft - By Rosemary Ellen Guiley
The Geography of Witchcraft - By Montague Summers
The Encyclopedia of Witchcraft and Demonology - By Rossell Hope Robbins
Matthew Hopkins - Witch Finder General - By Richard Deacon
Plus numerous websites - to many to mention
Copyright George Knowles