The life of Matthew Hopkins, the opportunistic 'Witchfinder General'

Left: A portrait from Hopkins from the 1857 edition of The Discovery of Witches. Right: Mary Dyer being led to her execution
Left: A portrait from Hopkins from the 1857 edition of The Discovery of Witches. Right: Mary Dyer being led to her execution

The first official mention of Matthew Hopkins - the infamous ‘Witchfinder General’ - appears in 1644 in the town of Manningtree in Essex. According to local legend, Hopkins turned up in the town to buy a local inn with money he had inherited from his late father, a puritan preacher by the name of John Hopkins. It was in Manningtree that Hopkins met John Stearne, another enthusiastic ‘witchfinder’ who would work closely with Hopkins throughout a fourteen-month reign of terror across East Anglia and beyond.

It was Stearne who first accused a group of Manningtree women of witchcraft. England at that time was a suspicious and God-fearing land highly susceptible to the idea that witches lurked around every corner. This had its origins in the paranoia of the late King James I, who became convinced that the land he ruled was beset by devilry and witchcraft. His fear of the supernatural led him to write a book on the subject called ‘Demonologie’ in 1597. James’ paranoia spread amongst his people, so much so that by the 1640s it was a commonly held belief that the country was awash with witches and that they must be rooted out and exterminated by any means necessary.

In a world with no social safety nets where you made your money any way you could regardless of how morally questionable that was, Hopkins was only too happy to jump on the witchfinding bandwagon. A self-styled investigator, Hopkins set about finding evidence of witchcraft among the group of women Stearne had accused. He subjected the women to sleep deprivation and employed the services of ‘seekers’ - women who would search the accused's' bodies for what was known as the ‘Devil’s Mark’. In reality, this mark of Satan was often little more than a birthmark, a small deformity or a blemish, but if the seekers said they were the dreaded Devil’s Mark, that was good enough for Hopkins and Stearne.

Following Hopkins’ and Stearne’s ‘investigation’, thirty-six women were formally charged with witchcraft in Manningtree. Nineteen of the women were found guilty and hanged. Hopkins and Stearne were paid handsomely for helping to bring the accused to ‘justice’.

Their next triumph came a month after the events in Manningtree. Hopkins, Stearne and their retinue of seekers pitched up in Bury St Edmunds in Suffolk. There, they were set to work investigating over a hundred people accused of witchcraft. This time around, Hopkins and Stearne secured the conviction and execution of eighteen people in one day, sixteen of whom were women. A second trial, again using the ‘evidence’ gathered by Hopkins and Stearne, saw the conviction of another sixty to seventy people.

The sheer number of executions in Bury led the parliamentary news-sheet, The Moderate Intelligencer, to question the efficacy of the trials. The news-sheet’s editor questioned why the devil would choose to exclusively communicate with a bunch of poor, uneducated women. Was there perhaps not some other explanation? Were Hopkins and Stearne perhaps driven more by financial gain than a desire to root out witchcraft, callously dispensing with the lives of those ill-equipped to fight back to better themselves? “Life is precious and there is need of great inquisition before it is taken away,” the editorial argued.

Unconcerned by this, Hopkins and Stearne set about offering their witchfinding services to towns across Norfolk, Cambridgeshire, Northamptonshire, Suffolk, Essex, Bedfordshire and Huntingdonshire. After their successes in Manningtree and Bury, their ‘seekers’ had been upgraded to ‘prickers’ who not only continued to seek out the Devil’s Mark but now used needles, knives and bodkins to prick their victims to see if they flinched or bled. If they did neither, it was seen as a surefire sign of witchcraft, which led some to believe that Hopkins and his prickers used retractable blades to make sure no flinching or bloodletting was observed.

New torture methods were also introduced. As well as sleep deprivation, these included making the accused stand or squat in a room for hours on end without food or water as they were ‘watched’ intently by one of the two witchfinders. Another method involved ‘walking’ an accused to the point of exhaustion and then offering rest in exchange for a confession. And then, of course, there was the most famous method of all - ‘ducking’, where the accused was tied to a chair and thrown in a river or pond. If they floated, they were guilty; if they sank and possibly drowned before they could be rescued, they were innocent. To be found guilty of being a witch in the England of the 1640s sometimes depended on whether you’d learned to swim or not.

Hopkins and Stearne toured the land as ‘official’ witchfinders, claiming they had parliamentary authority to carry out their investigations. In fact, the two men had no such authority, having made up both their credentials and their titles. ‘Witchfinder General’, as Hopkins was later infamously known, was a title he actually gave to himself. At most, it is believed the two men merely possessed papers granting them safe passage as they went from town to town - an essential in a time of civil war.

Despite their lack of authority, news of the two witchfinders quickly spread and they were soon being invited by local communities to carry out their investigations. The two were well paid for their work, and it is generally believed that this, more than a desire to stamp out witchcraft, was their real motivation. At his height, Hopkins could bring in as much as £23 to carry out an investigation, a huge sum at the time and the reason why some places such as Ispwich had to raise local income taxes just to afford the witchfinder's services.

Unfortunately (for Hopkins and Stearne, at least), clouds were soon gathering on the horizon for this highly lucrative new business. Ever since the executions in Bury, questions had been raised about the men’s activities and the methods they used to extract confessions. A prominent local puritan preacher by the name of John Gaule objected to the methods the men used and began openly preaching against them in his sermons. Gaule also published a book called ‘Select Cases of Conscience touching Witches and Witchcraft’ which exposed Hopkins’ and Stearne’s methods and questioned their legitimacy. The book was widely read and led many prominent people to question why two men with no apparent authority were allowed to roam the land torturing the poor for money.

When the two men arrived to give evidence at the Norfolk Assizes where several people had been accused of witchcraft, a group of local gentlemen who had read and been troubled by Gaule’s book presented Hopkins with a set of probing questions about the methods he used to extract confessions. They accused Hopkins of subjecting his victims to ‘an abominable, inhumane and unmercifull tryall of those poore creatures, by tying them, and heaving them into the water; a tryall not allowable by Law or conscience.’

Realising the game was up, Hopkins retired to Manningtree and Stearne to Bury in 1647. In their fourteen months on the road, it is estimated they were responsible for the deaths of between two and three hundred people.

In retirement, Hopkins decided to justify his actions and rebuff the accusations of John Gaule by writing a book of his own outlining his methods and attempting to add an air of legitimacy to what was quite clearly nothing more than a sadistic money-making scheme. The subsequent tome, A Discovery of Witches, was a best seller and became particularly popular in America where its descriptions of the methods Hopkins deployed for extracting confessions were used in witch hunts across New England, in particular during the infamous Salem Witch Trials of the 1690s.

Hopkins died, probably of tuberculosis, on the 12th of August 1647. He was, remarkably, only in his late twenties when he died. He has since become one of the most notorious bogeymen of English history, his myth helped in no small part by the release of the 1968 horror film, Witchfinder General, starring Vincent Price. In reality, the fearsome Matthew Hopkins was nothing more than an opportunist who used the suspicions of others and the torture of innocents to make himself a very rich man.

Written by:

BP Perry