Witchfinder General

#AtoZChallenge: Q is for Quiet, Please!

For the A-Z challenge, I am posting writing and editing tips to help you improve and enhance your writing.

Q is for Quiet, please!

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My novel, ‘The Black Hours’, deals with the rather nasty events of the 17th century English witch hunts, perpetrated by the notorious Witchfinder General, Matthew Hopkins. In order to write the novel, I had to do a lot of research, and that research often took me to some fairly horrible places. I read things and now know things that I wish I didn’t.

When it came to writing the book, I wanted others to know all about the horrific things that had happened to REAL people, how they suffered and died in the name of religion, superstition and hatred. So, I duly included lots of horrific details. It was harrowing to write at times.

And it was harrowing to read. My first ‘beta’ reader was my son. Although he came back with lots of positives, he also said it was too much. There was too much horror. It needed toning down. The reader needed time to pause, to breathe, to recover.

I took his criticism on board, toned things down and then passed it, terrified, chapter by chapter, to my fellow MLitt students.

Again, the feedback was great and very positive. But there was still one common criticism. It was too dark, too horrible still. Could I tone it down? Give the reader a break?

So I did. The novel is still realistic (I hope), still contains the truth of what happened to many poor souls in that awful time. But there are also moments of lightness, of humanity, that I hope prevent it from being too much.

So writers, think about your readers. Yes, we know that action is important, that the plot must move forward, but if your book is fast paced, or dark, then do make sure to give your reader time to recover, to pause and collect themselves, to come up for air. Some time for quiet, please.

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More tales of witchcraft and sorcery – Eleanor Cobham, Duchess of Gloucester

Researching my novel ‘The Black Hours’ led me to discover many strange and horrifying stories of persecution, suspicion and murder, most of which seem hard to believe in this day and age. Much of my research centred on Essex, East Anglia and parts of Kent in the period that Matthew Hopkins, Witchfinder General and antihero of my book, was operating. However, there have been many other instances of accusations of witchcraft in the UK, from both before and after Hopkins’ horrible reign. Predictably, most of them centred on poorer, older women, outcasts or those on the edge of society. However, the rich and powerful didn’t always escape.

Eleanor Cobham was the mistress and second wife of Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester. In 1441, she was imprisoned for the impressive sounding crime of treasonable necromancy.

Eleanor Cobham

Eleanor Cobham

Eleanor’s downfall came about through her interest in both astrology and the monarchy. Her husband was the fourth and youngest son of King Henry IV by his first wife Mary de Bohun. His brother was King Henry V. When Humphrey’s older brother died in 1453, Humphrey became heir presumptive to the English throne. Eleanor, perhaps feeling that the crown was within her husband’s grasp, consulted astrologers Thomas Southwell and Roger Bolingbroke. They predicted that the king, Henry VI, would suffer a life threatening illness. Word of this reached the court, and the two men were arrested along with Eleanor’s personal confessor, John Home. Under interrogation, Bolingbroke named Eleanor as the instigator of their predictions. She was arrested and tried.

Although she denied most of the accusations, Eleanor did confess to obtaining potions from ‘the witch of Eye’, Margery Jourdemayne. She denied that these potions had anything to do with the predictions however, claiming that they were purchased in order to help her conceive. Poor Margery was also arrested.

Not surprisingly, as a woman of some power and influence, and being such a close relative by marriage to the king, Eleanor escaped rather more lightly than her fellow accused. Bolingbroke was hanged, drawn and quartered, Southwell died in the Tower and Margery was burned at the stake. Eleanor was sentenced to carry out public penance, forced to divorce her husband and imprisoned for life. She died at Beaumaris Castle in Anglesey in 1452.

Eleanor carrying out her penance

Eleanor carrying out her penance

I am a UK-based writer, editor and independent novelist. I love reading and I love to write. These are the two great passions of my life. Find out about my historical novels ‘Blackwater’ and ‘The Black Hours’ here.
Find out more about my editing services here.

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.

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.

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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.

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:

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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

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.

malleus

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!