Just who was Matthew Hopkins – and does it really matter?

A cloaked figure in breeches, with a neatly trimmed beard and moustache, knee high boots adorned with spurs, a jaunty hat upon his head and a stick in his hand, chances are when you hear the name Matthew Hopkins you conjure up this image:

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Or perhaps this one:

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If you search the web for images or articles about the most notorious man in the history of the English witch hunts, these will usually be the illustrations you get. And to prove it – here they are in my very own blog post! The problem is that there is very little actually known and precious little documentations about Hopkins’ early life and his life after he stopped persecuting witches. So just who was this man who was responsible for the execution of between 200 to 300 women in two years and what drove him to become the most prolific of witch hunters?

He is certainly a man shrouded in mystery. No-one knows exactly when he was born, but it is thought to be around 1620, making him only 24 when he began his witch hunting campaign. The evidence that connects Matthew to his father is the registering of Matthew’s own death. An entry in the register held by the Suffolk records office states:

‘1647 Aug 12 Matthew s M: James Hopkings, Minister of Wenham, buried at Mistley’

The‘s’ here means son, and the ‘M’ Mister. So, Matthew, son of James, was buried at Mistley on August 12th 1647, likely a few hours after his death.

This leads us to the history of Matthew’s father. There is precious little about him either, but it is known that he was a puritan clergyman – vicar of St John’s in Great Wenham in Suffolk and that he and his wife had children. One of these is probably the John Hopkins mentioned in parish records in September 1645 as appointed as Minister of South Fambridge in Essex. A subsequent entry states that he neglected his post and was replaced in June of the following year.

There is no information relating to Matthew’s childhood and adolescence, although it has been variously suggested that he attended school, spent his formative years on the continent and that he trained as a lawyer.  His performances in court may give some credence to this claim, but again, there is no evidence to support the assumption.  It is also thought that he purchased an inn in Mistley from which he carried out his investigations – on the site there now stands ‘The Mistley Thorn Hotel’ – which I whole-heartedly recommend, having eaten there during my research trip to Manningtree!

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A plaque on the wall outside ‘The Mistley thorn’ in Mistley, Manningtree.  A wonderful place to eat – but a bit spooky at midnight!

His death is also somewhat of a mystery. Although we have the date and place of burial, and can justifiable say that he died at around the age of 27, it is not known for sure what Matthew died from.  Although the most likely cause is tuberculosis, myths have flourished – including the belief that he died the same death that he inflicted on his victims. Again, this is something we will never know.  And his grave no longer exists – the Church of St Mary’s in Mistley Heath has vanished, along with its graveyard, and any last sign of this man’s existence.

So, for a writer basing a novel on the life of a man so little is known about, at first I found the lack of evidence and fact frustrating.  How could I write a credible story without a full account of the man?  But then, as I became more drawn in to the myths and stories of the time, it became apparent to me that writing a book that was almost a factual biography was not what I wanted to do.  Without hard evidence my imagination could run wild – Matthew could be whoever I wanted him to be and the story could move in whatever direction I chose.  So I don’t pretend that ‘The Black Hours’ should be viewed as a history book.  I would never presume to have the knowledge and expertise to do so.  Rather, I have taken inspiration from events in history, and from a particular historical figure, and imagined how that person would act and talk and think.  I can fabricate incidents to form his opinions and make up events about his father and his childhood that explain the way Matthew behaves in the novel. I am lucky that there is not much known about Matthew– it has allowed me so much more freedom with the novel.  However, all the methods used for interrogation in the book, all the beliefs about witchcraft and imps and curses are all based on actual events, documentation and stories from the period.  I have tried to be as accurate as possible in describing life as it was in the 1640s and hope that, although this is a work of imagination, it is realistic enough to go some way to telling the story of what really happened to the victims of the Witchfinder General.

Resources:

http://www.witchtrials.co.uk/matthew.html

http://www.bbc.co.uk/dna/place-london/plain/A6358926

http://www.sawneybean.com/horrors/matthew.htm

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