Friday, January 26, 2018

From Witches to Riches - a Story of Immorality

by Anna Belfrage

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Sometime around 1620, a boy was born in Suffolk, England, to a Puritan clergyman called John Hopkins. The little boy was named Matthew, had a number of older siblings and that’s about everything we know about this young man’s childhood. One must assume he had dreams of his future (even if his mother most definitely did not warble “Qué será,será” while smoothing his hair down) and there must have been days when he worried that future of his would be very short and stunted, what with the increasing tensions between King and Parliament.

Whatever the case, the first time Matthew Hopkins steps out of the sea of anonymity to properly greet us is in 1645, when he proudly introduces himself as a Witch-finder. A what? Yup, you heard the young man: he’s making a living finding witches.

To understand his choice of profession, one needs certain context: England at the time was in the throes of Civil War, Puritan factions instilled a rampaging fear of evil, and to further add spice to this particular soup, it wasn’t all that long ago since the previous king, James VI of Scotland and I of England, had presided over the infamous Berwick Witch Trials, emphatically stating that witches did exist and had to be fought with all possible means. This most learned (but also rather foolish) king even wrote a book about witches , a text young Matthew seems to have studied quite avidly.

Witches have been around for a long time. For primitive man, so much of what surrounded him was difficult to interpret as anything but magic, and it follows that if there is magic there are people who can use magic. Even to this day, a surprisingly large percentage of the world’s population remains convinced that witches and wizards exist, and the savvy person makes sure never to tread on said witches’ toes.

From a Christian perspective, witches did not exist – at least not initially. The early fathers of the Church may have been derogatory of women in general, blaming them for everything from excessive carnal desires to a weak intellect and a propensity to sin, but they rarely said anything about witches. In fact, the Church held it heretical to claim someone was a witch, as to do so was to give credence to Satan’s lies.

But things happened as they say, and on one hand the Church was fighting a battle against ancient superstitions that insisted witches existed, on the other the Holy Catholic Church was being beset by heretics. And somewhere along the line, someone was smart enough to combine the accusations of heresy with those of unnatural magic – take the downfall of the Knight Templars, for example.

The Inquisition, ever eager for more victims to sink its teeth into, started mumbling and grumbling about witches – and especially about the heretical aspects of witches, as these old crones per definition worshiped Satan. A couple of fanatic monks latched on, a malleable pope sighed and went with the flow, and by the close of the 15th century, the Holy Church had concluded that witches did exist – and had to be rooted out. A papal bull confirmed this was so, a detailed handbook in how to identify the evil creatures (Malleus Maleficarum or The Witch Hammer - the Latin is in feminine, presupposing witches are mostly female) had conveniently been written in 1487, and armed with both these documents the representatives of good set out to do away with evil. Hmm. Major hmm, as these supposedly evil people were often women who deviated somewhat from the norm or who earned their living as healers and midwives.

Over the coming two centuries, somewhere around 45 000 to 65 000 people were to be executed as witches – mostly based on their own confessions, extracted from them via torture. Many of these poor souls were burned alive, but in most cases they were hanged, or beheaded, or garrotted, or strangled, before they were burnt. I suppose we must consider this a mercy. In the cases where they were burnt, it was often the sin of heresy that had them being tied alive to the stake. The Holy Church deemed heresy a far graver sin than that of dabbling in magic.

In difference to most of Europe, England had an established judicial process that required there to be proof before anyone was found guilty of anything (I know: such a novel concept!). This in turn means that England has a relatively low number of convicted witches – estimates land around 500 people, all in all. Of these, 300 can be attributed to Matthew Hopkins, who obviously took to the role as Witch-finder as fish take to water.

Back to 1645 and Hopkins’ grand debut – and it was quite the coup, as young Matthew managed to have close to thirty people convicted and executed as witches in one fell swoop. I guess he did some high-fives while pocketing the sizeable amount of money he was paid for his services – and herein lies the key to our Matthew’s dark, corroded soul: he was greedy, and he had found a way to make very easy money!

In March of 1645, Hopkins went after one Elizabeth Clarke. A perfect victim, seeing as this lady’s mother had been hanged as a witch. At his insistence, Elizabeth was thrown into prison, and his subsequent interrogation had her confessing to everything – and naming five other women as witches.

So what did he do to this poor woman, to have her condemning herself to death by her own confession? Hopkins was a subtle man – and more than aware that torture was forbidden in England. Of course, “torture” is relative, and throwing someone naked into a dark cold room, beating them and leaving them without food or light could be considered torture. As would another of Hopkins’ favourite methods, namely sleep deprivation. The poor prisoner was constantly watched, and whenever they seemed about to nod off, they were hauled to their feet and made to walk until they were properly awake.

If this failed, Hopkins advocated tying people in a cross-legged position for well over twenty-four hours, after which he would have them walked up and down in their cells until their bare feet blistered and bled. Nice guy, huh? And then we have the humiliating process of “pricking” which involved shaving the poor victim of all their body hair and then repeatedly sinking a needle or other sharp object into the victim. Should Matthew hit upon a point that didn’t bleed – well, obviously the naked, terrified woman being inspected was a witch. How convenient if one should use a pricking implement where the blade could be retracted into the handle, thereby ensuring there was no blood.

Poor Elizabeth caved in. So did most of the other women apprehended, and at the subsequent trial in Chelmsford in July of 1645, thirty-two people were accused of being witches. Twenty-nine were condemned to hang, and for every witch found guilty, Hopkins pocketed twenty shillings – a huge amount of money when considering a labourer earned at most half a shilling a day.

With Chelmford, Hopkins reputation was made. While he was never appointed by Parliament – and in fact there were quite a number of people in various positions of power that objected to Hopkins – he proclaimed himself Witch-finder General and went on to make the lives of the unfortunate women living in East Anglia even more uncertain than they already were.

Not one to rest on his laurels, Hopkins leapt onwards and upwards, and at the following trials in Bury St Edmunds in August of 1645, he noted with glee that 18 people were hanged on the same day based on his testimony. Two were men. One of these men was close to seventy, a minister named John Lowes. After several nights of sleep deprivation, coupled with being chased back and forth in his cell until he collapsed only to be pulled back to his feet and be subjected to it all again, Mr Lowes broke down and confessed that yes, he was a witch that had even caused a ship to sink off Harwich. No one bothered to check if a ship had in fact sunk…

Hopkins was now unstoppable. Hundreds of women – and a handful of men – were arrested and subjected to his patented forms of interrogation. If everything else failed, Hopkins recommended the “swimming” test, whereby the person was tied up and thrown into the water. If the person floated they were guilty. If they sank, they were not. Most people float – at least initially – when thrown in water. And once they start sinking, chances are they’re already more dead than alive… Hopkins, however, hedged his bets, and had ropes attached to the victim’s waist – to save them if they sank, he said, but just as likely his accomplices knew to use the rope to make sure the person “floated”.

Throughout 1646, Matthew Hopkins hauled one person after another to the gallows. At times, he was fortunate enough to see up to twenty people hang simultaneously, at others he had to content himself with only the single dead woman.

Obviously, Hopkins had a giant streak of sadism in him. Plus he rather liked the wealth he was amassing. And when people started questioning his methods he was very affronted, which was why he published a little pamphlet called Discovery of Witches in 1647, describing what he did and why. Some were less than impressed, and as the outraged voices of reason began to gain the upper hand, Matthew Hopkins found it wise to slip back into the obscurity from whence he came.

It is believed Hopkins died in 1647. Church records support that assumption. Some people hope that the legend by which he met his death at an angry mob who submitted him to his swimming test is true. Sadly, I am more prone to believe the version whereby he died in his bed of consumption, having coughed his lungs to pieces over several consecutive months. Whatever the case, I don’t think he was much missed.

In Revenge and Retribution, my main character, Alex Graham, faces accusations of being a witch. No wonder she is more than unnerved when she hears this. Just the thought of being subjected to one more humiliating inspection after the other – plus the fear that she might be found guilty – must have led to an endless number of sleepless nights!

An Editor's Choice from the archives, originally published August 26, 2014.

Had Anna Belfrage been allowed to choose, she’d have become a professional time-traveller. As such a profession does not exist, she became a financial professional with two absorbing interests, namely history and writing.

Presently, Anna is hard at work with The King’s Greatest Enemy, a series set in the 1320s featuring Adam de Guirande, his wife Kit, and their adventures and misfortunes in connection with Roger Mortimer’s rise to power. And yes, Edmund of Woodstock appears quite frequently. The first book, In The Shadow of the Storm was published in 2015, the second, Days of Sun and Glory, was published in July 2016, and the third, Under the Approaching Dark, was published in April 2017.

When Anna is not stuck in the 14th century, she's probably visiting in the 17th century, specifically with Alex(andra) and Matthew Graham, the protagonists of the acclaimed The Graham Saga. This is the story of two people who should never have met – not when she was born three centuries after him. The ninth book, There is Always a Tomorrow, was published in November 2017.


  1. What a "lose-lose" situation, to get arrested for being a witch!

  2. What a terrible time these people must have had....Can you imagine the horror at being dunked in water while strapped down to a chair?? Yikes. Great article Anna!!!

  3. In Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman’s Good Omens, it’s commented that any witch finder who inspected the local crones and said, “Well done, not a pointy hat among the lot of them !” would get a thank you and a bowl of soup and be moved on. For 20 shillings a head it must have been very profitable to make sure the accused confessed!

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  5. What a sad and terrible story. Very informative though... Thanks for the post!

  6. Great post! Really enjoyed it. What a truly awful person Matthew Hopkins was. Pure evil. Once a century I think someone like this appears and is never forgotten.

  7. What a terrible time for women! How frightening. You'd never know if the smallest word or act could be held against you. This was a great post, and so informative.


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