“During the Civil War, the east of England had by far the largest number of supposed Witches, not because more Witches lived there but because Matthew Hopkins with his individual and perverse imagination lived there.”
A self styled Witchfinder General and one of the most infamous characters of the English Civil War. Originally a shipping clerk, he focussed his energies and gifts into a profitable killing machine, he turned gossip and innuendo into formal accusations of witchcraft and devil worship, and used torture to gain confessions from the accused. His reign as a Witchfinder General made him a wealthy man whose excessive cruelty and zeal became legendary, and yet only lasted two years.
The case of John Lowes
Nothing more illuminates the height of Matthew Hopkins career than the case of John Lowes.
All Saints church, Brandeston is a quiet typical English church, with its vicar of more than forty years John Lowes. One evening John received a visitor in the shape of Matthew Hopkins. Hopkins accused Lowes of witchcraft, a fact which 80 year old Lowes unsurprisingly denied. Hopkins could not be stopped doing the Lords work, he told Lowes that he had conspired with two Imps to sink ships at sea. Hopkins arrested the vicar to obtain a confession and after four days and nights of sleep deprivation and beatings Lowes was finally bullied into signing a confession for a crime he did not commit. The vicar was taken to Framlington, bound hand and foot and ‘swam’. He survived – thus proving his guilt, and was shortly taken to nearby Bury St Edmunds where he joined forty others awaiting sentence for the crime of witchcraft.
In the summer of 1645 sentence was carried out.
Sentence of hanging by the neck until dead was announced, some took their execution peacefully, others cried, others fought their journey to the grave. A bag of coins was given to Matthew Hopkins on that summer’s day in Bury St Edmunds and the locals watched John Lowes, loyal vicar to All Saints Church, Brandeston read out his own Anglican burial service and quietly accept his death. He was allowed to read his own sermon so he could insist on a Christian burial, which he duly received.
With his work in Bury St Edmonds complete, Matthew Hopkins moved on to the next town, to find more witches and profit from their deaths.
The life of a Witchfinder
What do we know about this powerful and influential man, where did he come from? And more importantly: how did he get away with it? The answer to all of these questions and more is sadly: not a lot. To understand things properly, a little historical background must be delved into first.
The times and Hopkins inspiration, William Dowling
The 1600’s were a time of great scientific discovery and political upheaval. In 1603 James Stuart took the throne of Scotland, and both him and his son Charles I tried to impose some uniformity on both England and Scotland. Both kings opposed parliaments, and Charles succeeded in ruling without one for the first 11 years of his reign. When Charles I tried to impose English Church organisation on the Scots they revolted and invaded England. The king was forced to call a parliament, which demanded the redress of its own grievances as the price for helping to drive out the Scottish invaders. The price was high and for two years the King yielded power to the parliament. The Kings principal councillor was even tried and executed by parliament. In the 1640’s a belief in witchcraft was widespread. People believed in God and feared the Devil.
Parliament refused to pay for troops to send to Ireland to put down a rebellion in 1642 and the crisis that followed led to war. The king rallied his forces at Nottingham on August 22nd. On the Parliamentarian side, a gifted young country squire, Oliver Cromwell rose through the ranks to decisively crush the royalist force at Marston Moor in 1644 and at Naseby in 1645. The King surrendered in 1645 but continued to play the Parliamentarian army off against the parliamentarians and both off against the Scots. His plotting brought calls for a trial and he was beheaded for High Treason in 1649. Military rule was then established under Cromwell under the title of Lord Protector, his austere rule collapsed on his death in 1658.
In the middle of this period, somewhere between 1619 and 1622 Matthew Hopkins was born. There are no surviving records of the birth of Matthew Hopkins, but there is probable record of his death and burial place. Mistley Heath parish register records: 1647 Aug 12 Matthew s M: James HOPKINGS, Minister of Wenham, buried at Mistley.
The ‘s’ here represents the word son, and the ‘M’ Mr. Don’t fret about the spelling of the surname: there are many spellings of Matthew’s surname and even an example of his first name spelt with one ‘t’. Hopkins father, James was educated at Cambridge, a clergyman of the Church of England dying in 1634 around his late fifties and leaving his will behind. The graveyard is now a sheep grazing field with no clue as to his exact burial place.
The will of James Hopkins, his children and Matthews age at death
Matthew is not mentioned by name in his fathers will, but is one of six children and not either of the two eldest James or Thomas (neither of which are 22 in 1634)
When taken with another document – the will of Daniel Wyles (dated 1619). In this document it states ‘James Hopkins, preacher of the word of God and his wife…6s 8d each to their children James, Thomas and John when able to read a chapter of the New Testament, to buy a bible’ – this means that Matthew was not born before 1619. If he came into his money at 22 and began immediately planning his Witchfinder career, (at the earliest date of 1644) he would have only been barely 25 when he died, and certainly no more than 28. One of his siblings John Hopkins became Minister of South Fambridge according to the parish records, with a note addition a year later in June 1646 that John had neglected his duties and had been replaced. One of his other siblings, Thomas Hopkins goes to New England, settles and probably doesn’t come back.
So: the life of Matthew Hopkins is very short, colourful life of a young man, the son of a vicar with 5 siblings, who died between 25 and 28 years old.
Matthew Hopkins early career
His schooling and apprenticeship remain a mystery, although from his own writings he has ideas from Continental Witchcraft practices – such as torturing suspects and swimming them. This probably comes from reading the writings of King James: notably the Deamonologie and King James Bible. He probably studied shipping in Amsterdam for a while, picking up seaman’s superstitions and worked as a shipping clerk in Mistley afterwards.
Matthew Hopkins was influenced by the times and had inspiration in the form of William Dowsing: In 1641 the Parliamentary instruction ‘Resolution of Ecclesiastical Innovation’ was followed in 1643 by another. Basically between them, they banned churches from having ornaments, pictures, decorations or inscriptions which had papal influence.
In 1643, William Dowsing, a puritan farmer, was appointed by parliament under these acts to smash stained glass windows and decorative images in the churches of Suffolk. Although many people undertook this work, William Dowling was the only one to keep a personal diary.
In sixteen hundred and forty three,
William Dowling came to Badley,
He did not like what he saw that day,
So he went to work, then went away.
William Dowsing visited Hopkins father’s old church in Wenham on 3rd Feb 1644, one month before Matthew Hopkins claims to have seen the first witches in his home town of Manningtree. The religious cleansing of churches could have easily mutated into the cleansing of people. Hopkins writes about first seeing witches in his ‘Discovery of Witches’ pamphlet, and being inspired by this to work as a Witchfinder.
The first witch hunt by Hopkins
Matthew Hopkins first hears rumours about local women who are said to be witches and in March of 1645 he begins his work as a Witchfinder. Anne West, her 15 year old daughter Rebecca and a toothless 80 year old one legged woman known locally as ‘Mother Clarke’ were his first accused, although interestingly, he battled to save Rebecca’s life whilst condemning her mother and Clarke on the same evidence. All three were held in Colchester castle imprisoned from early March to the Assizes in July, and Hopkins visited Rebecca in several occasions in March and April of 1645. Once he had gained a confession from Rebecca she was acquitted and allowed to live, whilst the other two were condemned.
This was the perfect start to Hopkins witch finding career, by which time he was already associated with a John Stearne, a puritan who went into witch hunting for the moral, not profitable aspect. Rebecca’s confession hinged on one of her imps being described as a greyhound in shape, there is some evidence to suggest that Hopkins kept a greyhound and may have set the scene up with Rebecca’s help to convince his new found partner as to the seriousness of his work.
Hopkins travelled everywhere with not only Stearne, but also a group described as a ‘company of men and women’ Witness to not only the practice of witchcraft, but also handily available as accusers at the Assizes were vital. At its height, permanent members of the company numbered around 10, by the end of his career there were just 3. Those within the company holding some rank of seniority were named as John Stearne, Mary Phillips, Edward Purley, Pricilla Briggs, Frances Milles and Elizabeth Hunt. As well as these, Hopkins would recruit locals to aid in his cause. Hopkins, Stearne and Philips became known as the ‘three unspotted lambs of the Lord’ and are probably the core of the Company, and certainly those left at the very end.
Two other characters are needed before this story continues. Hopkins made influential friends, meeting them at the Thorn Inn, Mistley just yards from his alleged house. Here he met with John Thurlowe – Cromwell’s Chief of Secret Service and William Lilly one of the countries leading astrologers. John Thurlowe advised Hopkins on politics and lent his authority. Lilly so accurately predicted the Great Fire of London, that he was accused of starting it, but then acquitted. He published his first Almanack in 1644 and was very aware of the occult, which was knowledge that Hopkins could use to justify his accusations and lend weight to his Assizes. Together, Hopkins had gathered a group of experts who could be called upon for whatever occasion presented itself. The local witch hunting began in earnest.
By July of 1645, Hopkins had a Company of experts to call on, the means to expand his company when they arrived at a new location, and a successful (and profitable) prosecution for local witchcraft already under his belt. Once achieved, it was time for Hopkins to travel outside his local area and turn his foundations into a solid reality. Hopkins set about his work with earnest and zeal: Travelling in a horseshoe arc, the Company travelled first into Essex to Ramsey, Thorpe-le-Soken, Kirby-le-Soken, Walton-le-Soken, Great Holland, Great Clacton, St Osyth, Alresford, Wivenhoe, Langham and back to Mistley via Manningtree. Down into Suffolk was another planned tour: Polstead, Sudbury, Lavenham, Hitcham, Rattlesden, Wetherden, Westthorpe, Bacton, Framlingham, Linstead, Halesworth, Glemham, Blaxhall, Wickham, Creeting, Stowmarket, Hintlesham, Chattisham, Copdock… the list goes on, leading across the Stour and west inland. Starting in July or August after the first Assizes, by the end of 1645, the Company had condemned at least 117 Witches to death.
The Norfolk trials were also concluded by the end of 1645, also taking in King Lynn and Yarmouth. In 1645 Parliament granted a special commission to monitor the Suffolk witch hunting’s (mostly Hopkins work), presided over by Judge John Godbolt and including several Justices of the Peace together with two ministers from Suffolk. The swimming test – which Hopkins used frequently – was illegal according to this commission, but Hopkins played by their other rules of obtaining voluntary confessions with supporting evidence. The commission also condemned Vicar John Lowes at Bury St Edmunds on Hopkins evidence alone. Hopkins title of Witchfinder General was never officially endorsed by the commission or anyone else, and the parliamentary commission treats him lightly for a man breaking the law. John Godbolt, leader of the Commission warned Hopkins against using the practice of swimming to determine guilt and he abandoned the practice before the end of the year.
Oliver Cromwell had an eye on Hopkins in the form of Thurlowe, and as Lilly stated that ‘much astrological intelligence contributed to the apprehension of Witches and it was not entirely by accident that most of these were outside the Parliamentary pale’. So possibly Lilly and Thurlowe steered Hopkins into hunting out Royalists to aid Cromwell.
It is widely believed that Hopkins burned the majority of his accused, when in reality only one was burned and the rest hanged. The unfortunate was Mary Lakeland, commemorated in a pamphlet released in late 1645. Four other people are accused at the same Assizes, but only Mary is charged and burnt for her crimes. She was accused of killing her husband, and conspiring to kill a man who had broken off his courtship with her granddaughter. She also sent her dogs after a man who asked for a debt of 12 shillings to be repaid and a woman from Ipswich who had a mole sent to kill her for not lending a needle. The remainder of Hopkins victims were hanged by the neck until dead.
So: by 1645 Hopkins is already well established in his work in hunting witches. The commission, instead of stopping his work, ensured that Hopkins could claim an unofficial endorsement from Parliament to continue. Pulling on his connections with parliament, it is reasonable to assume that parliament partially guides him to ferret out Royalists and accuse them of witchcraft.
The case of John Lowes, marked the beginning of the end: Hopkins in targeting a member of the clergy with accusations stretched way beyond his means. Although the same method used against other unfortunates worked, Lowes had friends in the form of Bishop Hutchinson, who had a book listing Lowes innocence a lifetime later. Lowes congregation had denounced him as Wizard, and the church in the middle ground of the English Civil War had to tread very delicately. During 1646, Hopkins and Stearne gained a heady reputation, travelling into Huntingdonshire, (April/May) Cambridgeshire, Northamptonshire, Bedfordshire and Norfolk, with around 75% of those accused being hanged for the crime. This while episode is known as the East Anglian Witchcraft Trials.
‘I intend to give your town a visit suddenly’ The War of the Pamphlets
However the church did respond in the form of Reverend John Gaule of Great Staughton, who actively preached against witchfinders and Hopkins methods. Hopkins retaliated in kind by writing a letter asking to come to Great Staughton to hunt witches. Gaule replied on 30th June 1646 publishing a pamphlet entitled Select Cases of Conscience Touching Witches and Witchcrafts. In this he criticised Hopkins methods and denounced Hopkins as a witch himself. Gaule was a great speaker and influential man and the public opinion of Hopkins began to slide. Hopkins wrote in response his own pamphlet The Discovery of Witches. Gaule continued to preach against Witch hunters and Hopkins and the slanging match was in full flow.
Although Hopkins and Stearne continued their witch hunting into 1647 with a charter into the Fens, Hopkins failing health meant that Stearne took over the commission. Hopkins was prone to chest infections and suffered from poor health. Stearne began to distance himself from Hopkins, taking the allegiance of Phillips with him. After the churches steady denunciation, witch hunting became a difficult occupation which yielded very little money and with Hopkins increasingly ill, Stearne wrote his own pamphlet A Confirmation and Discovery of Witchcraft in which he distances himself from Hopkins, who is at the time of writing suffering from ‘a long sickness’. Stearne and Phillips continue for a short while and then stop their activities: Stearne goes back to his wife, has another child and disappears from history.
The end of Matthew Hopkins
On 12th August of 1647 Matthew Hopkins died and was buried in Mistley graveyard. Of his death there are many theories however the one which is most likely is that Hopkins was already ill with a chest infection when he was taken from his house and Swum, just like he had done for all his accused. The strain of being tied hand and foot and thrown off the Hopping Bridge, over Mistley Pond was too much and besides he had floated, the result he took as guilty for those accused of witchcraft. The group of perpetrators wanted then to hang him as a witch, but as Hopkins died from consumption that night, hanging was not the sentence. Instead a burial in Mistley churchyard, probably in an unmarked grave was his final resting place.
Despite theories which connect Matthew Hopkins with the Salem witch trials (1645-1662) there is no evidence or connection to suggest that he went there.
1603 James Stuart takes the throne of Scotland
1619/1622? Matthew Hopkins born
1634 James Hopkins, (Matthews father) dies, providing for him in his will. (Matthew Hopkins trains as a shipping clerk)
1641 The Resolution of Ecclesiastical Innovation comes into force
1643 William Dowsing begins his work – authorised by Parliment
1644 Royalists defeated at the battle of Marston Moor
1644 William Dowsing visits James Hopkins parish at Wenham
1644 Matthew Hopkins begins his witch hunting work
1645 Matthew Hopkins begins to hunt witches
1645 Royalists defeated at the battle at Naseby
1645 Matthews brother John Hopkins becomes Minister for South Fambridge
1645 Parliament grants a special commission to monitor the Suffolk witchhunting.
1645 Hopkins tries those at Bury St Edmunds, including Pastor John Lowe
1645 King Charles I surrenders
1646 Matthew’s brother John Hopkins replaced as Minister of South Fambridge
1646 John Gaule attacks Hopkins and witch hunting through the Judges of the Assizes
1647 Matthew Hopkins hunts his last witch.
1647 The publication of The Discovery of Witches by Matthew Hopkins
1647 August 12th, Hopkins dies and is buried at Mistley churchyard
1649 King Charles I beheaded for High Treason, Oliver Cromwell subsequently rules.
Secondary source material which relates to Matthew Hopkins and witch hunting
Barry, J; Hester, M and Roberts, G (eds) 1998. Witchcraft in Early Modern Europe – Studies in culture and belief. Cambridge
Bassett, R 1966 Witchfinder General (fiction) Herbet Jenkins Limited (made into a Vincent Price film!)
Cabell, C 2006 Witchfinder General The Biography of Matthew Hopkins. Sutton Publishing
Cooper, T (ed) 2001 The Journal of William Dowsing: Iconoclasms in East Anglia during the English Civil War. Woodbridge
Deacon, R. 1976 Matthew Hopkins – Witch Finder General. Muller
Gaskill, M 2005 Witchfinders – a 17th Century English Tragedy. John Murray
Peters, S 2003 The Witchfinder and the Devils Darlings. Lucas Books
Summers, M 1928 The Discovery of Witches – A Study of Master Matthew Hopkins. The Cayme Press