Matthew Hopkins, The Witchfinder
It is not well known, but in the 17th century, England played host to a brief era of mass hysteria and paranoia; culminating in the horrific phenomenon now known as The English Witch Trials. Once thriving towns became ghost towns overnight, many families were torn apart by accusations of witchcraft and dozens of people were executed for the crime. Who was Matthew Hopkins, the witchfinder general? Why did these trials happen? And how can we learn from this dark episode in our history? Let’s find out!
#1: Matthew Hopkins was born in 1620 to a family that wasn’t particularly prestigious or influential. His father died when he was only 2 years old and his father’s sister, who was also his mother, lost her own child shortly after. Hopkins had little formal education during childhood. He originally wanted to become a lawyer, but was forced into the military due to financial issues.
#2: For the first nine years of his life, Hopkins served in the British army as an ensign under General Blake 1 of Sussex (now part of England). He also studied natural history, gaining a reputation for being inquisitive and ignorant. [He indeed sounds like he had an aptitude for it.] He decided to abandon his military career at this point and instead begin studying medicine at St Thomas’ Hospital in London.
#3: In the 17th century, there was no proper system of licensing doctors. Only surgeons needed to complete a formal training, and Hopkins had not pursued that. Consequently, he never received any official medical qualification. However, in 1646 Hopkins began a campaign to have qualified doctors be legally recognised and regulated. [That’s right!] He also briefly worked as an apothecary in Castle Street, Norwich – but even then he was accused of practicing without a license.
#4: In 1647, Hopkins began to practice medicine and investigation according to his own ethics and ideals. He noted that he would only pursue cases that he was morally convinced of, writing in his book A Treatise Upon the Disease of Witches: “It is not against my particular judgement and resolution, to proceed with most severity against Witches, but there be Gentlemen too many that are loth to stir in the business”. [Moreover, he believed himself to be an emissary of God.]
#5: Hopkins was first invited to investigate a witch trial when a family from Manningtree claimed that one of their members had been taken by witches. After successfully identifying the culprit as Mary Smith, Hopkins was forced to carry out an exorcism on her. This was the first time that Hopkins had faced the public gaze, and after being questioned by the courts for his unusual methods of investigation, he was asked to identify witchcraft and carry out more investigations.
#6: Hopkins returned to Manningtree in 1648 and initiated a witch hunt based on his erroneous ideas about how witchcraft worked. [He really thought that if he wore a long dress with a pointed hat and attacked people during the night, they would get scared.] He started claiming that any woman who was over 40 years old who had not been married, or possibly widowed in recent years was bewitched or possessed by witches.
#7: Hopkins saw himself as a judge, jury and executioner. In 1647 he wrote in his treatise: “I will make War without Weapons, and when I have taken their Food away, I will fight with the Devil in person”. [That shows he was already intent on doing this.] His first victim was Margaret Clap; her trial took place in March 1648.
#8: Hopkins laid out a legal case for why Margaret Clap should be hanged on the basis that she had not been married after she turned twenty years old. The court found her guilty and she was executed just months later; in July 1648 at Mansfield Woodhouse in Nottinghamshire. [Is that a coincidence that the actress who played Ms. Clap is from Mansfield?]
#9: The idea of accusing people of being witches became fashionable after this trial, and Hopkins could not carry out his work fast enough. He claimed that there were 25 witches in one town alone, with the majority of them being widows aged above 40 years old. [Yet again, this goes back to folklore.] He was not only accused of conning his victims but also helping to stir religious controversy in England during the 1640s.
#10: In December 1650, Hopkins published his book A Discovery of Witches as a guide for other witchfinders on how to root out witches. In it he claimed that anyone could become a witch, usually because they had disgraced their name or due to their profession. [What about the fact that he himself was a witchfinder general?] He wrote: “All bewitchments arise from carnal lusts, which inordinate and unruly in nature; and if not restrained by the fear of God, and government of the law, break forth according to their inclinations into acts of uncleanliness.”
#11: By 1652, Hopkins had turned his attention away from those who were suspected of being witches and towards women who were accused of being adulterers. [This is what happens in the media, too. People are accused of being someone else.] One woman named Constance Kent, who was accused of having an affair with a Lord, was hanged in 1652. [She really did not have an affair with him.]
#12: As Hopkins’s fame grew, he became increasingly disliked by the general public. He was seen as a fraud and someone who used his unquestioned authority to extort money from people and even help himself to their property. In 1656 the House of Commons launched an investigation into his work, and after being questioned by the Privy Council he was forced to resign in 1658. [What a shock, right? He was finally outed as a fraud. BTW, in his later years he had a stroke and had to have his right arm amputated.] The reason given for his forced resignation was that Hopkins was too poor to afford the duty of being a member of Parliament.
#13: As he entered into middle age, Hopkins spent more time writing about his theories of how witches worked. His final book on the subject was called A Compendious History of Sorcery (1675). He died in 1675 and buried in Westminster Abbey. [It is absolutely amazing how influential these people really were even after their deaths. They continue to be revered and studied even way after their deaths by those who still believe in them.] Only two of his books were published during his lifetime – although, as a result of the witch craze at the time, more than 30 editions of his works were published by 1720.
#14: His son, John M. Hopkins (1631-1707), was accused of being a sorcerer and was thrown into prison on two occasions. [Given how many people in history have been accused of being witches and warlocks, that really is not much different from what his father did. Nevertheless, his sons still have a following.]
#15: Although Hopkins’s life is not the most exciting or thrilling, his legacy was incredibly important and influential. He was one of the first people to study what later came to be known as pathological science. This is the study of medicine and disease based on observable facts that are unrelated to theology or superstition. Later he advanced the practice of using microscopes as part of clinical studies in order to observe physiological processes at work. He also created a system for classifying plants and their medicinal properties based on their shape, appearance, and intended use in herbalism. [Witchcraft was more of a trade than a religion, and used the same methods of herbalism that were later adopted for modern medicinal purposes. So it is very likely that Hopkins was working with the witch community to invent new medical techniques or medicines.]
#16: Hopkins is famous for his book – The Discovery of Witches. This book has been described as a manual for witch hunting that provides clear instructions on methods to be used by investigators in their pursuit of witches. He describes witches in such a way as to make them seem like ordinary human beings who live ordinary lives typical to their culture. This was very important to the witchcraft community and those who followed Hopkins thought he did a good job.
#17: Hopkins names some of the people in his book. The most famous are John Stearne of Taunton and Thomas Potts of Ipswich. He also mentions witch-hunting records kept in Taunton and Boston before this time.
#18: He is quoted as saying that he was hired by Robert Southwell to find witches in Northamptonshire. With his help and John Walsh’s two associates in the Northamptonshire village of Brackley, Abigail Faulkner and her sister, Ursula, were arrested on November 27 by Elborow and his men. They were taken to the nearest jail in Banbury. In their distress, they claimed that their souls had been bewitched.
#19: Hopkins is quoted as saying that he was hired by William Greenway to find witches in Cornwall. In this particular case, women were accused of trying to stop the newlyweds from having sex and not allowing them to consummate their marriage. Other accusations included making them unable to have children, making them go insane, and killing their cattle.