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Witchcraft (3): Matthew Hopkins

matthew_hopkins_witch-finder-_wellcome_l0000812If the witchcraft trials at North Berwick in the 1590s and later in England, of which Pendle in 1610 is an example, happened because James VI/I fervently believed in witchcraft, as shown by the three characters in Macbeth, it can be argued that the subsequent decline in such cases came because judges and Charles I took a more sceptical approach, Charles being a more Anglican King than his father. There was, however, a significant case in his reign at Lancaster in 1634.

This trend was reversed in the early 1640s when the start of the First English Civil War saw Charles lose his authority over several parts of his largest kingdom but particularly Puritan-inclined counties such as Suffolk and Essex. To fill this vacuum, various individuals assumed some Parliamentary aut240px-st-_johns_church_great_wenham_suffolk_-_geograph-org-uk_-_213446hority in finding witches. Matthew Hopkins, born in about 1620, was the son of a Puritan vicar who had held the living of Great Wenham and land in Framlingham. By 1643, Matthew was an innkeeper near Manningtree but could also rely on an inheritance from his father and appointed himself Witchfinder General. With John Stearne and four followers, he began hunting witches the following year across the whole of East Anglia, subjecting them to the “swimming” ordeal, psychological torture and sending them for trial. By 1647, when his The Discovery of Witches was published, about three hundred people from Bury St. Edmunds to Chelmsford had been hanged, out of the five hundred such executions throughout England between 1400 and 1700.

Early that year, magistrates in Hopkins’ own region began to demand more evidence and the convictions stopped. Hopkins died that August, probably from tuberculosis. Stearne, a decade older, lived on in Bury St. Edmunds until 1670. Their methods had already spread to the New World Colonies, where there was a hanging in Connecticut in May 1647. The first American witch-hunt continued until 1663 but it wasn’t to be the last …

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