The widespread hunting of witches in Europe is often supposed to be a relic of the Middle Ages. In fact, medieval authorities were not terribly concerned with the prospect of witchcraft among the peasantry, being far more worried about heresy among the influential. Witches only became a preoccupation at the end of the fifteenth century, and remained so through the early modern period, with the cycle of pursuit only being put to rest in the eighteenth century. While superstition is undoubtedly a part of the problem, the dynamics of mass hysteria show it to be more a part of the modern age than of the Middle Ages.
On the whole, England’s participation in that hysteria was comparatively small. While witchcraft was deemed a crime throughout the Middle Ages, the penalty was limited to banishment until the reign of Henry VIII. Even then, it became a capital offense only on the second occasion. It was the accession of the Scottish king James VI to the English throne that changed this for the worse. King James was obsessed with witchcraft, due in part to his belief that Scottish witches had tried to assassinate him through magic some years before. His Witchcraft Act served as the basis for witch hunts from its promulgation in 1604 until its abrogation in 1736.
This legal change brought about an upswing in witchcraft cases in England – still fewer incidents than in Switzerland, eastern France, and southwest German, but more than previously had been the case. A careful reading of such incidents reveals a number of themes often cited in the literature: accusations of witchcraft being leveled against rivals or unpopular neighbors, confessions under duress resulting in the incrimination of numerous others, and children in the role of accusers leading to more victims.
For the most part, though, the pursuit of witches in England was occasional, rather than systematic. The one glaring exception to that rule occurred during the dislocation caused by the English Civil War. In that conflict, King and Parliament fought over which would play the more decisive role in the British government. The points at issue were fundamentally political ones, with precedents leading back to the Magna Carta, but there was also a significant religious component to the conflict. Here the dispute was about the direction of the Church of England. Under King Charles I, the English Church was developing a style that in some respects brought a Catholic flavor; Calvinists, of which there were many on the Parliamentarian side, wanted instead to purge the Church of precisely such elements. This only served to make the dispute more bitter.
It was into this context that Matthew Hopkins stepped. Hopkins, the son of a Puritan minister and a lawyer by trade, became involved in a witchcraft case in the spring of 1644. Hopkins’ motives can only be a matter of conjecture; in all probability, some measures of sincere belief and cynical manipulation mingled in his intentions. However it was, he brought to bear all of the pressure he was permitted by law (outright torture being proscribed) against one Elizabeth Clarke, the daughter of a woman who had herself been executed for witchcraft. In time, he elicited the confession he desired, and Clarke named numerous accomplices. In the summer of 1645, a total of 32 people went to trial; 29 were executed. Only a third of them were hanged in Chelmsford itself, the site of the trial; 19 met their deaths in nearby villages, a fact which may have served to make the possibility of witchcraft seem all the more real and present in the region.
Hopkins seemed like the hero of the hour, and consequently village leaders in Essex and East Anglia actively sought his aid. For his part, however, Hopkins bolstered his standing with claims of a Parliamentary commission that have never been proven. He took the title “Witch-Finder General,” and gathered a small team of assistants, namely Jack Stearne, Mary Phillips, Edward Parsley and Frances Mills. Stearne became infamous in his own right for his efforts to discover the Mark of the Devil on his victims’ bodies by pricking them with needles.
For roughly the next two years, this small group traveled from village to village, receiving significant fees from towns desiring to purge themselves of any witches that might be lurking therein. It was usually easy to isolate unpopular villagers, to find something that might be construed as a Devil’s Mark, and then to coerce some kind of confession. The process truly accelerated, however, when Hopkins and his aides resorted to the expedient of “swimming” his suspects.
The tactic of throwing a suspected witch into a body of water had been introduced in 1612. If the water accepted the body – if the person sank, in other words – that person was deemed innocent, but someone who floated was considered a witch. Hopkins turned it into a grand event in which the suspect was lowered into the water on a rope. Of course, the amount of rope that the men lowering the suspect let out essentially determined the suspect’s prospects. In any event, this practice swelled the numbers of the accused to 200 as 1645 ended. Overworked judges insisted that Hopkins pause in his searches while they dealt with existing cases. 68 of these were eventually hanged, although the process was delayed by the fortunes of war, which brought the front lines of battle perilously close.
Hopkins moved on, visiting numerous villages and several towns in 1646 and the beginning of 1647. A certain weariness began to set in among town elders, much as would also be seen later in the Salem incidents in Massachusetts. John Gaule, a clergyman at Great Staughton, challenged Hopkins both in his sermons and in a pamphlet that he had published in 1646. Hopkins told his side of the story in a pamphlet of his own, “The Discovery of Witchcraft,” in 1647, but he could see that the time had come to cease operations.
Hopkins did not long enjoy retirement. He died in August of the same year, apparently of tuberculosis. Popular legend cherishes the notion that he was, himself, accused of witchcraft, and drowned during the same “swimming” procedure by which he had condemned so many others, but there is no evidence to support such a contention.
Nor is it clear just how many died as a result of Hopkins’ zeal, but estimates suggest around 200 – roughly one-fifth of the total number of witches executed in England. Witch hunts appeared on an occasional basis during Cromwell’s Protectorate, and still more rarely after the monarchy was restored in 1660; 1684 saw the last execution for witchcraft in England.
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