JOSIE PALMER looks at how a lawyer from East Anglia whipped up hysteria over witches in the 1600s
The witch-fever that gripped East Anglia for 14 terrible months between 1645 and 1646 was a symptom of the nervous tension of a nation at war with itself.
Long before the struggle between King and Parliament led to open war in 1642, the people of the Eastern counties had taken sides.
This area was solidly Puritan, rabidly anti-Catholic and swayed by the preachers whose mission was to seek out the slightest whiff of heresy.
As the war dragged on, fear and suspicion mounted.
As so often happens, such popular hysteria produced a figurehead.
In this case, it was a man who would be remembered by history as the Witchfinder General.
He was, in fact, a lawyer from East Anglia, named Matthew Hopkins.
Though the number of supposed witches put to death by Hopkins will never be known for certain, it was probably in the region of 400 – more than a third of the total number executed in two centuries of English witch-hunting.
Hopkins had 68 people put to death in Bury St Edmunds, and 19 hanged at Chelmsford in a single day.
The Witchfinder is still remembered with horror, yet he could not have carried out his persecutions without the active cooperation of the local population.
The witch-hunts followed a pattern all too familiar: popular denunciation, interrogation in a cell, the death by hanging.
Records of Hopkins’ career in witch hunting are obscure, but it appears to have come about after he moved to Manningtree in Essex in 1644.
Not a great deal is known about Hopkins’ early life. It is thought that he was born in Little Wenham in Suffolk in the 1620s.
He trained as a lawyer but with little professional success. He augmented his salary with the opportunities that witch-hunting offered him. His new career started near his home in Manningtree in 1644, where he examined his first witch at the Thorn Inn, Mistley.
Accusations of witchcraft started to spread throughout East Anglia, spurred in no small measure by Hopkins’ actions.
In Sudbury 117 people were tried and examined, and in Norfolk 40 women were tried and examined by the Norfolk Assizes in 1645.
Eight women were tried and at least five executed in Huntingdonshire by the summer of 1646. Independent borough jurisdictions were also busy during this period, trying and examining mostly women for witchcraft.
Hopkins believed that witches fed their ‘familiars’ (animals that would accompany them in their evil practices) with their own blood; by keeping the witch under guard it would ensure that their familiars could not feed from the witch, thereby depriving the witches of their magical capabilities.
Hopkins believed that witches had a third nipple just for feeding their familiars.
The layman might easily mistake these witch’s marks for a wart, a mole or even a flea bite; to Hopkins these were the Devil’s marks, insensitive to pain, incapable of bleeding, and easily detectable by jabbing with a needle.
Doubting onlookers were convinced when they saw a needle disappearing into flesh without a sign from the victim.
What the onlookers didn’t realise was that the needles were often retracting into spring-loaded handles.
Once the witch’s mark was discovered on the suspect’s body, all that remained was to obtain a confession.
Methods of torture like the rack were illegal but starvation, solitary confinement and being tied cross-legged for days at a time were effective; being walked up and down in a cell for five days and nights without rest made most people confess to anything.
When Hopkins swore on oath that four familiars – a white dog, a greyhound, a polecat and a black imp – had visited Elizabeth Clarke in her cell, she did not deny the charge. She even confessed to having slept with the Devil often.
A favourite confessional torture of Hopkins was the infamous ‘swimming’ test.
The suspect’s limbs were bound together and then they were lowered into a pond by ropes.
The principle was simple – if the victim sank and drowned, they would be innocent and in heaven; if they floated they would be tried as a witch.
Although much of Hopkins’ career as a Witchfinder is well recorded, his death is still somewhat of a mystery.
One account, written by William Andrews, a nineteenth-century writer of Essex folklore, suggests that Hopkins was himself accused of being a witch. Andrews puts forward the case that Hopkins was charged with stealing a book containing a list of all the witches in England, which he purportedly obtained by means of sorcery.
Hopkins declared his innocence but an angry mob forced him to undergo his own ‘swimming’ test. Some accounts say he drowned, while others say he floated and was thus condemned to be hanged. No records of his trial exist.
Another local legend has it that Hopkins’ ghost haunts Mistley Pond. An apparition wearing seventeenth-century clothes can apparently be seen roving the locality, particularly on Friday nights near to the Witches’ Sabbats. There have also been reports of Hopkins’ ghost haunting the White Horse Inn in Mistley.
Whatever the truth of Hopkins’ death, he was a controversial figure even in his own lifetime. He, and other witch hunters, were able to carry out their work with impunity during the power vacuum and chaos of the English Civil Wars.
During the Restoration, witch hunts and trials petered out and the last witchcraft execution was carried in Exeter when Alicia Molland met her death in March 1684.
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