Hopkins, Matthew

Hopkins, Matthew

(religion, spiritualism, and occult)

The son of James Hopkins, who was the minister of Wenham in Suffolk, England, Matthew Hopkins became one of the most notorious British witch-hunters. In 1644, Hopkins was nothing more than a little-known lawyer who was having trouble paying his taxes. Originally a resident of Ipswich, he later moved to Mistleycum-Manningtree near the Suffolk border to Essex. There he became suspicious of seven or eight women he thought might be witches. He later claimed that the women held a sabbat near his house every sixth Friday night. Hopkins learned the name of one of the women—Elizabeth Clarke, who had but one leg. She was taken into custody on Hopkins's charge, after which a tailor in the village, John Rivet, remembered that Elizabeth Clarke's mother had been hung as a witch, leading him to accuse Clarke of being responsible for his wife's illness.

Eric Maple makes the point that accusing a Witch's close relative of also practicing the Craft was fairly common, as a number of the children and grandchildren of those who had been executed as witches in the towns and villages of East Anglia during the trials of the 1560s and 1570s were pinpointed for arrest because it was believed that witchcraft ran in the family. Maple also believes that, at the time of Hopkins's accusation, conditions were ripe for an attack on Witches since great tension existed in the Puritan eastern counties. Whether or not Hopkins was a Puritan is not known, although it is known that his principle assistant, John Stearne, was one.

Hopkins became extremely adept at extracting confessions from the accused, usually by pricking (while searching for the "Devil's Mark") and by keeping the accused from sleeping, either by repeatedly walking them about the jail cell or by having them painfully tied, cross-legged, in the middle of the room. Elizabeth Clarke was searched and pricked, and then kept awake and watched to see if if she was visited by any familiars. It was claimed that two dogs, a kitten, a polecat, a rabbit, and a toad all visited her in her cell. She was then hung as a witch, although not before she had implicated others. Those trials took place at Chelmsford before the justices of the peace and Robert Rich, Earl of Warwick.

Hopkins had almost certainly read King James's Daemonologie (1597) and probably Richard Bernard's Advice to Grand Jurymen (1627), plus other broadsheets and pamphlets on witch trials. During the Clarke affair, his first foray into witch hunting, he brought a total of nineteen people to the gallows. A contemporary recorder, Arthur Wilson, said: "There is nothing so crosse to my temper as putting so many witches to death." He saw nothing in the condemned women "other than poore mellenchollie, ill-dieted atrabilious constitutions, whose fancies working by grosse fumes and vapors might make the imagination readie to take any impression."

After the first wave of trials, Hopkins was instrumental in bringing back the concept of witches' sabbats, an idea that had more or less subsided. He took on assistants, including John Stearne and a woman named Mary Phillipps. They were sometimes assisted by Edward Parsley and Frances Mills. Together, the group set out to "discover" witches, receiving twenty shillings apiece for each person they accused, plus a twenty shilling bonus for each conviction. They traveled to Suffolk, Norfolk, Cambridgeshire, Huntingdonshire, Bedfordshire, and other areas in their search, and in the space of two years, they caused at least 200 executions. Hopkins described himself as a "Witchfinder" and as "Witchfinder General" on the frontispiece of his book The Discovery of Witches: in answer to severall Queries, lately Delivered to the Judges of Assize for the County of Norfolk. And now published by Matthew Hopkins, Witchfinder (London, 1647).

Hopkins also enjoyed employing the water test, "dunking" or "swimming" an accused witch to see whether or not he or she floated. If a person being dunked floated, it was believed the devil was keeping his or her head above water and the person was hauled out of the water and hung. If the person sank, as it was believed all good Christians would do, then he or she was innocent. If that happened, the accusers hoped they could fish the suspected witch out of the water in time, before he or she drowned. Many times they could not.

Hopkins was extremely energetic in his persecution of witches, dashing back and forth across the country. He would find witches in one location and, before they could even be tried and executed, he would be off to another location to find more. Wallace Notestein remarks, "During the last part of May (1644) he had probably been occupied with collecting the evidence against the accused at Bury. Long before they were tried he was busy elsewhere. We can trace his movements in outline only, but we know enough of them to appreciate his tremendous energy. Sometime about the beginning of June he must have gone to Norfolk. Before the twentysixth of July twenty witches had been executed in that county." As he continued that his travels, in August he was in Great Yarmouth, then it was on to Ipswich where, in early September, Mother Lakeland was burned (only the second case of a burning, which was a penalty for women who murdered their husbands).

In 1645 Hopkins came up against stiff opposition from Rev. John Gaule, vicar of Great Staughton. The vicar resented Hopkins and preached against him from the pulpit. He also published a pamphlet called Select Cases of Conscience Touching Witches and Witchcraft (London, 1646) in which he exposed the tortures used by Hopkins and his cronies. This was the beginning of the end of Hopkins's reign as "Witchfinder General." By 1646 he retired home to Manningtree. Stories have circulated that, as public opinion turned against him, he was once seized by a mob and subjected to his own dunking in a village pond. However, there seems little substance to this story. According to his partner John Stearne, he died "peaceably, after a long sicknesse of a Consumption."

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