While much is unknown about Matthew Hopkins, The Witchfinder General, one thing is certain—he brought fear and loathing to Manningtree, England. Matthew became the most feared man in the area, and left a legacy of death and destruction.
“I am your confessor,” whispered the young man. “Tell me when you made a pact with the devil,” he demanded.
“Not I. I am innocent. I know no devil,” cried the old woman.
“Tell me, witch!” he yelled.
“I am no witch,” she cried.
Searchers & Signs of the Devil
Four days earlier, hired women called Searchers, burst into an 80-year old, one-legged widow’s home, named Elizabeth Clarke. Under orders from John Stearns and Matthew Hopkins, the hired female henchwomen strip searched the old woman, shaved her body and found a skin blemish on her genitals. Elizabeth Clark sat accused of witchery and making a pact with the devil.
Any blemish on the skin was proof that a pact with the devil existed, consummated through sexual relations. Then, the witch obtained supernatural powers from the devil to harm and maim others. It is difficult to imagine a disabled 80-year-old woman being tortured to force a confession over sexual relations with the devil.
This dark history began in the East Angelica part of England, when the town tailor John Rivet swore before two magistrates that his wife’s illness stemmed from witchery. He named the witch as Elizabeth Clarke. A local landowner John Stearns took John Rivet’s case further by claiming he had eye-witness testimony as to Elizbeth’s refusal to deny being a witch.
The locals knew Elizabeth Clarke well. Being a disabled widow, she relied on the help of others. In return, Elizabeth offered a bad-temper and cursing to the locals. This did not make her very popular with the town folk. They started to see her as a burden on their resources.
Legal Warrant Starts the Hunt
The magistrates issued the warrant permitting John Stearns, who had no legal background at all, to investigate Elizabeth Clarke and others who may be suspect of witchcraft. Prior to Stearns beginning his investigation, a man about 10 years younger than himself offered help. His name was Matthew Hopkins.
- Matthew Hopkins, The Witchfinder General. He created the title as there were no freelance witch hunters in England at this time.
Matthew Hopkins was the son of a zealot preacher. Like his father, he was devout in a fanatical way and held the acceptance that believing in God was not enough. One must act in deed to show his unwavering belief.
England was no stranger to witch hunting as their former King James I penned his book Daemonologie. However, England, under his son Charles I, witnessed witch hunting dissipate until the English Civil War began. Witches were blamed for starting the war, for death, for crop failures, miscarriages, dead livestock and Plague.
Torture to Obtain Confession
While Elizabeth Clarke was a tough old woman, after three days and night with no sleep, the deprivation of water and the denial of food, she eventually confessed to being a witch. The poor older woman was unable to stand up against the searchers, who worked on her in shifts and with the appearance of Hopkins and Stearns to the scene, she confessed.
Eventually, as they continued the torture, the badgering and the degradation, she claimed to belong to a coven. She named other women in the neighborhood, opening the door for Hopkins to hunt more witches.
Elizabeth was arrested in March and by June, Hopkins and Stearns had 30 waiting for trial for the charge of witchcraft. The accused were placed in prison at Colchester Castle and many died prior to the court date. They were held together in a small cell with no sanitation and dark, dank conditions. They were beaten by the guards, denied food and some died of typhus
By this time, Matthew Hopkins emerged as the most feared man in Manningtree. He obtained confessions using his sleep deprivation technique. His wallet grew fatter as people begged him to visit to rid their towns of witches. He was feeling pretty good about himself and decided to call himself the Witchfinder General.
While there was a buzz of discourse in the village over the cost to the town and the treatment of the women, the trial moved forward.
Betrayal by an Accused
In court, Elizabeth professed her innocence, but Hopkins brought forth her confession obtained under torture. He also secured additional testimony from another accused women named Rebecca West. He offered her freedom in exchange for her witness against the other witches. It appeared to be a simple choice for a young woman under 20 whose only other choice would be death.
Rebecca’s testimony in court was fantastical. She confessed to sexual liaisons with the devil and implicated all of the others accused. The accused held no legal representations and the trial became a chaotic scene. 15 of the women were found guilty as Rebecca walked from the court room free.
Fifteen were hanged in Chelmsford, four hanged in Manningtree and nine of the accused were reprieved. It remains the largest number of witch convictions in English history.
After this infamous case, Hopkins gave himself the title of Witch Finder General. Amazingly enough, Hopkins didn’t need to hunt out the witches himself. He frequented a local pub and listened to the gossip of the neighborhoods. Widows, like Elizabeth Clarke has no protection and due to her disability was a financial burden on the town. Social cleansing appears to have motivated the townsfolk to part sake in this horrific period of killing their neighbors.
Under the Witchfinder General, Matthew Hopkins, 112 people between the years 1645 and 1647 were found guilt of witchcraft and sentenced to death. Their confessions obtained through the torture of sleep deprivation.
As Matthew Hopkins fees increased, the folks began to question his motives. Others remained appalled over the treatment of the accused witches. Eventually, his services were no longer needed. He died a few years later of consumption and is buried in an unmarked grave.
Gaskill, Malcolm, Witchfinders-A Seventeenth Century English Tragedy. ISBN 0-7195-6121-6
Hopkin, Matthew, The Discovery of Witches: In Answer to Severall Queries, Lately Delivered to the Judges of Assize for the County of Norfolk.