Month: March 2014

Matthew Hopkins – the man behind ‘The Black Hours’

hopkins 1

Matthew Hopkins is a man whose name has gone down in history as the notorious Witchfinder General, thought to be responsible for the executions of around 200-300 women and men between 1644 and 1647. When compared to the gruesome spree of deaths in the Holy Roman Empire (Germany, Netherlands, Switzerland, Lorraine, Austria including Czech lands – Bohemia, Moravia and Silesia) where estimates of deaths reach about 30,000, this may not seem many, however, Hopkins and his associates had more people killed in that short space of time than in all the other witch hunts in England combined in the previous 160 years.

Hopkins was certainly prolific then, and must have been a man with a firm belief in what he was doing – the numbers indicate a zeal that cannot simply be explained away by the generous rewards he was given by those grateful for his services. This zeal must surely have its roots in Hopkins’ childhood and adolescence, but, frustratingly for those interested in his motives and his mind-set, there is very little known about his background, other than a few parish records; these throw little light on the influences that made Hopkins the man he was.

What we do know about Hopkins then, comes from this short period of time when he was extremely active.  His first victim is thought to be 80-year-old Elizabeth Clarke. This poor woman was ripe for suspicion – she was old, poor, and was missing a leg. She was kept awake for three days, and under this extreme stress, understandably broke down – admitting to having had carnal relations with the devil. It seems ridiculous to us now – but all those years ago this would have been believed.  Poor Elizabeth implicated others, and was hanged – the first of many.


Keeping his suspects awake was only one method in Hopkins’ repertoire. Torture was actually illegal in England at the time; surprisingly, perhaps, depriving someone of sleep for days on end was not considered to be torturing them! Hopkins was careful to stay within the law – and fortunately for him this still enabled him to utilise many methods that would fill most people with horror. He is believed to have used the infamous swimming test. The idea behind this was that since witches had in effect renounced their baptism, any body of water would reject them. The hapless victims were tied, usually right thumb to left toe, and left thumb to right toe. They were then lowered into water. If the victim sank – she was innocent of witchcraft. However, there was the possibility that the dunking would kill her. If she floated, then that was proof of her guilt.

witch swimming

Witch pricking was another method – and it has been claimed that Hopkins had a trick up his sleeve when it came to this one. It was thought that a witch would have areas on her body that would not bleed – either because they were the place where the devil had kissed her to seal their pact, or because this was the spot from which she suckled her familiars. The woman would be pricked with a needle, and if the skin did not bleed, then this was proof of her guilt. Hopkins may have had a special pin made with a retractable blade – the point retracting into the handle when it met resistance. This way, he could quickly establish a suspect’s guilt.

witch pricking

As mentioned in a previous post – the exact circumstances of Hopkins’ death are not clear. He died very young – probably before he reached thirty, most probably from tuberculosis. However, there are some who believe that he met a far more deserved end – his deep knowledge of witchcraft led some to suppose that he was in league with the devil himself. The story goes that he found himself accused and was subjected to the swimming test. When he apparently survived this he was hanged. An alternative story is that people simply got fed up with his accusations and with the money that his services cost them, and he ended up being hanged by a mob.

Tuberculosis, execution or lynching? Whatever his eventual fate, in his short life, Matthew Hopkins brought fear, suffering, pain and death to many innocents. It can only be hoped that when he faced his own demise he felt at least some small remorse for what he had done – however, it is more likely that his religious mania comforted him in his death; a comfort that was denied his poor victims.


‘The Black Hours’ is a tale about the English witch hunts. Matthew Hopkins, self -styled Witchfinder General, scours the countryside, seeking out those he believes to be in league with the Devil. In the small village of Coggeshall, 17–year-old Alice Pendle finds herself at the centre of gossip and speculation. Will she survive when the Witchfinder himself is summoned?

A tale of persecution, superstition, hate and love, ‘The Black Hours’ mixes fact with fiction in a gripping fast-paced drama that follows the story of Alice as she is thrown into a world of fear and confusion, and of Matthew, a man driven by his beliefs to commit dreadful acts in the name of religion.

5* reviews:

‘The atrocities of witch hunting are brought to life in this vivid and enthralling page-turner’

‘A historical novel of the highest calibre’

‘A standout first novel’

‘Convincing characters and very engaging, this is a must-read’

‘The Black Hours’ is available through Amazon in both kindle and paperback versions, from Smashwords, Barnes & Noble, and the Apple store.


Mad as a March Hare

Photagraph by Simon Litten

Photagraph by Simon Litten

Spring is finally upon us – I’m sure I even saw a glimpse of sunshine the other day. Turning the calendar over to March always makes me feel a little more cheerful – the dark, drab days of winter are finally coming to an end and the days hold the promise of warmth and light and colour.

This morning, flicking through news when I should have been writing, I stumbled upon this rather lovely picture of a ‘mad’ March hare, and it made me wonder when and where the saying originated.

Photograph by Simon Litten

Photograph by Simon Litten

The meaning is clear – someone as ‘mad as a March hare’ is behaving strangely, as hares do in the month of March, although they have an excuse as it’s the start of their mating season, something I’m sure they are very excited about. But when did we start to use the comparison to describe other people?

One of the first recorded instances of an early form of the term dates from around 1500 in the poem ‘Blowbol’s Test:

Thanne þey begyn to swere and to stare, And be as braynles as a Marshe hare

(Then they begin to swerve and to stare, And be as brainless as a March hare)

John Skelton, writing in the 16th century has a penchant for variations on the phrase, in both’ Replycacion’ (1528):

Aiii, I saye, thou madde Marche Hare”

And ‘Magnyfycence’ (1529)

As mery as a marche hare”

Even Sir Thomas More was a fan, and in his ‘Supplycacyn of soulys’ (1529) gives the first record of the phrase as we now use it:

“As mad not as a March hare, but as a madde dogge.”

A derivative phrase – ‘hare-brained’ – appears in 1548, in Edward Hall’s Chronicle:

“My desire is that none of you be so unadvised or harebrained…”

Perhaps the most famous mad March hare is the creation of Lewis Carroll, in that  lovely classic ‘Alice in Wonderland’ who, along with the Mad Hatter, presides over a very confusing tea party:

‘Have some wine,’ the March Hare said in an encouraging tone.

Alice looked all round the table, but there was nothing on it but tea. ‘I don’t see any wine,’ she remarked.

‘There isn’t any,’ said the March Hare.’

 ‘The March Hare took the watch and looked at it gloomily: then he dipped it into his cup of tea, and looked at it again: but he could think of nothing better to say than his first remark, “It was the best butter, you know.”

mad march hare - carroll

In the original illustrations for the book by Sir John Tenniel, the poor March Hare is depicted with straw on his head. This was a symbol often used in Victorian illustration to depict madness. It has been suggested that this comes from no less a famous madwoman than Shakespeare’s ‘Ophelia’. Gertrude describes her, in death, as having ‘fantasticke Garlands’ of ‘Crow-flowers, Nettles, Daysies, and long Purples,’ and ‘Coronet weeds’.


As for the Mad Hatter, that’s a whole other post, with far more gruesome connotations, mad as he is from mercury poisoning!

mad hatter

Anyway, it’s good to celebrate the coming fine weather, and I for one certainly have a spring in my step (now, where did that one come from?!)

Blackwater – out now!

 ‘How will you protect her from lies? From superstition? How will you protect her when your father comes calling, with threats and accusations? When a mob comes to our door?’

In a time when death is common, life is cheap and superstition rife, anyone can find their world torn apart by gossip and accusations. Can one lonely girl find the love and companionship she craves? Or will her heart lead her into more danger than she can imagine?

Lizzie Prentice, daughter of a cunning woman, is no stranger to scandal. She carries it with her, like the scar on her forehead. Samuel Pendle, her protector since childhood, could hold the key to a normal, safe life. But when Samuel defies his parents, it seems that history is bound to repeat itself and Lizzie’s life is at risk. 

‘Blackwater’, prequel to the historical novel ‘The Black Hours’, follows Lizzie as she strives to escape the same terrible fate her parents suffered; her life thrown into turmoil, and everything she holds dear at stake, but determined to find happiness  in a world of intolerance, cruelty and hate.

blackwater-cover-1335-2048 (2)

Since publishing ‘The Black Hours’ I have been asked about the story of Maggie and her daughter Elizabeth, and what happened to them before ‘The Black Hours’ begins. I knew their story before I started writing ‘The Black Hours’ of course, and so I have written a prequel, ‘Blackwater.’

‘Blackwater’ is out now and is free to download from the Smashwords site. You can find it here. Unfortunately, Amazon doesn’t allow independent authors to list books for free, so it is priced at 75p or 0.99c here. I am hoping that Amazon will price match it and that it will soon be free on their site too.

Here is an excerpt to whet your appetite!


Chapter 1

 Lizzie could feel the scar under her fingers. It began just below her hairline and stretched in a puckered ridge to the edge of her left eyebrow, the flesh uneven beneath her touch. Although she had rarely seen the scar herself, she knew from the averted eyes of others that it had not much faded; that, even after seven years it still marred her young face, whatever her mother might say. She pulled at a lock of yellow hair now, arranging it over the ruined skin. Her mother was watching from the hearth.

‘Leave it now, Lizzie. We need to go. I know it’s not a long walk to Finchampstead, but I do want to get there early.’

Lizzie turned and tried to smile, though her mother’s words made her heart heavy.

‘I’m ready, Mother.’ She paused, pursing her lips. ‘Although, must we go? It will be so busy. You know how it will be. All those people pushing and shoving at each other to get the best view. It’s horrible.’

Maggie sighed. Walking over to Lizzie, she tucked some loose strands of hair behind the girl’s ear.

‘Lizzie, I know you hate it but we have talked about this. You need to think of those women. Think how afraid they must be today. Stepping out into that jeering and shouting to meet their deaths. And not one look of kindness to fall on their poor heads. Not one bit of comfort. Would you deny them that? We must be there.’

Lizzie nodded, ashamed of her selfishness.

‘I’m sorry. It’s just that I hate the staring. The whispers behind our backs. And I hate to see their suffering.’

‘I know you do, but you know, it’s something you will get used to. If you are to follow me in my work. Don’t be ashamed of what we do. There are many women in these parts grateful to me for their very lives. You know that from the gifts left on the doorstep! Now stop fiddling with your hair. The scar is not as bad as you think it. And besides, if it was twice as big and twice as red, you’d still be the most beautiful girl in Eversley!’

The women stepped out of the cottage into the bright sunlight. It was unseasonably warm and the weather had encouraged plenty of spectators who now thronged the narrow lane despite the early hour, all making their way to the scene of the executions. Lizzie could never understand the fascination of these people for the spectacle of death. Her mother had made her attend executions as soon as she had been old enough, although what age was suitable to witness that horrible sight, Lizzie didn’t know. But Maggie’s reasons for attending were far removed from those of these other early travellers. Lizzie had witnessed it far more often than she cared to remember. The villagers treated these occasions as holidays. They wore their best clothes and thought nothing of bringing their children along, some mere babes in arms. They happily bought refreshments from vendors who did a brisk trade both before and after the executions. There seemed to be no compassion for the poor souls who would be the focus of the spectacle. Lizzie scowled as she was jostled by a large woman, striding along the lane with her children in tow.

‘I can’t understand how they bring their children with them. Or why they come at all for that matter.’

Maggie sighed.

‘Their lives are dull, Lizzie, and this is a bit of excitement.’

Lizzie bristled.

‘The deaths of their neighbours? Of those they have known all their lives? It is bad enough they have accused their friends, without enjoying their murders.’

Maggie gave Lizzie a warning look.

‘Be careful, keep your voice down. You know how it is, we have discussed it often enough. These people are poor, their lives are hard. When things go wrong, as they do so often, they look for someone to blame.’

‘But why blame those who have helped them in the past? The people who have given them cures, helped them when they were desperate?’

Her mother shook her head, her eyes sad. Lizzie knew that Maggie herself had suffered suspicion and persecution all her life.

‘Because they are scared. Because it is easy to turn on those who don’t fit in, who are different.’

Lizzie felt a shiver of fear.

‘Those like us?’

‘You know Lizzie, I have spent my life working with the plants of the earth, using those things that nature has been kind enough to give us, to help us if we only open our eyes and know where to look. And, yes, I have been shunned by some; have even been accused by others of terrible things.’ She paused, a shadow darkening her face. ‘You know it has not been easy. Moving around from place to place.’

Lizzie nodded. They had indeed moved at least five or six times before coming to Eversley when Lizzie was seven. They were lucky to have been able to stay here for as long as they had. In those years, Lizzie had seen the good that Maggie did, witnessed the gratitude of those helped in their most desperate times, and when she had been allowed to assist Maggie in that most wonderful feat of nature, aiding at the births of so many babies, she had known that, despite the danger, the work they did, the work that she would continue, was worthwhile and right. Even when they heard horrible tales of women like them, accused, frightened, tortured and eventually led to their deaths at the noose, she knew that she would carry on Maggie’s work – it was what she was born to do. So now, in the midst of these excited crowds, who would soon cheer as those poor women swung from the ropes, she tried to be brave, tried to ready herself to bring some small comfort to them in their hour of need. For in the back of her mind was the knowledge that one day she might have need of that same fellow feeling, that same small comfort, if suspicion and fear ever came knocking at her door.