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.

Witch Hunts – Alive and Kicking in the 21st Century

witch hunts

When researching ‘The Black Hours’ I was horrified to learn of the dreadful persecution of the vulnerable that allowed thousands of people to be tortured and executed on trumped up charges of witchcraft. But that’s all in the past isn’t it? People don’t behave like that anymore do they? Well, sadly they do. Even now, in the 21st Century, the old, the young, the vulnerable, those who have no protection or who live on the edges of society, are still being accused, tortured, beaten and murdered for crimes they cannot possibly have committed.  Here is a brief tour of the ignorance, cruelty and shame that is still going on.

Central African Republic: It is estimated that hundreds of people are convicted (that’s convicted, not just accused) of witchcraft every year.

Democratic Republic of Congo: As of 2006, it is estimated that between 25,000 and 50,000 have been accused of witchcraft. These children are known as enfants sorciers (child witches) or enfants dits sorciers (children accused of witchcraft). They are often subject to violent exorcisms carried out by religious pastors and are thrown out of their homes. It is believed that sometimes accusations of witchcraft are used as a way for a poor family to abandon children they cannot afford.

Gambia: in 2009, Amnesty International reported that 1000 alleged ‘witches’ were put into detention centres where they were forced to drink a hallucinogenic potion in order to secure confessions.

Ghana: So many women have been accused of witchcraft in Ghana that there are actually witch camps where they can go for safety, thought to hold around 1000 women. These women, mostly elderly, live in dreadful poverty, often without running water or electricity. An ActionAid report into the Kukuo camp states that the majority of women were accused of witchcraft after their husbands died – suggesting that an accusation of this type may be used as a way for families to take the widow’s property. In a quote that could have been written in 1647, Lamnatu Adam of women’s rights group Songtaba says that it is women who do not conform that are in danger of being accused of witchcraft:

‘Women are expected to be submissive so once you start to be outspoken in your views or even successful in your trade; people assume you must be possessed.’

(BBC News Magazine, 01/09/2012)

India: It is estimated that 750 people have been killed in witch-hunts in the states of Assam and West Bengal since 2003. Lynchings are often reported in the local press.

Kenya: On the 21st of May 2008, it was reported that at least 11 people accused of witchcraft had been burnt to death by a mob. The mob, comprised of up to 300 young men, hunted down and killed eight women and three men, most over the age of seventy.

Nigeria: Some 15,000 children have been accused of witchcraft. They may suffer horrible violence and exorcisms and mostly end up living on the streets. Lancaster-based charity Stepping Stones Nigeria has compiled reports of more than 250 cases of violence against children accused of witchcraft in Akwa Ibom state.

Papua New Guinea: In 2008 a local newspaper reported that more than 50 people had been killed for practising witchcraft.

Saudi Arabia: In 2006 Fawza Falih Muhammad Ali  was condemned to death for practicing witchcraft. In April 2009, Amina Bint Abdulhalim Nassar was arrested and later sentenced to death for practicing witchcraft and sorcery. She was beheaded in December 2011. And in June 2012, a Saudi man, Muree bin Ali bin Issa al-Asiri was beheaded for sorcery and witchcraft. Few details of the cases are released by the Saudi government, but in the 2012 case, the defendant was found in possession of books and talismans, and also admitted committing adultery with two women.

Tanzania: in the Meatu district, it is estimated that half of all murders are witch-killings.

United Kingdom: On Christmas day 2010, 15-year-old Kristy Bamu died in a bath in Newham, east London after undergoing horrific tortures and beatings.  He had been visiting his sister Magalie Bamu and her partner, Eric Bikubi. The couple were apparently obsessed with kindoki (the word for witchcraft in their native country, the Democratic Republic of Congo) and accused the boy of putting spells on a younger child. A couple have been jailed for life for torturing and drowning a teenage boy they accused of being a witch. After the couple were convicted and sentenced, detectives said that other children in Britain had been subjected to terrible ordeals after being accused of witchcraft. Children’s charities have called for churches and carers to be more aware of this type of abuse.

It seems, then, that centuries later, there are people in the world who think the same way as Matthew Hopkins did, and there are still hundreds of people willing to back those views, often with the approval and help of the authorities, and continue the persecution, torture and murder of innocents. As always, it is the vulnerable and the powerless that suffer the most.










Coming soon – ‘Blackwater’

Since publishing ‘The Black Hours’ I have had a lot of feedback from readers who are intrigued by the character of Maggie Prentice. They want to know more about Maggie and about Alice’s mother Elizabeth and what happened before Alice was born. The story of Maggie and Lizzie has always been in the back of my mind – indeed it was all there waiting to be told before I started writing ‘The Black Hours.’ So, Maggie and Lizzie are the subject of my new novella  ‘Blackwater’  –  now in the final stages of editing.

I have a cover ready, designed by Paul Drummond who also designed the cover for ‘The Black Hours’.


Paul offers a great service for eBook design, including cover design, formatting and document conversion. Find details here.

I am hoping that ‘Blackwater’ will be ready for publication at the beginning of March. More details to follow soon. You can follow this blog, like my Facebook page or find me on Twitter to make sure you receive any updates.

The Pendle Witches – a high price to pay for some pins!

As mentioned before here on my blog, the characters in ‘The Black Hours’ are named after real victims of the witch hunts. Alice Pendle is an amalgamation of the first name of Alice Molland, a woman executed in Devon in 1685 (find her story here) and the location of a famous prosecution in 1612 in Pendle Hill in Lancashire.


This trial and the subsequent executions are perhaps the most famous of the prosecutions in England. Many were accused in the interrogations that followed, including members of the same families: Elizabeth Southerns, a woman in her eighties (also known as Demdike, another name used in ‘The Black Hours’), her daughter Elizabeth Device, and her grandchildren James and Alizon Device; Anne Whittle, also known as Chattox (the surname given to poor Mary, who suffers in childbirth in ‘The Black Hours’) and her daughter Anne Redferne. Others accused at various points were Jane Bulcock and her son John Bulcock, Alice Nutter, Katherine Hewitt, Alice Gray, Jennet Preston (whose first name was used for Jennet Everard in ‘the Black Hours’), Jane Southworth, Jennet Bierley, Ellen Brierly, Isabel Robey and Margaret Pearson.


The trial of the Pendle witches was played out against a background of religious turmoil and intolerance, in a place with a strong Catholic background. Under Catholic Queen Mary, the people of Pendle were safe to follow Catholicism, but when Elizabeth came to the throne, Catholic priests had to go into hiding. In Pendle, and other remote areas, however, Mass continued to be celebrated, albeit in secret (leading to the use of priest hides, such as those in Harvington Hall.

Elizabeth was succeeded in 1603 by James I (James VI of Scotland). His ascension was met with hope by Catholics; however, these hopes were soon dashed. And King James also had a strong interest in witchcraft. He believed that witches had caused a storm that threatened a ship carrying him and his wife to Scotland.  He even wrote a book’ Daemonologie’, that instructed his subjects to denounce and prosecute any supporters or practitioners of witchcraft.


Into this atmosphere of religious intolerance, suspicion and superstition came Roger Nowell, Justice of the Peace for Pendle. In 1612 Nowell, along with other JPs in Lancashire, was instructed to compile a list of recusants in the area. These were Catholics who refused to attend the English church and take communion. While compiling this list, Nowell heard a complaint from the family of a pedlar, John Law, who claimed to be a victim of witchcraft.

According to John Law’s family, the poor man was ‘afflicted’ and fell to the ground after refusing to give Alizon Device some pins. This is the accusation that Nowell investigated, and in the course of these investigations, the two families were implicated. The Device family, Demdike, Chattox and Redferne were sent to Lancaster Castle to await their trial for witchcraft. In nearby Salmesbury, another JP, Robert Holden, arrested another eight suspected witches.

Lancaster Castle where the majority of the suspects were held.

Lancaster Castle where the majority of the suspects were held.

Of course, most of those accused never stood a chance of acquittal. Jennet Preston was charged with the murder by witchcraft of a local landowner and was tried first, at the York assizes. Apparently, the corpse bled fresh blood when she touched it. She was duly sentenced to death by hanging and was executed on the 29th of July 1612 on the Knavesmire, which is now the site of York racecourse.

At the Lancaster Assizes, Alizon Device, Elizabeth Device, James Device, Anne Whittle, Anne Redferne, Alice Nutter, Katherine Hewitt, John Bulcock and Jane Bulcock and Isabel Robey  (who was from Windle, St Helens) were found guilty and hanged at Gallows Hill. Elizabeth Southerns died while awaiting trial and Alice Gray was found not guilty.

pendle witches

Of the eight Salmesbury witches, five were released. The other three, Jane Southworth, Jennet Brierley, and Ellen Brierley were accused by a 14-year-old girl, Grace Sowerbutts, of practising witchcraft, and the charges brought against them included child murder and cannibalism. However, under questioning, Sowerbutts admitted that she was lying, and all three were acquitted.

Margaret Pearson was acquitted of both murder and of bewitching a neighbour. She was, however, found guilty of bewitching a horse – a crime for which she was punished by being made to stand upon the pillory for four successive market days in Clitheroe, Padiham and Colne with a sign on her head stating her offence.

These trials are well documented and have spawned many books including Jeanette Winterson’s ‘The Daylight Gate’ which is apparently being adapted by Hammer Films. A search for the Pendle Witches brings up a myriad of results; images, news articles, gift shops selling Pendle witches merchandise, even videos claiming ghostly sightings including ‘Most Haunted’ (watch if you dare!):

There is even a photograph of snow melting on Pendle Hill, seemingly making the form of a witch on a broomstick:

snow witch pendle

It seems then,  more than 400 years on, we are still fascinated by the tale of these poor accused ‘witches’, sacrificed in the name of superstition and ignorance, and all for the sake of a few pins!



Click to access isabel_robey.pdf




A visit to the Museum of Witchcraft

Museum of Witchcraft

Nestled in the lovely village of Boscastle on the Cornish coast in a pretty white cottage is the wonderful Museum of Witchcraft. Step inside this quaint little building and you will find the world’s largest collection of witchcraft related artefacts.

The museum was opened in 1960 by Cecil Williamson, after a rather troubled history. Williamson had first opened a museum on the Isle of Man in 1951, the year in which the Witchcraft Act was repelled. The museum had a resident witch – Gerald Gardner. The two men wanted different things for the museum, so Williamson sold the building to Gardner in 1954 and moved on to Windsor and then to Bourton-in-the-Water in the Cotswolds. Unfortunately, the museum was not welcomed – Williamson received death threats and the museum was fire-bombed several times. Eventually he moved the artefacts to their current home in Cornwall.

This was not the end of the troubles. In 2004 Boscastle was hit by flooding. The ground floor of the museum was filled with two metres of sewage, and walls were damaged. However, after months of painstaking salvaging, cleaning, restoration and rebuilding walls the museum reopened its doors. The flood line is marked on the walls for visitors to see.

4 R

The museum includes a display of images of witches. We have come to imagine witches as ugly old hags, toothless and covered in warts, cackling as they ride their broomsticks or stir frogs and newts into cauldrons. But the images on display in Boscastle have a different story to tell.  Alongside these ‘traditional’ images there are beautiful images of witches as seductive and mysterious, and some really interesting examples of witches used in advertising like this one for Pears soap:

pears soap witch

The display concerning the witch hunts was obviously hugely interesting for me, and extremely poignant. The horribly lengthy list of names of those persecuted is chilling; a stark reminder of the real lives that were caught up in the hysteria that swept through Europe, resulting in the murder of so many innocent people.

But this museum is not just a place of horror, torture and persecution, although there is plenty of that. The museum also has information and artefacts relating to sacred sites, the magic of Christianity, wise women and herbs and healing, protection magic, curses and divination. I found it really interesting to find out about how the pagan rituals and beliefs of early society were incorporated into Christian festivals – a very clever way of ensuring that the original beliefs were stamped out.

There is so much to discover at the museum that it is impossible to describe it all here. It is definitely well worth a visit. Details of opening times and admission prices can be found on the website here.

Spot the witch!!!

Spot the witch!!!


The Hammer of the Witches

When writing my novel ‘The Black Hours’ I researched in depth the methods used to interrogate and persecute suspected witches. This was, on the whole, a rather grim process that occasionally reduced me to tears when I thought about the real women (and sometimes men) behind these often lurid and horrific accounts.

The backbone of my research came from the infamous ‘Malleus Maleficarum’ or ‘Hammer of the Witches’. This is a 15th century treatise that is basically a handbook on the way to identify, interrogate and prosecute those suspected of witchcraft. It was written in 1486 by Heinrich Kramer, a German Catholic clergyman, and had three main purposes – to refute allegations that witchcraft did not exist, to set out the forms of witchcraft and the ways in which the craft can be identified and resolved, and to aid and assist magistrates in the prosecution of those accused.


What I found particularly dreadful about this treatise was its terrible attitude towards women. Although acknowledging that both men and women can practice witchcraft, the treatise argues strongly that it is women who are more susceptible due to their gender – women, according to Kramer, are more inclined to submit to temptation due to their inherent weakness as a sex; they are weak in faith and in character and more carnal than men, leading the ‘stronger’ sex into sin. Indeed the word ‘maleficarum’ is the feminine form of the Latin word for ‘witch’.

While I am aware that the times were significantly different, the utter hatred for the female sex is breathtaking.  Here are a few of the horrible assertions:

‘since they (women) are feebler both in mind and body, it is not surprising that they should come more under the spell of witchcraft.’

‘she is more carnal than a man, as is clear from her many carnal abominations. And it should be noted that there was a defect in the formation of the first woman, since she was formed from a bent rib, that is, a rib of the breast, which is bent as it were in a contrary direction to a man. And since through this defect she is an imperfect animal, she always deceives.’

‘No one does more harm to the Catholic Faith than midwives. For when they do not kill children, then, as if for some other purpose, they take them out of the room and, raising them up in the air, offer them to devils.’

‘when girls have been corrupted, and have been scorned by their lovers after they have immodestly copulated with them in the hope and promise of marriage with them, and have found themselves disappointed in all their hopes and everywhere despised, they turn to the help and protection of devils; either for the sake of vengeance by bewitching those lovers or the wives they have married, or for the sake of giving themselves up to every sort of lechery. Alas! experience tells us that there is no number to such girls, and consequently the witches that spring from this class are innumerable.’

‘all witchcraft comes from carnal lust, which is in women insatiable.’

What is also interesting is that Kramer backs up his assertions with references to the Bible. He references Ecclesiastics xxv:

‘There is no head above the head of a serpent: and there is no wrath above the wrath of a woman. I had rather dwell with a lion and a dragon than to keep house with a wicked woman.’

He also quotes St John Chrysostom commenting on St Matthew:

‘It is not good to marry! What else is woman but a foe to friendship, an unescapable punishment, a necessary evil, a natural temptation, a desirable calamity, a domestic danger, a delectable detriment, an evil of nature, painted with fair colours!’

Kramer then turns to the philosophers, quoting Cicero:

‘The many lusts of men lead them into one sin, but the lust of women leads them into all sins; for the root of all woman’s vices is avarice.’

and Seneca:

‘A woman either loves or hates; there is no third grade. And the tears of woman are a deception, for they may spring from true grief, or they may be a snare. When a woman thinks alone, she thinks evil.’

Now you might think that these are only one man’s views (The Malleus Maleficarum is attributed to two authors, Kramer and Jacob Sprenger, but some scholars now believe that Sprenger was given joint authorship by Kramer in an attempt to give the treatise more authority) but, due to the development of the printing press, the treatise was able to spread widely through Europe. Who knows how many innocent women were tortured and murdered because of Kramer’s ideas and beliefs – beliefs that were held by many at the time? Is it any surprise that, faced with this utter contempt and hatred of the female sex, thousands of women lost their lives to superstition?







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.


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.


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!