by Sue | Oct 13, 2017 |

Matthew Hopkins - The Witch-Finder General

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Manningtree on the River Stour has connections with one of East Anglia's most ruthless residents. Matthew Hopkins, the Witch-Finder General, put hundreds of women to death during his short career, and it all started here, close to Constable Country.

Contemporaneous to the English Civil War was a period of great unease in the eastern counties of England. Three hundred women were killed between the years 1644 and 1646, in trials that took place across Suffolk, Essex and Norfolk, and occassionally Cambridgeshire, Northamptonshire, Bedfordshire, and Huntingdonshire.

Their crime? Witchcraft.

Who Was Matthew Hopkins?

Little is known about the self-titled “Witchhunter General”, Matthew Hopkins, before 1644.  

He was born circa 1620 in Great Wenham, Suffolk, the fourth son of six children, to James Hopkins, a Puritan clergyman and vicar of St John's of Great Wenham.

In later life, traditions tell that Hopkins used his recently acquired inheritance of a hundred marks to establish himself as a gentleman in the Manningtree area and to buy the Thorn Inn in Mistley.

A Ruthless Career

In the early 1640s Hopkins moved to Manningtree in Essex, where his ruthless career began.

From March 1644 to his retirement in 1647, Matthew Hopkins and his associates were responsible for more people being hanged for witchcraft than in the previous 100 years, and were solely responsible for the increase in witch trials during those years. In one crusade of just 14 months, more people were sent to the gallows by Hopkins than by all the other witch-hunters in England of the previous 160 years.

Since it has been estimated that all of the English witch trials between the early 15th and late 18th centuries resulted in fewer than 500 executions, the 300 women that Hopkins and his colleague, John Stearn,e had put to death from 1644 - 1646 account for around sixty-percent of the total.

Legacies

Following the Lancaster Witch Trial of 1634, it was declared that material proof was required to charge someone with being a witch.
The work of Hopkins and Stearne was not necessarily to prove any of the accused had committed acts of maleficium, a Latin term meaning "wrongdoing" or "mischief", used to refer to malevolent, dangerous, or harmful magic. Rather, they looked to prove that the women had made a covenant with the Devil.

Prior to this point, any malicious acts on the part of witches were treated identically to those of other criminals, until it was seen that they owed their powers to a deliberate act of their choosing.

Within continental and Roman Law witchcraft was crimen exceptum: a crime so foul that all normal legal procedures were superseded. Because the Devil was not going to "confess", it was necessary to gain a confession from the human involved; Witches became heretics to Christianity, the greatest of their crimes and sins.

In Manningtree, where it all began

According to his book, The Discovery of Witches, Hopkins began his career in as a witch-finder after he overheard various women discussing their meetings with the Devil in Manningtree. In fact, the first accusations were made by Stearne and Hopkins was appointed as his assistant.

At this time, twenty-three women were accused of witchcraft and were tried at Chelmsford in 1645. Four died in prison and nineteen were convicted and hanged.

Hopkins and Stearne, accompanied by the women who performed the pricking (a method used to discover witches, pricking their skin with needles, pins and bodkins to see if they bled), were soon travelling over eastern England, claiming to be officially commissioned by Parliament. Their titles, however, were self-appointed.

Parliament was well aware of Hopkins and his team's activities, as shown by the concerned reports of the Bury St Edmunds witch trials of 1645: "as if some busie men had made use of some ill Arts to extort such confession". After the trial and execution, the Moderate Intelligencer, a parliamentary paper published during the English Civil War, expressed unease with the affairs in Bury.

Methods

Despite torture being unlawful in England, Hopkins often used techniques such as sleep deprivation to extract confessions from his victims. He would also cut the arm of the accused with a blunt knife, and if she did not bleed, she was said to be a witch. Another of his methods was the infamous “swimming test”, based on the idea that as witches had renounced their baptism, water would reject them. Suspects were tied to a chair and thrown into water: all those who floated were considered to be witches.

Hopkins and his assistants also looked for the Devil's mark, something all witches or sorcerers were supposed to possess. It was said to be dead to all feeling and would not bleed – although in reality, it was usually a mole, birthmark or breast. It was believed that the witch's familiar, an animal such as a cat or dog, would drink the witch's blood from the mark, as a baby drinks milk from the nipple.

To make matters worse for the accused, if the suspected witch had no such visible marks, invisible ones could be discovered by pricking, normally after the suspect had been shaved of all body hair.

A Profitable Venture

Together with their female assistants, Hopkins and Stearne were well paid for their work. Hopkins states that "his fees were to maintain his company with three horses", and that he took "twenty shillings a town". The records at Stowmarket, however, show their costs to the town to have been £23 (£3,300 as of 2015) plus his travelling expenses. The cost to the local community were such that, in 1645, a special local tax rate had to be levied in Ipswich.

Colonial Legacy

Hopkins' actions even impacted the overseas colonies. Following the publication of Hopkin’s The Discovery of Witches, which outlined his various witch-hunting methods, trials and executions for witchcraft began in New England; the conviction of Margaret Jones, a puritan midwife, became the first in a New England witch-hunt that lasted from 1648 to 1633.

As described in the journal of Governor John Winthrop, the evidence assembled against her was gathered by the use of Hopkins' techniques of "searching" and "watching".

Some of Hopkins' methods were once again employed during the Salem Witch Trials, which occurred primarily in Salem, Massachusetts, in 1692–93.

Death

Matthew Hopkins died at his home in Manningtree on 12 August, 1647, purportedly of pleural tuberculosis, and was buried in the graveyard of the Church of St Mary at Mistley Heath.

In the words of historian Malcolm Gaskill, Matthew Hopkins "lives on as an anti-hero and bogeyman – utterly ethereal, endlessly malleable".


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