Witchfinder General or Just General Witchfinder?
Today I want to write about the reality behind the Witchfinder General, Matthew Hopkins. He is legendary for his forced confessions, multiple executions, burnings and, as a staple of horror has cast a fearful shadow across nearly 400 years.
But what was he really about? And is this reputation justified? We shall see.
If you’ve not heard of him then Matthew Hopkins, the so-called Witchfinder General, was a freelance professional Witch hunter who operated during the time of the English Civil War and for someone who is as famous as he is he has a remarkably short career, basically it lasts from about 1644 to 1647 and outside those years we don’t really know a great deal about him and a lot of what we think we know departs quite considerably from reality.
The image people most strongly associated with Matthew Hopkins is that of Vincent Price in the 1968 horror film Witchfinder General, and it is a powerfully puritan image, but way too old, which is our first major difference.
We don’t precisely know when Hopkins was born, but there are a few clues. We know his father was a John Hopkins who was a clergyman in the parish of St. John’s of Great Wenham, Suffolk. We know, from prior historians, that his father received a legacy from one of his parishioners in 1619. The instructions in the will left money for purchasing bibles for his three children, John, James and Thomas. No Matthew, and from this we can determine then that he could not have been born before 1619, which makes him at the most 25 when he comes to prominence as a Witch Hunter. Far younger than the 57-year-old Vincent Price would show him in Witchfinder General.
… and while we’re on the subject of Witchfinder General. He never actually referred to himself by this title in his own books and travels, it does get added into later editions which are published after his death, but there’s no evidence to suggest he actually used this title himself.
His fearsome reputation is one of torturing innocent victims in order to secure a confession of witchcraft but is that really the case? Well, it’s a grey area to be honest. Torture was illegal in England in the mid-17th century and far from just going round the country burning people, we didn’t burn witches, and Hopkins was performing a legal service, he was there to provide the evidence.
How that evidence was obtained had to be legal, above board and admissible in a court of law. We can call into question whether that which is legally obtained back then is fair, true, beyond reasonable doubt. We can also question whether what was legally sound back in the 17th Century would still be legally sound today. That is the correct debate to be having, but all too often we get distracted by creating bogeymen and monsters.
Since torture was illegal you cannot get your witchcraft confession by a good dose of the rack however Hopkins could deploy methods of interrogation that would raise inquiries today such as sleep deprivation which delivered him results in his early career in the town of Manningtree in Essex, where after 4 days of being sleep deprived, an alleged witch confessed and called out the names of her 9 familiars which she allegedly summoned.
Hopkins claims that he, and nine other witnesses, saw the first five of these although I have questions. It does appear that out of the nine familiars, the five “witnessed” bear the resemblance of common animals… There is “Holt – like a white kitten”, “Jamara – who is like a fat spaniel with no legs” – although the illustration does appear to have the sort of legs of a small dog, “Vinegar Tom – with the body of a greyhound and the head of an ox” I’ll remain open minded on that one, “Sake and Sugar – like a black rabbit” and “Newes – like a polecat”
Now call me awkward but reporting having seen a cat, 2 dogs, a rabbit and a ferret in a reasonably rural village setting is hardly a good indicator of a pact with the devil is it?
Another of his more questionable methods of obtaining evidence was that of his team of ‘witch prickers’ who would show that a woman, and it was always a woman, did not bleed when stabbed with a pin. Our first video was on this very subject, please go give it a watch.
Sources will tell us that he also used what is known as the swim test and this is frequently confused with the use of ducking-stools. The ducking stool is a form of punishment, not a form of trial, however the swim test is based in the idea that someone who has a pact with the devil would be rejected by the water, and therefore float, due to them renouncing their baptism.
The accused is not weighed down as folklore would have you believe, the rope attached to them is to pull them out of the water if they sink. The idea that you drown someone to prove their innocence is laughable even for the 17th century.
The truth of the matter is that very few, if any, were actually convicted in England by this method, and it was abandoned as a legal test in 1645 so while Hopkins used it, he doesn’t use it for long.
Note here that Hopkins isn’t sitting in judgement of these people, he doesn’t have the power to convict. The scarier part of this is that learned Judges and Clerics bought into this nonsense… and remember, people died as a result of this stuff – 500 of them, with Hopkins’ evidence convicting 100 of those.
You can find a lot of his methods, and his justifications for using them in the book he produced called “The Discoverie of Witches”. This is available to view online through the Gutenberg Project here.
Do take care though not to confuse this with “The Discovery of Witchcraft” by Reginald Scott which is actually a debunking of the existence of witches, or the “Wonderful Discoverie of Witches in the Countie of Lancaster by Thomas Potts which is the transcript of the Pendle Witch Trials. This particular discipline does like to reuse a title where it can.
We look back at this sort of barbarism and often mock, but it’s worth considering the treatment of religion in the Puritan times. This wasn’t just something you believed or didn’t believe, the existence of God and the Devil was considered by all to be an absolute fact, and as God was always at work in your community the Devil was also always at work in your community. It wasn’t a case of finding if the Devil was influencing your village, it was a case of finding WHERE the devil was influencing your village, so a travelling witchfinder can be a vital service. In fact it states in his book that towns and villages wrote to him requesting his visits.
With the advent of the enlightenment and the rising power of science to counter religion we finally saw the end of this sort of witch hunt in England with the last execution for witchcraft being that of Alicia Molland in 1684, the last witchcraft trial however was as late as 1944 with the prosecution of Helen Duncan, and the Witchcraft Act stayed on the statute books until as late as 1951, so perhaps we didn’t advance as quickly as we might like to think.
Hopkins died at his home on 12th August 1647, and despite a legend arising that he was subjected to his own swim test and executed as a witch himself this is not remotel6y true and he was buried, in hallowed ground, in the church of St. Mary at Mistley Heath.
Thanks for reading.