Mistley Thorn

A Witchcraft Tour of England

pendle witches

England has a long and varied history of witchcraft. As a tradition stretching back centuries, it is hardly surprising that there are a great variety of places that abound with legends, stories and histories about witchcraft, witches, persecution and execution. When researching the topic, I came across lots of interesting stories and made a long list of places that I’d love to visit. Some of them I have been lucky enough to visit although I would like to visit again one day. In fact, what I’d really like to do is go on a witchcraft tour of England – spending time in all these places. All offer something interesting and informative; some are fun and have more to do with legend, myth and fairy tale than the brutal truth of the horror of the witch hunts; other places I have found to be spots where poor, misunderstood and persecuted women (let’s not forget that the majority of the witch hunt victims were women) can be remembered and honoured in some small way. These are the places I’d love to visit and re-visit.

The North West

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No witchcraft tour would be complete without a visit to Pendle Hill in Lancashire and it’s a great place to start. Pendle was the location of the famous 1612 trial for witchcraft. The accused all lived in the area, and ten were hanged on Gallows Hill. Of course, rumours now abound that the hill is haunted – TV’s Most Haunted has filmed there. As a sceptic I don’t believe that these women haunt the hill – I like to think they are at peace, free from the horrible persecution they suffered and no longer afraid. But I must admit I’m not sure I’d like to spend the night on the hill!

The North East

witch pricking

Margaret Brown and thirteen other poor souls were hanged on the Town Moor in Newcastle in 1650. Margaret was a victim of ‘witch-pricking’ – it was claimed she had a devil’s mark on her body that, when pricked by a pin did not bleed. She protested her innocence right up to the last according to Ralph Gardener’s 1655 book ‘England’s Grievance’:

“These poor souls never confessed anything but pleaded innocence and one of them, by name Margaret Brown, beseeched God that some remarkable sign might be seen at the time of her execution.”

The Town Moor is a place I’d like to visit, to pause for a moment and think about poor Margaret and the other terrified accused – hoping against hope that something would end their terror.

Yorkshire

mother shipton

I have heard a lot of stories about Mother Shipton and the ‘Petrifying Well’ or ‘dropping well’ in Knaresborough. It used to be believed that the water was magic – turning objects to stone. Now of course we know that the calcifying is due to the high mineral content of the water – but that doesn’t make it any less fascinating. And Mother Shipton herself is an interesting character – allegedly born in a cave near the dropping well, she has become a legendary figure of folklore, renowned for her prophecies. There is a whole park devoted to her now, with the dropping well, cave, a museum, castle ruins and gardens. You can even buy a petrified teddy bear in the gift shop!

East Anglia

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This area was the stomping ground of Matthew Hopkins – Witchfinder General.  There are a wealth of places to visit – though few traces of the man himself remain. I’ve visited Colchester Castle and stood in the cells where Hopkins interrogated his victims (a very spooky and uncomfortable experience). I’ve also eaten dinner in ‘The Mistley Thorn’, a lovely pub that stands on the site of the inn where Hopkins set up his witch finding business and where he is rumoured to have lived. The food is lovely. I did get a bit freaked out when leaving though as we decided to go for a walk in the dark – and I have to say it was incredibly chilling to think we were walking where Hopkins may have walked. My imagination did get the better of me, but that might have been the wine.

 

The South

coven of witches

Burley is a very pretty village in the New Forest known for its connection with the witch Sybil leek. Leek moved to the area in the 1950s and opened a shop – ‘A Coven of Witches’ – still open in the village. There are now other shops in the village selling various witch-related items and a tea shop called ‘The Black Cat’. I’ve been to Burley several times and it is a really beautiful place – and a bit of light relief too!

The South West

Museum of Witchcraft

Two places of note in the South West – the wonderful Museum of Witchcraft in Boscastle, Cornwall and Exeter in Devon.

I won’t say too much about the Witchcraft Museum other than saying again how utterly fabulous it is – quirky and weird, packed full of witchcraft related stuff, but you can read about my visit here.

Alice Molland plaque

I regret not stopping in Exeter on my way to Boscastle as I would have liked to have seen the plaque at Rougemont Castle commemorating the execution of the Bideford witches and Alice Molland – you can find out about Alice here.

I know I have missed out some wonderful places but there are so many that it is hard to choose. And I know I have also ignored Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales – I am planning separate posts on the history of witchcraft in these countries.

Do you know of any interesting places connected to witchcraft in England?  I’d love to know about them (any excuse for a holiday – I mean research!).

 

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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:

Matthew_Hopkins

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