On August 27, 1645, the small town of Bury St Edmunds, England set a grisly record. That day, 18 men and women were hanged together as witches. It was the single biggest mass-execution for witchcraft in English history, and it was all the work of one man. Matthew Hopkins was many things: a tavern owner, a former lawyer, a dedicated Puritan. But, to the people of Bury St Edmunds, he had only title worth knowing: Witchfinder General.
The son of a minister, Hopkins began plying his gruesome trade in 1645, at the height of the First English Civil War. Together with his associate John Stearne, he was personally responsible for the torture and execution of more women than every single English witchfinder in the previous century. But Hopkins’ tale is more than just a catalog of atrocity. It’s a tale of what can happen when an entire nation succumbs to fear and mass hysteria. Today we examine how one zealous man managed to corrupt England’s soul.
A World on the Edge
When Matthew Hopkins was born in Wenham, Suffolk, probably in 1620, it was into a world that was alive with superstition in a way we simply can’t conceive of. A king was on the throne – King James I – who didn’t just believe in witches, but had literally written the book on them, Demonology. Britain’s fastest growing religious movement, Puritanism, took it for granted that Satan himself walked the byways and country lanes of England.
Wellcome Collection gallery (2018-03-31): https://wellcomecollection.org/works/veebwm5d CC-BY-4.0, CC BY 4.0, Link
For Hopkins, this meant a childhood that was practically drowning in superstition. His father, John, was a Puritan minister who preached fire and brimstone, as was his uncle and one of his brothers. It’s likely they even had a copy Demonology lying around the house.
We say “likely”, because there’s a lot we actually don’t know about Matthew Hopkins’ early life. While centuries of legends claim he did this or that, the historical record is pretty sparse.
Take his education. There’s some evidence he may have gone to Holland to finish his schooling, just as there’s some evidence he “may” have trained as a lawyer.
But we’re going to be honest with you and simply say: we don’t know. Maybe all of that is true. Maybe none of it is.
What is true is that his father passed away at some point, likely around 1635. Come 1640, Matthew moved ten miles down the road to Manningtree, Essex. Local lore has it that he purchased the Thorn Inn in nearby Mistley, but really? That’s just another guess.
But it’s here that the guesswork finally ends. We know that Hopkins was in Manningtree by the end of 1640. We also know he was around 19 or 20 years old. And that’s important, because 1640 was the year that the peaceful England of Hopkins’ youth finally fractured into a billion jagged pieces.
It was time for the English Civil War
Witchcraft and War
If you’ve watched our video on Oliver Cromwell, and – modesty aside – it does make a useful crib sheet for this entire period, you’ll know that 1640 ended with a Scottish army occupying the north of England and King Charles I forced to call a new Parliament to raise taxes. The ins and outs don’t really matter for today’s story, but the upshot is that this led to something called the Long Parliament, which led to something called the Grand Remonstrance, which, in 1642, led to Charles deciding to crush Parliament in a war.
Public Domain, Link
Please don’t shout at us in the comments for all the stuff we missed out, this is a super condensed timeline just to give you some background.
The war was hard on England, as civil wars tend to be. Local courts were suspended in many regions, and law and order broke down. In their place came famine, fuel shortages, and biting poverty.
Places like the east of England, where Hopkins lived, were particularly hard hit. Much of the east was staunchly Puritan and pro-Parliament, which was a huge problem when nearby Oxford was the base of the king’s anti-Puritan army.
To use a crude analogy, living in Essex during the dark days of the war would have been like living in Poland shortly after Hitler annexed Czechoslovakia. You know the hammer is going to fall, you just don’t know when. And that waiting could send men mad.
Men like Sir Harbottle Grimston.
Back in 1640, the livestock on Sir Grimston’s vast estate – an estate that included Hopkins’ new home – had begun to be plagued by mysterious illnesses.
As the ongoing war worsened the situation, the local peasantry turned to superstition to explain things. Before long, they were certain it had to be the work of a witch.
In 1645, they finally identified her.
Elizabeth Clarke, sometimes rendered Clark without the ‘e’, was an elderly widow living on Sir Grimston’s lands. That March, a lynch mob of villagers presented her to Sir Grimston as the source of all his woes.
Like the good Christian he was, Sir Grimston recommended Elizabeth Clarke for trial.
So, we’re gonna do a quick leap back in time here to give you some background on witch trials in England, a) because it’s interesting, and b) because it will help you understand how terrifyingly unique Hopkins was.
Prior to the era we’re talking about, witch hunting hadn’t really been a thing in England. In the Medieval period, witches were actually seen as healers and pillars of their communities. It wasn’t until 1563, under Elizabeth I, that the Bill against Conjuration and Witchcrafts and Sorcery and Enchantments made witchcraft illegal.
Even then, it was barely illegal. The first major witch trial in 1566 found all three defendants guilty and sentenced them to just a single year in prison.
That’s right. No torture. No burning at the stake. Just 12 months down the nick.
Now, we need to be clear that English women were executed for witchcraft in this period. Unlike on the continent, though, their deaths were closer to lynchings.
Local magistrates would get caught up in a panic and sign a death warrant, only to be later punished by their superiors for being credulous fools. Executions weren’t government policy unless the witch was using her supposed powers to commit other capital crimes, like murder.
That all changed when James I ascended to the throne.
On March 24, 1603, Elizabeth I breathed her last in the chilly rooms of Richmond Palace. Barely was she cold before her successor, James I, was ramming anti-witch legislation through parliament.
James I was obsessed with witchcraft. In 1589 he’d been on a boat that nearly sank in a storm that was blamed on witches, and the experience sent him a little cuckoo. In 1597 he published Demonology – the witch finding book James Hopkins had kept lying around Matthew’s childhood home.
In 1604 James I turned this personal obsession into legal reality. Parliament passed the Witchcraft Statute, which made the very act of using witchcraft, rather than the spell’s effects, a capital offense.
If that sounds like splitting hairs, the results suggest otherwise. Eight years after the bill passed, ten women were hanged in Pendle for witchcraft. Four years later, another nine were sent to the gallows in Leicester.
By the time you get to Elizabeth Clarke’s trial in 1645, witch trials had become a fact of life in England. The only remarkable thing about them was how comparatively restrained they were. Remember, this was the era of the Wurzburg witch trials, when up to 600 witches were burned alive in Germany. Against such mass slaughter, nine or ten hanged was mild.
Unfortunately, things wouldn’t be mild for much longer.
Back in Mannington, 1645, Matthew Hopkins had gotten wind of Clarke’s impending trial. For whatever reason, something about this news lit a fire in his soul that burned like the fires of Hell. Despite having no training, and no legal standing, Hopkins decided it was his duty to get involved with Clarke’s prosecution.
It was a decision that would very soon lead to the bloodiest witch panic in English history.
A Discovery of Witches
In his 1647 book, The Discovery of Witches, Matthew Hopkins would claim his witch hunting career began in 1644. However, all evidence suggests it was here, with Elizabeth Clarke in March 1645, that he really got into witch finding.
No one today is sure of the exact timeline. But it seems Hopkins was approached by a man ten years his senior named John Stearne, originally from Lowes, Suffolk.
How exactly they got talking is unknown, but it soon transpired Stearne shared Hopkins’ sharply defined view of good and evil. Together, they agreed to make Clarke confess her sins.
At this point in English history, torture was illegal. To elicit a confession, suspected witches would be monitored by Watchers, to see if they summoned any familiars or started zooming around on broomsticks or what have you. Clarke had been being watched for several days now and, so far, nothing.
Until Hopkins and Stearne turned up.
Despite having no legal authority to do so, Hopkins and Stearne convinced the Watchers to turn Clarke’s interrogation over to them. They took her to the Thorn Inn. What happened next is shrouded in mystery.
Hopkins would later claim they witnessed Clarke call her familiars – imps in animal form – to the inn, including a demonic bunny rabbit named Sugar and, no, we’re not making that up. More probably, Hopkins and Stearne tortured the poor old woman. Either way, the result was the same. Clarke confessed to being a witch. And she started naming other “witches”.
Armed with these new names, Stearne and Hopkins approached the Earl of Hardwick, who was presiding over Clarke’s trial. Impressed by the young men’s initiative, Hardwick gave Stearne an official warrant to find more witches in Mannington. Hopkins was made his assistant.
It wouldn’t be long before their roles were reversed.
Over the next few weeks, Hopkins and Stearne conducted their inquiries. The five women named by Clarke were all taken in and interrogated until they, too, confessed and gave up names. Within no time at all, the witchfinders had jailed 23 women and Mannington was in the grip of a full-blown witch panic.
The trial was sensational. Puritan writer Nehemiah Wallington recorded the whole thing, including the lurid testimony of Rebecca West, who’d been jailed by Hopkins alongside her mother Anne. West claimed she’d been forced to have sex with the devil, and that only her mother’s death could save her from Satan’s spell. The jury obliged by having Anne hanged.
By the end of the Essex Trials, 18 women had hanged, including Elizabeth Clarke. Four had died in jail. Only Rebecca West, who’d sacrificed her own mother, was set free.
It was the deadliest witch panic to have yet hit England. Even if Hopkins and Stearne had never tried another witch, the Essex trials would still be famous.
Sadly, the two witchfinders were only just beginning.
Buoyed by his success in Manningtree, perhaps enjoying his newfound celebrity, Hopkins bestowed upon himself the title Witchfinder General. Armed with Hardwick’s warrant, he and Stearne headed east, following the wake of the shocking news of Clarke’s execution.
It was this news that became the spark that would turn the east of England into an inferno.
In December, 1643, the Provost Marshal of the Parliamentarian Eastern Association commissioned William Dowsing to destroy all non-Puritan icons in Suffolk. Dowsing took to the job like an extremist duck to water. Way into 1644 he rampaged across the east, burning churches, vandalizing icons, and encouraging Puritan extremism.
Eventually, Dowsing’s zealotry got so frightening that Oliver Cromwell personally stripped him of his commission. By then the damage was done. Dozens of towns across Suffolk had been reduced to wrecks, their populations either cowed or swept up in religious fervor.
It was these people who, two years later, would call upon the Witchfinder General.
As they left behind the dead of Manningtree and ventured into Suffolk in 1645, Hopkins and Stearne charted a course that took them to many of the towns Dowsing had previously swept through.
It’s a move straight from the modern extremist’s playbook. Identify a person or community already damaged and/or used to extremism – like Dowsing’s smashing of icons – and push them even further into madness. Just as ISIS did on the war-torn plains of Iraq, Hopkins and Stearne soon found an audience in Dowsing’s ruined villages.
The pair’s modus operandi was simple. As they traveled, the witchfinders would let villagers know they were in their area. The villagers responded by inviting them in.
Yep, inviting. Like a pair of misogynistic vampires, Hopkins and Stearne never entered a victim’s home without an invite. In normal times, this would have ensured their crackpot adventure ended as soon as it began.
But these weren’t normal times. People were afraid. Afraid that the King’s army would kill them; that their children would starve; that they would all freeze to death in winter.
In another historical context, that fear might have been turned on Jews or illegal immigrants or any other outsider group. In England of 1645, it was turned onto women.
Once invited into a village, Hopkins and Stearne set to work on suspected witches. Unlike the thumbscrew-happy sadists in Europe, Hopkins’ interrogation methods wouldn’t have looked out of place in a CIA handbook.
Victims were made to sit absolutely still, without sleep, for days on end. Others were locked in isolation and denied food or anything but water. Yet others were made to exercise for hours and hours, until they were ready to drop.
At the end of all this psychological torture, the accused nearly always confessed. Hopkins then forced them to name more “witches” in the village, who would in turn confess, and so-on.
That’s not to say the stories you’ve heard about Hopkins aren’t true. He really did test if some women were witches by tying them up and throwing them into rivers. Those that drowned were innocent, those that floated had magic powers and were executed.
For all this bloodshed, Hopkins and Stearne earned anywhere between £6 and £23 per village. At the high end, that’s roughly equivalent to £5,000 or $6,500 today. It’s said Hopkins made £1,000 during his career as a witchfinder, at a time when the average laborer’s wage was a mere 6p a day.
Death, in short, made Matthew Hopkins filthy rich.
Not that he and Stearne actually hung around for the death part. Their confessions elicited, the Witchfinder General and his assistant would vanish into the night, leaving the accused to their fates.
And what fates they were. In August 1645 an 80-year old minister called John Lowes was forced to run on the spot without sleep until he collapsed from exhaustion. On the 27th of that month, 18 women and men were hanged together at Bury St Edmunds, the worst mass-execution of any English witch scare.
Yep, men were killed as witches too. Hopkins was responsible for the execution of between 17 and 20 men for witchcraft during his career, including three husbands who were killed alongside their wives.
But let’s not kid ourselves. Gender was an important factor in determining if you survived a meeting with Matthew Hopkins. In the same space of time that he killed around 20 men, Hopkins sent an estimated 200 women to the gallows.
In September of 1645, the Witchfinder General committed his most notorious act. As the dark nights drew in, Hopkins and Stearne arrived in Ipswich. There, they tried and convicted Mary Lakeland. In a shocking break with tradition, rather than hanging her they had her burned alive.
As the black smoke coiled into the sky over Rushmere Heath, Hopkins pocketed his fee and left. Perhaps he heard Mary Lakeland’s screams and felt sorry for her. Perhaps they made him feel good.
It was the foulest day in the history of English witch hunting. Thankfully, it would also be one of the last.
Ding Dong, the Witchfinder is Dead
So, here’s something you might not have expected. During this whole gynocide thing, Hopkins and Stearne hadn’t exactly been hiding from the authorities. The BBC has reported Hopkins may have been paid for his work by official government sources. Whether that’s true or not, there’s no denying the Witchfinder General soon came to attention of Parliament.
Back in August, 1645, Hopkins’ conviction of John Lowes – that old guy he forced to run up and down until he collapsed – had resulted in a witch panic in Bury St. Edmunds that eventually saw 100 people jailed.
Had Hopkins had his way, all 100 of them would have been executed, but word of the gigantic witch trial leaked to Parliament. It was simply too big to be credible. So Parliament sent their own people out to retry everyone convicted by Hopkins. This time, the trials would be more careful, less tainted by bias. All of which is why, on August 27, “only” 18 witches hanged at Bury St Edmunds, rather than the 100 Hopkins had hoped for.
Of course, hanging 18 people for made up magic is still deranged. But here’s the thing. Parliament’s witch hunters were a model of sanity compared to Hopkins and Stearne. In light of the near miss at Bury St Edmunds, many MPs began to wonder if Hopkins was actually a bigger danger than the witches he was finding.
It helped that, by fall of 1645, the conditions that had allowed mass hysteria to flourish were on the wane. The Battle of Naseby in June that year had seen the remaining Royalist forces mostly crushed. The war was now winding down and, with it, the famine, hunger, and fear that had driven the witch panics.
As 1646 dawned, the tide of public opinion had decisively turned against the witchfinders. The Puritan minister John Gaule published a pamphlet that attacked Hopkins in no uncertain terms for the slaughter he was inflicting on the countryside. Gaule was someone who actually believed in witches, but even he could see the Witchfinder General was out of control.
Hopkins tried to fight back. He wrote Gaule a chilling note threatening to come and look for witches in his area if Gaule ever criticized him again. He and Stearne stepped up their visits to villages, but the game was already up.
On April 27, 1646, Charles I was forced to flee Oxford after it fell to Parliamentary forces. Although the King would escape being taken into custody for some weeks, the First English Civil War was over.
Not long after, Parliament summoned Hopkins and Stearne, accusing them of illegal use of torture. Hopkins was now famous, but not as a savior of the Puritan faith. Rather, as a likely charlatan who’d sent countless women to their deaths.
By August, 1646, Hopkins’ credibility with the public was shot. Villagers no longer sought him out. The powerful no longer defended his work. Possibly scared Parliament might try him in turn, the Witchfinder General discarded his phony title and retired back to Manningtree. His entire witch hunting career had lasted less than 18 months.
Still, Hopkins had his blood money and he was still respected by some of the most zealous Puritans. Thanks to this reputation, he was able to publish his book The Discovery of Witches in 1647. When the first editions reached New England, they sparked off a series of witch panics that would culminate in the infamous 1692 Salem Witch Trials.
Not that Hopkins would live to see this last, grisly fulfilment of his legacy.
In August of 1647, at the age of just 26 or 27, Matthew Hopkins keeled over in Manningtree and died. While legend says he was tried as a witch using his own methods and executed, the mundane reality appears to be that tuberculosis carried him off.
Yet, even as Hopkins died, the world he helped create was already fading.
A Poisonous Legacy
By the end of 1648, the vast majority of English women accused of witchcraft were being acquitted. Even when the Second and Third English Civil Wars blew up, followed by Oliver Cromwell’s Puritan dictatorship, nothing like the witch panics of 1645 took hold again.
40 years later, in March 1684, Alicia Molland became the last person to be put to death for witchcraft in English history. There would be more trials, including an infamous one in 1717, but never again would they result in a verdict of execution.
Flash forward to 1735, a full ninety years after Matthew Hopkins’ ghoulish specter last roamed the English countryside. The great Robert Walpole was Prime Minister, and the superstitions of the 17th Century had given way to the scientific curiosity of the 18th.
That year, Parliament passed the Witchcraft Act. It repealed all previous witch laws, and all punishments for witchcraft. Instead, it penalized pretending to be a witch for profit or to influence others. Think about that for a second. Within living memory, Matthew Hopkins had slaughtered 200 women for being witches. Now the law stated that such a thing was impossible, that witchcraft was nothing more than a pretense, a humbug.
We like to think the news sent Matthew Hopkins rolling in his grave.
Finally, on June 13, 1782, Swiss executioners dragged Anna Göldi out to a field and lopped off her head. The blood that pattered down onto the grass was the last blood that would ever be spilled in Europe’s witch hunts. Over the previous three centuries, over 200,000 women had perished at the hands of the continent’s inquisitors. 300 years of misogynistic murder were at last at an end.
But the story doesn’t quite stop there.
In 1921, gardeners were doing some work on a house in the village of St Osyth in Essex when they found a pair of female skeletons. Dating from the era of English witch trials, the two unknown women had iron rivets driven through their joints to stop them rising up from the grave.
It was a chilling, visceral reminder of Hopkins and his methods, transported forward to 20th Century Britain. Even now, traces of his superstitious worldview still linger over the countryside, in local hills and forgotten heaths named for the tortures he inflicted there, or the helpless women who died on them.
Hopkins may be gone, but his legacy lives on. The next time you hear spooky tales of witch trials, or maybe see someone dressed as a witch for Halloween, remember to spare a thought for all the women who died at the hands of England’s Witchfinder General.
- (Lore episode dealing with Hopkins, contains some excellent research not duplicated elsewhere): https://www.lorepodcast.com/episodes/70
- (Two biographies of Hopkins):https://www.historic-uk.com/HistoryUK/HistoryofEngland/Matthew-Hopkins-WitchFinder-General/
- (Malcolm Gaskill’s book on the English witch trials – 3 links):
- (Wallington’s contemporary journal on Hopkins’ first witch trial): https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/8092876/Journal-of-the-witchfinder-general-opened-up.html
- A history of Witchcraft in Suffolk, some background also on Hopkins: https://www.suffolkmag.co.uk/people/suffolks-history-of-witchcraft-1-5748194
- History of witchcraft trials in England: https://www.luthercollege.edu/university/academics/impetus/spring-2011/the-historical-significance-of-matthew-hopkins-englands-witchfinder-general/
- (woodcut of Hopkins – includes names of some familiars) https://www.britishmuseum.org/research/collection_online/collection_object_details.aspx?objectId=3067219&partId=1
- John Gaule’s pamphlet against witch hunts: https://archive.org/details/JohnGauleSermonOnWitches/page/n14
- Last person executed in Europe for witchcraft: https://www.smithsonianmag.com/smart-news/last-witch-executed-europe-gets-museum-180964633/
- William Dowsing, Iconoclast: https://en.wikisource.org/wiki/Dowsing,_William_(DNB00)
- Wurzburg witch trials: https://www.thelocal.de/20140523/history-of-witch-hunts-in-germany
- Hopkins paid from government sources? http://www.bbc.co.uk/legacies/myths_legends/england/essex/article_3.shtml