One of the most popular Halloween costumes in history is that of the witch. Green skin, pointed hat and broomstick, her image is a universal sign of the dark arts. For centuries all around the world witches have been persecuted for their beliefs. However, in the mid 17th century, an even scarier character emerged, that of the Witch-Finder General.
In 1644 in the the village of Manningtree in Essex, 33 women would be accused of a crime so heinous it would change their lives forever. At the same time one man would use their downfall to build his career.
In Britain during the medieval and Tudor periods, the state left matters of witchcraft to the church to handle. Witches were only treated as criminals if their actions harmed another person or their property. This all changed once James I came to the throne. Deeply distrustful of the supernatural, he produced a book called Daemonlogie, a sort of handbook on how to recognise and punish witches, spirits and necromancers. He then petitioned parliament for an update on the Witchcraft Act making witchcraft itself a felony punishable by the courts.
Forty years later, with the rise in Puritanism a man named Matthew Hopkins would use James’ book and The Witchcraft Act to tragic ends.
In 1644 John Stearne overheard a group of women discussing how they had recently met the Devil. Believing this to be witchcraft, Stearne set out to prosecute the women and recruited Matthew Hopkins to help him. Although it was Stearne who originally started the hunt, it was Matthew Hopkins, later dubbing himself Witch-Finder General, who soon led the way.
Relying heavily on James I’s book Daemonologie, Hopkins and Stearne tortured women into confessing. They were made subject to humiliating full body searches looking for Devil’s Marks. A Devil’s Mark was a spot on the body where a witch’s imp, or ‘familiar’, would suckle. In these paranoid times any unusual blemish such as a scar, extra nipple or even a birth mark could be seen as a Devil’s Mark. The marks were then pricked with a long sharp pin. If they didn’t bleed or if the women didn’t feel any pain, it was proof that these blemishes were indeed Devil’s Marks.
Other forms of torture included sleep deprivation and ‘walking’ where the accused were forced to walk until they had blisters on their feet. Most shockingly was the ‘swimming’ test. Women were tied up and thrown into a body of water, if they sank (and drowned) then they were innocent but if they floated then this was seen as a sign that the water (God’s holy element used for baptisms) had refused to receive the person and had cast them out, thus proving their guilt.
Elizabeth Clarke who was over 80 years old and with only one leg was the first to break. While under torture she named the other women. However, during their trial it was Rebecca West who had the most compelling evidence. She claimed that a group of women, including her own mother, had forced her to participate in a strange supernatural ritual. During this ritual they commanded the spirits to kill a man’s horse, his cows and a child. She then claimed that later that night the devil came into her room to marry her before consummating their relationship.
A minister by the name of Mr Long testified against them as well. He claimed that after accusing a local woman of being a witch she swore before God that she was innocent but was immediately struck to the ground trembling and crying. She stayed like this for two days. Afterwards she confessed to Mr Long that she had made a pact with the devil who had visited her in the shape of a squirrel. She also confessed that she and her fellow witches had caused the storm which had hit the area in March, killing several people who had been onboard a small boat.
Even their gaoler in Colchester believed they were witches. He accused them of magically stealing his lunch, a shoulder of mutton.
In total 33 women were accused of witchcraft and tried in the courts in Chelmsford. The confessions of Elizabeth Clarke, Rebecca West and Reverend Long were all that was needed. A total of 19 women, including Elizabeth Clarke and Rebecca’s mother Anne were hanged for witchcraft. Rebecca and eight other women were given reprieves.
The Manningtree Witch Trials were the first of many for Matthew Hopkins and his associate John Stearne. Over the next two years, they were paid handsomely for extracting confessions from so called witches all over the region of East Anglia.
Hopkins was accused by many of wrongfully persecuting innocent people for profit. It was claimed that he made around £1000 during his time as Witch-Finder General. A staggering amount of money for that time.
His methods were also deemed to be overly cruel and were responsible for hundreds of false confessions. He addressed his critics shortly before his death in his book, The Discovery of Witches. In it Hopkins directly answers some of the questions people had about the efficacy of his work. He claimed that no confession had been extracted during torture, that confessions were only accepted in between sessions. He said that the reasons for forcing women to walk for hours was due to the fact that when they sat, their familiars would come to them, frightening the interrogators. Although sleep deprivation was used, the accused were given a full night’s sleep before extracting confessions. The method known as ‘swimming’ was claimed to be used at the request of the women themselves. Anyone who feared they had a Devil’s Mark could asked to be tested. If they sank they knew they would be cleared of any wrongdoing.
The Witch-Finder General, Matthew Hopkins died of consumption in 1647. During his short career, he was directly responsible for around 300 deaths in East Anglia alone. His book would go on to inspire other witch hunters including those involved in the infamous Salem Witch Trials of New England.