The Discovery of Witches

Matthew Hopkins – the man behind ‘The Black Hours’

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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‘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.

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Researching the Past in the 21st Century

When I first embarked on my novel ‘The Black Hours’ I spent many hours researching  17th century England – it’s civil war, religion, the lives of ordinary people and, of course, Matthew Hopkins and his notorious witch hunts. Lots of the information I used for the book I found online – it is amazing just how much is out there, freely available in a few clicks. How I would have managed without the internet I really don’t know, but I suspect it would have taken me a great deal longer to gather everything I needed. I am so grateful to those who spend their time making all this information available for anyone who cares to look – the masses of history sites and blogs that provide so much intriguing detail, whether professional, scholarly or amateur.  It all helped me to build a picture as close as I could get to the sights, sounds and smells of 17th Century England. I was even able to read extracts from Matthew Hopkins’ own pamphlet ‘The Discovery of Witches’ which gave me a valuable insight into the workings of the mind of this driven individual.

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Matthew Hopkins’ pamphlet was written to defend his practices and refute allegations that he was in league with the devil himself

Of course, I didn’t rely solely on the internet.  I also read widely, including the infamous ‘Malleus Maleficarum’ or ‘Hammer of the Witches’. This 15th Century treatise details the methods that should be used in the prosecution of witches including how to identify them and how to secure a conviction. It made for a great many disturbing evenings! But it also provided a context for the world of Alice and her grandmother, and indeed the world of Matthew. Although written 150 years before my novel takes place, the beliefs within it were still held to be true and almost certainly had some influence on Hopkins.

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The Malleus Maleficarum was written in 1486. The Latin title translates as ‘The Hammer of the Witches which destroyeth Witches and their heresy as with a two-edged sword.’

This research fascinated me, and I could willingly have devoted years to it – however, I had a book to write!  And now the book is done I have a whole load of notes and facts and bits and bobs, some of which made it into the book and some of which didn’t. So in these blog posts I’d like to share some of the interesting details I learned along the way, and hope that in doings so, more will be understood about this dark time in history and its victims, those poor souls whose stories are often overlooked and forgotten, reduced to names on a list that does no justice to their suffering. I’d also like to share some of the experiences I had researching and writing the book – it can be a lonely experience and I often read the blogs of other writers when I needed a bit of inspiration and focus. I’d love to hear from other writers and from those interested in history. Please feel free to leave a comment, to visit my Facebook page or to follow me on Twitter. And if you have any interesting stories about the ‘poor buggers’ hidden behind the scenes of the history books, I’d love to hear them!