Discovery of Witches

Matthew Hopkins and the real Discovery of Witches

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.

CLICK HERE: Me appearing on Strange Evidence on the Discovery channel

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.

Ten places of execution in London

London has always had its interesting landmarks but none could be so ghoulish as its regular places of execution. They are not always easy to spot now but let me give you some ghoulish clues!

Up until the 19th century, there were certain places where you could be guaranteed to catch a hanging, burning or beheading – should you wish.

Unfortunately, many Londoners did wish – as it was viewed as a macabre form of entertainment. So – where would you have seen such a dreadful spectacle? Where are the places of execution in London?

  • Tyburn. If you were a commoner, then it was off to Tyburn to be hanged high in the air dancing at the end of a rope for a vast crowd. The location of the triple gallows that entertained so many Londoners was on what is now a traffic island at the intersection of Oxford Street and the Edgware Road. Oxford Street was called Tyburn Road up until the 1700s and the area was semi-rural, effectively the edge of London. This was probably the most popular place of execution in London.
  • Tower Hill. If you were an aristocrat, you could avoid the shame and humiliation of dangling at Tyburn by being beheaded on Tower Hill. Your end was swift provided the executioner was good at his job – and that wasn’t always guaranteed. But for an aristocrat, this was the place of execution for you in London – not the shame of the tree at Tyburn.
  • Lincoln’s Inn Fields. One of the lesser well known places of execution in London. Those conspiring against the life of the monarch might be dispatched at Lincoln’s Inn Fields. Such was the fate of Anthony Babington who plotted against Elizabeth I. Her day out was ruined however by his persistent screams of agony while being hanged, drawn and quartered. He made such a racket that the Queen decided just to behead everybody else involved in the conspiracy.
  • Smithfield. Now being heavily redeveloped, the meat market near Farringdon tube station once rang to the shrieks of Protestants being burned for their faith by Queen Mary Tudor aka “Bloody Mary”. The Catholic Queen was out to reverse the religious reforms of her father Henry VIII using the flames to consume those who had rejected the pope’s authority.
  • Execution Dock. Pirates breathed their last here – in a London location for execution deemed to suit their crime. They had lived by stealing on the waters – and so they would face their end by the river with the tide submerging their bodies. Captain Kidd was hanged at this location.
  • Banqueting House, Whitehall. King Charles I stepped from a first floor window and on to a wooden scaffold to lose his head. When his son Charles II became king, he hunted down those who had signed his father’s death warrant and had them executed a stone’s throw away at Charing Cross. The diarist Samuel Pepys, a bit of a royalist toady by then, wrote an inappropriately merry account of one of those hanging, drawing and quarterings.
  • Kennington. This was south London’s main place of execution. I’ve blogged before about two unfortunately gentlemen who were hanged for the crime of being gay. It surprises me that given the large LGBT population in the area, there is no monument to this injustice.
  • Stratford-le-Bow. Now I knew nothing about this London execution site until recently. But this is where Queen Mary Tudor burned another load of Protestants as part of her ongoing and ultimately unsuccessful attempts to turn Britain back to Catholicism. Thirteen men and women were burned in front of 20,000 people on 27 June 1556.
  • Shooters Hill Crossroads. Little bit further out of town towards Woolwich is where highwaymen were hanged. This was presumably to warn any wannabe Dick Turpins heading towards London that they would meet a grim fate.
  • St Thomas-a-Watering. Right next to the Thomas-a-Becket pub on the Old Kent Road, famous in the 20th century for playing host to gangsters and boxers, was the place of execution for a small group of Catholic friars in 1539. As with Marble Arch and Tyburn, you’re going to need to summon up those powers of imagination to picture the scene now.