The Macabre Career of Witch Finder General Belonged to this Scheming Man in the 17th Century


Matthew Hopkins, Witchfinder general. Etching. Wellcome Images, The Wellcome Collection Gallery. Wikimedia Commons. Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International license.


The Witch Finder General.

 With Stearne as his second in command and Goody Phillips assisting, Hopkins began to tour around southeast England, offering his witch finding services in towns and villages. War-ravaged England was a perfect breeding ground for hysterical accusations of witchcraft, so Hopkins had plenty of takers. Hopkins’s method was to invite locals to begin the accusations- then he took it from there, uncovering yet more witches. By 1645, Hopkins’s had revealed 117 witches in Sudbury alone and a further 40 in Norfolk. By now, he felt successful enough to assume the title by which he was best known: The Witch Finder General.

Torture was illegal in England, so Hopkins had to be subtle. Suspected witches were handed over to Goody Phillips who, along with a group of locally appointed searchers, would strip their unfortunate victim and search her for witch’s marks. Any marks were then ‘pricked’ to test them as devil’s marks. The searchers were also responsible for watching the suspect closely, often for days. This measure was to see if a familiar would approach the witch to feed by suckling on her witch’s teat. However, it was also a way of breaking the suspect down. For during this time, the suspect Witch would also be starved and deprived of sleep- to make her more susceptible to confession.

Hopkins also used other method’s to extract confessions. He would often bind his victim cross-legged on a table or stool and leave them in this position without respite for 24 hours. Or he would force them to continually walk while barefoot, about their cell until their feet blistered and they were broken by exhaustion. However, Hopkins’s favorite method of testing potential witches was ‘swimming.’ The suspect would be bound and lowered into a body of water on ropes and then left literally to ‘sink or swim.’ If they sank, they were innocent. However, to float was a sign of their guilt.

Water-ordeal. Engraving. XVII. 17th century. Source: Wethersfield Historical Society, Wikimedia Commons. Public Domain

Most of Hopkins’s victims were women like Elizabeth Clarke: old, alone and unfortunate. However, a few dissenting clergymen were implicated. One, in the summer of 1645, was the minister of Brandeston in Suffolk, John Lowes The Reverend Lowes was a gentleman of seventy years old but quarrelsome and not much liked by his parishioners. Initially, Lowes denied his guilt with great indignation. So Hopkins tortured him until he confessed, by keeping “him awake several nights together while running him backwards and forwards about his cell until out of breath.” After a brief rest, the ‘exercise ‘ began again and continued “for several days and nights together, till he was weary of his life and scarce sensible of what he said or did.”

Witch finding was a profitable business for Hopkins and his team. The Witch Finder general charged each town twenty shillings for cleansing it of witches. Sometimes it was much more. Stowmarket in Suffolk must have had a particular problem as the town paid Hopkins the vast sum of £23. Its neighbor, the town of Aldeburgh escaped with a somewhat lighter bill of £6. These sums were a fortune compared to the average wages of the day, and it has been estimated that in all, Hopkins’s received fees of around £1000 for his witch-finding.