Devil marks, drownings and death: The story of the Witchfinder General in Essex

This article originally appeared on Culture24.

Who was the Witchfinder General? This Halloween, follow the trail of an Essex villain

A photo of two tall towers in a churchyard in Essex under a blue skyTwo sentinel-like towers like in the wake of the church where Hopkins was buried© Visit Essex
If you lived in England 370 years ago, any accusations of witchcraft were far from fun. Especially if the rumour stuck and you found yourself hauled up in front of Matthew Hopkins, the self-styled ‘Witchfinder General’ from Essex – the subject of horror films, books and ghost stories in the three centuries since his reign of terror in East Anglia.

Little is known about Hopkins’ early life, other than he was born in Suffolk (at Little Wenham) around 1620 and moved to Manningtree, Essex during his mid-20s. Believed to have trained as a lawyer but failing to make a decent living, Hopkins used what legal skills he did have to forge a new and highly lucrative career as a witch finder.

A photo of two tall towers in a churchyard in Essex under a blue skyHopkins' ghost is said to haunt a nearby pond© Visit Essex
Witchcraft was not made a capital offence in Britain until 1563 – although it was deemed heresy and was denounced as such by Pope Innocent VIII in 1484. Those accused were often elderly women whom also had the misfortune to be poor. If they had a cat, or other pet, this was taken as proof positive that they were in league with the Devil, as domestic animals were held to be shape-changing ‘familiars’.

Initially, proving that someone was indeed a witch was a little problematical. Torture was illegal while everyone knew that the Devil would never tell the truth. Amid the turmoil of the Civil War and rampant anti-Catholic sentiment, Hopkins’ own Protestant faith and ingenuity soon found itself in demand.

Employing a practice that is familiar to secret services and despots today, Hopkins and his assistant John Stearne would keep suspects awake. Hopkins believed that witches fed their familiars with their own blood; so by keeping them under guard - “watching”, as he called it - he thus deprived them of their powers, also knowing that sleep-deprived, vulnerable people are not possessed of their full faculties after several days. Thus confessions were made without resorting to physical means.

That said, Hopkins and Stearne weren’t afraid of using other, darker methods. So called Devil’s Marks - what we would understand as warts - moles or even flea-bites were deemed to be signs of being a witch. What’s more, a Devil’s Mark was supposed to be impervious to pain.

The ingenious Hopkins devised a “jabbing needle” to see if these marks were indeed insensitive. But the “needle” - a three-inch long spike - was spring-loaded, meaning it retracted into the handle, so the unfortunate woman felt no pain.

A photo of an illustration of the 17th century witchfinder general, Matthew HopkinsThe frontispiece from Matthew Hopkins' The Discovery of Witches (1647), showing witches identifying their familiar spirits© Wikimedia Commons
Increasingly able to ‘prove’ that innocent men and women were indeed agents of Satan, Hopkins prospered. He had 19 women hanged at Chelmsford in a single day. Moving northwards, Hopkins was paid £6 by the people of Aldeburgh in Suffolk for ridding the town of witches, while in Norfolk, at Kings Lynn, he took £15 for his services and trousered a handsome £23 from the grateful townsfolk of Stowmarket. All this at a time when the average daily wage was 6d, or just 2.5p in today’s money.

Ironically, Hopkins defended these gifts of ‘thanks and recompense’ by stating that he and Stearne were putting themselves at risk in their endeavour to rid the country of witchcraft in its myriad guises. Original records of some of his trials can be viewed today in the Essex Record Office in Chelmsford.

The trial that sealed his notoriety was that of “swimming”. The suspect's limbs would be bound together and they would be lowered into water by ropes. The principle was simple: if they sank and drowned, they were innocent and in heaven; if they floated, they would be tried as a witch.

A harrowing scene in Michael Reeves’ legendary 1968 movie Witchfinder General starring Vincent Price as Hopkins captures the sheer terror and horror of trial by swimming.

Believed to be responsible for more than 200 executions, a gruesome reminder of Hopkins' reign of terror was discovered in St Osyth in 1921. Two female skeletons were found in a garden, pinned into unmarked graves and with iron rivets driven through their joints. This was to make sure a witch could not return from the grave.

Though many of the Acts against witchcraft were repealed in 1736, witch hunting still went on. In 1863, an alleged male witch was drowned in a pond in Hedingham.

And what of Hopkins himself? The precise details of his death are unclear. Writing on Essex folklore in the 19th century, William Andrews described Hopkins being charged with the theft of a book containing the names of all the witches in England, which he acquired by means of sorcery.

Protesting his innocence, the once feared ‘Witchfinder General’ was made to undergo his own trial by swimming. Accounts vary as to what happened. Some say he floated, was tried and hanged; others that he drowned. There are no records to confirm he was ever tried and the more likely story is that he died at home, in Manningtree, from pleural tuberculosis.

He lies buried in the churchyard of what was St Mary the Virgin, at Mistley Heath. All that remains of the church itself are two sentinel-like towers. Though constructed long after Hopkins’ death, they add to the area’s mystique. Nearby is the pond that his ghost is said to haunt. Local tradition also has it that, upon inheriting 100 marks, Hopkins attempted to establish himself as a gentleman and bought the nearby Thorn Inn.

Today, the building that replaced the original in 1723 is The Mistley Thorn, a restaurant with rooms renowned for its warm welcome and superb cooking. Its ‘Witchfinder General’ heritage is commemorated with a plaque on the wall outside.

In Manningtree, The Red Lion sits near the top of South Street, and it was from here that Hopkins reputedly dragged his elderly and crippled neighbour Elizabeth Clarke, accusing her of being a drunken sot and ‘nourisher’ of animals; namely a white cat (called Holt), a polecat (Newes), a black rabbit (Sacke and Sugar), a fat spaniel (Jarmara) and an ox-headed greyhound called Vinegar Tom. Having successfully secured her conviction as a witch and subsequent death by hanging, the emboldened Hopkins created the title of ‘Witchfinder General’.

Elizabeth’s ghost is said to haunt the shore of Seafield Bay, an area of mudflats known as The Walls. Hopkins himself has occasionally been ‘seen’ at The Red Lion. Just a few steps up South Street from The Red Lion, is the remains of a village green. This small, neat lawn bears no trace of the dark secret its past holds, for it was once the hanging place where around ten witches met their terrible end.

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