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 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.
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.
‘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’