Many of you may have been watching the TV historical drama series, A Discovery of Witches. Proving that our fascination for magic and sorcery is undimmed today even though we live in more enlightened times. The title ‘Discovery of Witches’ derives from a book by the 17th century English witch hunter, Matthew Hopkins, called The Discovery of Witches.
Hopkins was a notorious figure in the southern English county of Essex where I grew up. During the rule of Oliver Cromwell, he styled himself the Witchfinder General and set about identifying witches and executing them. His methods were not universally approved but at a time of religious fervour and social instability, few were prepared at first to stand up to Hopkins.
It’s often wrongly assumed that witch hunting was a medieval phenomenon. In fact, it really took off during the 1600s. This was a century of massive change in England with the monarchy overthrown for a period and huge social upheaval. Women bore the brunt of widespread anxiety and anger.
Hopkins and others were influenced by a book on witches written by King James VI of Scotland in 1597 called Daemonologie. It was reprinted in 1603 when he also became James I of England. The book covered the ability of witches to fly, raise storms and the keeping of animal ‘familiars’. It is thought to have influenced William Shakespeare’s play Macbeth, written at this time.
But Hopkins took things much further. Women of all ages found themselves subjected to his questionable tests to ascertain whether they were consorting with the devil or not. He dunked alleged witches into ponds and streams with their right thumb tied firmly to their left toe and left thumb to their right toe. If they floated, it was said that the water was rejecting them in the same way they had scorned the water of the baptismal font. If they sank and drowned…they were innocent.
An even more barbaric ‘proof’ of witchcraft was to burn an animal alive that was said to have been bewitched by the accused. That apparently would force the witch to confess. As late as the year 1834, a case was reported in the Morning Herald newspaper of a farmer burning a young pig alive in the belief that the entire litter had been the subject of a witch’s spell.
Another method was to deprive a witch of sleep by forcing her to stand or adopt an uncomfortable position on a stool or table. Hopkins was convinced that after 24 hours, her ‘imps’ and ‘familiars’ would come to the witch’s rescue. An example of this is pictured below with the witch giving the names of her familiars.
Although Hopkins eventually ‘retired’ at what we would regard as a very young age, his methods jumped the Atlantic and were used in New England during the 1640s. They would be employed again to deadly effect during the 1690s Salem Witch Trials.
A story used to circulate that Hopkins himself was eventually accused of being a wizard and executed after floating in water. This is now thought to be incorrect. Church records suggest he died instead of tuberculosis in August, 1647.
In 1968, Hopkins became the subject of a horror movie with Vincent Price in the lead role.