Posted by: Nici | 7 April, 2009

The Witchfinder General


One of my all time favourite books, Hiding from the light by Barbara Erskine is set in Essex and focuses on the story of the Witchfinder General.


This fiction based on fact’ish’ book really interested me and at the weekend I went to the famous spots featured in the book in search of Matthew Hopkins Legacy.

For those of you who aren’t familar with this famous Witchhunter, read on!

Matthew Hopkins, the 17th Century Witchfinder General — the man who claimed to hold the Devil’s own list of all the witches in England.

The period of religious and political upheaval throughout the turbulent years of the English Civil War, coupled with the prevailing rabidly anti-Catholic feeling endemic throughout the puritan population of East Anglia, provided the back-drop to Hopkins’ now infamous rise.

He began his reign of terror modestly enough, denouncing his crippled neighbour, Elizabeth Clarke, as a witch. It seems likely that this was done with honest — though somewhat misguided — intent, for at the time, it was widely thought that there were several witches in Manningtree who regularly practised the dark arts. Although his puritan upbringing certainly gave him the motivation to battle the Devil and all his works, as an impoverished and, at least according to some accounts, rather unsuccessful lawyer, Matthew Hopkins was not slow to see the financial benefits such a career might bring. A year later, in 1645, he assumed the title of Witchfinder General and began the hunt in earnest.

The witch hunting was to follow a depressingly familiar pattern of popular denunciation, examination, interrogation and ultimately, execution. Although the process was a judicial one, as elsewhere in Europe, there were significant differences to the way witch hunts were conducted in England. The torturing of witches to obtain their confession was a much less violent affair, with sleep depravation, the use of tight restraints to induce cramps and starvation diets being used rather than the brutal methods of the Inquisition. The sentence of death when it came, as invariably it did, was carried out not by burning, but by hanging.

Like his European counterparts, Hopkins relied on “discovering” the witch-mark, a spot on the body insensible to pain — making judicious use of a retractable spike on a spring-loaded handle to prove the point beyond doubt to any observer. He also favoured the infamous “swimming” test, binding the suspects limbs together and lowering them into the village pond. The logic was murderously simply: God’s pure water would reject a witch, causing her to float, while the innocence of those who sank and drowned would assure them of a place in heaven.

Although the full total of supposed witches Hopkins and his assistant, John Stearne sent to their deaths is not certain — estimates ranging from two to four hundred — the numbers which are recorded tell a horrific story. Sixty-eight were killed in Bury St Edmunds alone; nineteen were hanged in a single day in Chelmsford.

In those chaotic times, any lonely old woman who kept a pet risked a terrible fate and partly through fear, villagers could often be relied upon to act as witnesses to evil goings on. In the Manningtree area, the names of the same group of “women searchers” regularly appeared on the original indictments. Hopkins, Stearne, the local justices, clergymen and the others believed that they were performing some kind of public service, though accusations of greed and financial gain gradually gained credence, particularly given the huge recompense those involved did receive. In the spring of 1646, John Gaule, a Huntingdon parson, wrote a critical pamphlet entitled Select Cases of Conscience Towards Witches and Witchcraft in which he exposed the dubious nature of Hopkins’ methods. Even as the Witchfinder General penned a pious, though lamentably feeble refutation, the popular support for both him and his cause waned. By the summer, Hopkins had retired to Manningtree, a rich man.

Though so much of his life is a matter of record, his end appears to have escaped chronicle, if not speculation. It has been suggested that he was himself accused of obtaining the Devil’s list of all the witches in England — of which he had boasted greatly in his earlier days — by sorcery and forced to undergo his own trial by “swimming”. In one version of the tale, he was innocent and drowned; in another, he floated and was hanged. There is, however, no record of such a trial, much less a verdict. A lonely death from illness, possibly tuberculosis, seems to have been the most probable cause of his ultimate demise. He is buried at Mistley Heath.

However, as befits this notorious character, the story does not end there, for his ghost is said to haunt Mistley pond, being most likely to be encountered around the full moon. His spectre has also been reported at a number of other places in the area. Whatever the truth of these tales, Hopkins legend has long outlived his unfortunate victims.




  1. I love this book, mainly because I emigrated from Manningtree, but mostly because it is so well written.

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