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.

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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.

ROMAN EMPIRE

When the Roman Empire lost battles

We always think of the Roman Empire as being completely invincible. But the Romans lost a few battles and some of them pretty disastrously. There were at least two occasions when Roman emperors were killed and one where the emperor was captured and then executed.

Take for example the Battle of Carrhae in the dying years of the Roman Republic. This was a time when three men – the so-called Triumvirs – shared control of Rome. They were Julius Caesar, Pompey and Crassus. The latter was an obscenely wealthy senator who also famously crushed the slave revolt of Spartacus.

But in 53BC he overreached himself in a bid for glory by attempting to invade the Parthian Empire with its base in modern Iran. He marched a vast army through the deserts of the Middle East being drawn deliberately deep into Parthian territory. The enemy cut down the legions with an astonishing number of arrows that showered down ceaselessly. Here is an amazing computerised depiction of the battle.

Some of you will have watched Barbarians on Netflix. This is a loose retelling of how several Germanic tribes wiped out three legions under the control of a Roman general called Publius Quinctilius Varus under the first Roman emperor, Augustus.

DISCOVER: Top Roman movies of all time!

Like Crassus, Varus was guilty of overreach and hubris. He also ignored good advice when deciding to launch punitive raids against the so-called ‘barbarians’. At this stage of history the military balance favoured the Roman Empire overwhelmingly. But the terrain didn’t. Roman armies just weren’t cut out for fighting in dense forests and that proved to be their undoing.

And then if we go to the closing centuries of the Roman Empire, we come to the disastrous Battle of Adrianople in the year 378. The empire was now ruled by two co-emperors with Valens in charge of the eastern half with his capital at Constantinople.

He’d been moderately successful in repelling the Persian based Sassanian Empire in the east but then faced demands from a huge mass of Goths north of the Danube river to be admitted into the empire.

Now, this wasn’t unusual. The Romans had often allowed in tribes from outside the empire but they were disarmed on entry and settled on Roman terms. However, Valens was busy on the Sassanian border and the local governor simple didn’t have the troops to enforce the required conditions.

This led to an uncontrolled influx of armed Goths into Roman territory. The rest, as you might say, was history. By the time Valens marched his armies up to meet the Goths, the whole thing had spun wildly out of control. The resulting battle of Adrianople saw the Romans defeated and the emperor possibly burned alive after taking refuge in a barn.

The London of the The Frankenstein Chronicles

If you’ve watched the Netflix horror series The Frankenstein Chronicles you might be wondering what part of London were all those sordid and foul alley ways and run down houses? Well, it might surprise you to know that it was a district very close to Westminster Abbey and the Houses of Parliament.

Frankenstein Chronicles

I’m a latecomer to The Frankenstein Chronicles so you have to excuse my belated interest. But watching it, I was keen to know where all those squalid slums were set. And it turns out to have been an area of Westminster that Charles Dickens referred to as the Devil’s Acre. Those of you who have watched The Frankenstein Chronicles will recall that Dickens appears in the TV series (seasons one and two) as a young journalist using his pen name “Boz”.

FIND OUT MORE: How to talk like a Victorian Londoner

The Devil’s Acre is very near where I worked for a few years at the Home Office (equivalent of the US Department for Homeland Security). And that’s ironic because the Home Office is all about law and order while the Devil’s Acre was notorious for its thieves and beggars. In the early 19th century, it was a part of London that you entered at your peril – at the very least, you would be robbed blind.

Pye Street, Duck Lane, Anne Street and Stretton Grounds were full of ramshackle buildings that were overcrowded and insanitary. As early as the 18th century, the area was getting a disagreeable reputation. One member of parliament, Lord Tyrconnel, said in 1741 that it was an embarrassment to have this seething den of iniquity so close to parliament where foreign visitors couldn’t fail to note the “herd of barbarians” who lived there.

At the state opening of parliament, the king’s coach had to whip through the area – no doubt His Majesty holding a perfumed hanky to his nose! So deep were the ruts in the muddy road that piles of wood had to be thrown into the holes to stop the king’s coach toppling over and ejecting the monarch into the mud.

The buildings in this massive slum district were often made of wood and illegally constructed. They might once have been ground houses in the 17th century but now reduced to tenements where people slept on the floors and several to a bed.

Much of the area was below the level of the nearby river Thames and so was prone to flooding. And the unhappy folk lived by their wits providing cabs by day then counterfeiting money and possibly picking pockets by night. This is a description by the journalist Thomas Beames in 1852:

Wherever you turned, the inhabitants were to be seen, in groups of half-dressed, unwashed men and women, loitering at doors, windows, and at the end of narrow courts, smoking, swearing, and occasionally fighting; and swarms of filthy, naked, and neglected children, who seemed well trained to use languages as profane, and do deeds as dark as those of their parents.

The problem of the Devil’s Acre was solved in a familiar way by the Victorians. Firstly, they rammed a massive road through it – Victoria Street – which is still there today. Then having sliced through the slums, they began redeveloping the area piecemeal. But it took a long time.

To wander those streets, get out at Victoria Station and meander behind Westminster Cathedral (the centre of British Roman Catholicism) up to Westminster Abbey. Very different today but see if you can spot any London Ghosts!

2019 – a busy year for me on history TV programmes!

In the last two weeks, I finished filming for a new series of Forbidden History and for a new documentary series on the History channel that will accompany The Curse of Oak Island. There’s great Templar related content on both programmes and I think you’re going to have some amazing viewing in 2020. I’ll tell you when those programmes appear – of course!

Plus – three months ago I was up in Scotland filming with broadcaster and top comic talent Rob Riggle for a brand new series for Discovery called Rob Riggle Global Investigator. As with the other programmes above, I’m sworn to secrecy on the content but needless to say, more Templar secrets will be revealed.

FIND OUT MORE: Tony McMahon discusses Jesus and James Bond

American visitors to the blog may have seen me on the last series of Strange Evidence and NASA’s Unexplained Files – where I covered an extraordinary breadth of topics. Plus there was my outing with Scott Wolter on America Unearthed where Scott and I investigated a possible Templar link at Rosslyn Chapel back in January of this year – which has now been aired on the Travel channel.

So, all in all, 2019 has been a good year for taking history on to TV and hopefully making it accessible and fun for global audiences. If there are any subjects you think I should be covering on TV in 2020 – please do tell me and comment in the usual way.

Tony McMahon – the bearded historian – is coming to a history TV screen near you!

Scandal ridden Princess Margaret

Princess Margaret was the freewheeling, fun loving sister of Queen Elizabeth II who mired the Royal Family in scandal after scandal. She might have been forgotten since her death in 2002. But then along came The Crown and now she is remember once more.

Princess Margaret was Queen Elizabeth II’s younger sister and scandal plagued her entire life. Poor old Princess Margaret never seemed to find happiness despite a series of high profile romances.

DISCOVER: Maddest rulers in history

Whereas her sister the Queen has always been a paragon of virtue and self-control, Margaret was the hard drinking, chain smoking, vivacious princess. I talked about Margaret this month in the first episode of a brand new series on UKTV/Yesterday called Private Lives.

We charted her stormy life. Frustrated as a young woman because of her role as the permanent second fiddle to Elizabeth. Unable to marry the man she really wanted to be with because of Britain’s arcane view of who a Royal should choose as a spouse.

And then her revenge which seemed to involve hooking up with men who were definitely unsuitable. A way of cocking a snook at the stuffiness of the Royals. All of this accompanied by a an incessant flow of booze, cigarettes and partying in London and the Caribbean.

It all ended badly for Margaret. Broken physically and operated on for lung cancer followed by a debilitating stroke. The Princess of scandal cut a sad and diminished figure at the end. To some she was a charismatic libertine and free spirit. To others, a spoilt and insufferable brat who was selfish and self-centred.

Brave New World – dystopia in literature

NBC/Universal in the US and Sky One in the UK are broadcasting a new dramatisation of the 1932 novel Brave New World by Aldous Huxley. It presents what we call a dystopian view of the future – one that is thoroughly pessimistic. As opposed to a brighter utopia.

Huxley wrote his story at a time when capitalism was reeling from the 1929 stock market crash and the Soviet Union was embarking on a series of bloody purges under its dictator, Stalin.

A few decades earlier, Victorians at the end of the 19th century had imagined that the world could improve and advance with every forward step. Science, technology and reason would lead us to a genuinely brave new world. But the First World War literally shot that optimism to pieces.

Even the hope for a revolution that would liberate humanity from want and deprivation was questioned. The year 1917 saw the Bolshevik revolution in Russia and the creation of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR). But after the Bolshevik leader Lenin died, his successor Stalin oversaw the creation of a bureaucratic, nightmarish, totalitarian dystopia.

Writers responded to this new gloom and uncertainty. George Orwell wrote 1984 while Aldous Huxley gave us Brave New World. They in turn were inspired by centuries of authors and political thinkers who penned their own visions of the future to make a point.

Brave New World – not a new concept

Great thinkers like the Greek philosopher Plato or the sixteenth century statesman Thomas More imagined perfect societies of the future. They wanted to show their readers what a properly ordered world could look like. It was a description of something More called Utopia.

But – Utopia has a grim opposite: Dystopia.

Dystopian visions of the future depict a very different world. It’s an unpleasant place where human beings are alienated or terrified. The authorities may be dictatorial or even totalitarian. Thoughts might be controlled. Terrible, unspeakable things have been normalised, becoming a part of everyday life.

The 20th century saw dystopian views of the future portrayed more and more. Two world wars, fascism, dictatorship, murder on an industrial scale and the erosion of democracy by faceless forces made the future seem a lot bleaker. The cheery optimism of the Victorian age where every day would be better than the next gave way to growing uncertainty.

1984

Many early 20th century dystopians were deeply disillusioned by the direction Russia took after the 1917 communist revolution. Hopes for the creation of a society under working class control gave way to the reality of Stalin’s bureaucratic hell. George Orwell summed up his gloomy prognosis in 1984. A world where Big Brother is watching you at all times and people indulge in “doublespeak”, never saying what they really mean.

The dystopia of Aldous Huxley

In 1931, the author Aldous Huxley depicted another dystopia where there is no sexual intercourse and people are created through artificial wombs. Humans are bred differently with healthier, taller and intelligent people being graded alpha or beta while those cloned in mass production and consequently dimmer and smaller do menial tasks as gammas, deltas and epsilons. All citizens are kept happy by ingesting a drug called “soma”.

Huxley denied he was influenced by a Russian author called Yevgeny Zamyatin who described a very similar totalitarian state where science had been misused to control humanity in his novel, We.

The Soviet Union provoked visions of dystopia in the 1920s and 1930s but in the 1970s, it was fears of a post-nuclear world where the two superpowers – the United States and USSR – had fried the planet.

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Ape rule as a dystopia

Planet of the Apes ends with the realisation that ape rule has only been possible because human beings have rained nuclear bombs down on their civilisation. Damnation Alley sees the protagonists driving across a post-nuclear America. 

Logan’s Run has people living under sealed domes and subjected to enforced euthanasia at the age of 30 – but believing they are being renewed. All horrific takes on dystopia.

The 1970s embraced dystopia as it grappled with the threat of nuclear war; the end of the Vietnam War; the near impeachment of President Nixon and severe economic crisis. It’s not surprising that in equally turbulent times, we are reaching back to dystopia and forming again a very gloomy and nihilistic view of the future.