Matthew Hopkins was born around 1620, the son of a puritan clergyman who was vicar of St Johns in Wenham Suffolk.
Little is known of Hopkins before his career as the self styled witch-finder general. According to Hopkins in his publication ‘The discovery of witches’ his career began in Manningtree where he overheard women discussing their meetings with the devil, this like so much more in this publication is untrue. Hopkins did work with a man called John Stearns, older than Hopkins by about 10 years, and it was Stearns who actually accused 23 women of witchcraft, Hopkins was then appointed as his assistant. Of the 23 women accused and tried at Chelmsford, 4 died in prison awaiting execution the remaining 19 were hanged.
As the Civil War was in full swing at this time, non of the women accused of witchcraft and executed were tried by Justices of Assize (Judges) they were all tried by Justices of the Peace (magistrates) who were easily intimidated.
Witches were unmasked by a process known as ‘pricking’. Hopkins and Stearns travelled with women who did the actual pricking. The accused had all their body hair shaved so the prickers could look for ‘the devils mark’ supposed to be a third nipple or even a third breast, in reality they settled for moles and birthmarks, they would then prick this mark with a sharp needle on a bodkin, to show that the witch did not feel pain and did not bleed from the mark, if she did bleed and the ‘witches familiar’ her pet cat or dog would lick the blood this also proved that she was a witch. Some of these pricking needles still exist in museums and they have been found to have a hollow handle so that the needle retracts into it, giving the bystanders the impression of going all the way into the body – not unlike modern prop knives and daggers.
Although torture was not lawful in England Hopkins did use sleep deprivation to elicit confessions. It was also Hopkins that devised the ’swimming test’ based on the theory that the witch had denounced her baptism so the water would reject her. The woman would be tied to a chair and thrown into the water, if she floated she was guilty and executed, if she drowned she was innocent
The motivation for Hopkins and Stearns was not so much a hatred of witches as a love of money. They would charge a town 20 shillings (around £7000 today) or more to rid them of witches, plus they charged for travelling expenses, required full room and board for all their party and full stabling for their horses.
They only worked in the strongest puritan areas around East Anglia occasionally travelling as far west as Bedfordshire, they tended to stay in the area centred around Essex of the powerful Eastern Association which raised parliamentary militias, including a cavalry captain by the name of Oliver Cromwell. They also claimed to be officially commissioned by Parliament, this was also not true, in fact parliament were quite worried by their activities from an early stage and after witch trials in Bury St Edmunds where 18 women where hanged on one day; the Moderate Intelligence a parliamentary paper expressed unease at the affair in it’s editorial.
Hopkins and Stearns had other opposition too, John Gaule the vicar of Great Staughton attended a woman in gaol awaiting Hopkins visit. Hopkins got to hear of this interview and wrote to the town to ask if they would receive a ‘good welcome’. John Gaule replied with a publication entitled Select Cases of Conscience Touching Witches and Witchcraft.
Both Hopkins and Stearns were questioned by the Justices of Assize about both their fees and their torture of women and asked ‘did not his (Hopkins) methods make him a witch?’ and with all his knowledge did he not too have a secret?. By the time the court had resumed session in 1647, both Hopkins and Stearns had retired.
Hopkins died, probably of Tuberculosis at his home in Manningtree on the 12th August 1647 and was quickly buried a few hours later in the churchyard of Mistley Heath.
It is worth noting that until this time committing acts of maleficium (sorcery) were considered malicious acts and treated like any other crime. After this point witches were seen as heretics, a crime so foul that it stood outside normal legal procedure, and because the devil wasn’t going to confess it was necessary to get a confession from the human involved.
It is further worth noting that between the 13th century and the 18th century around 500 people have been executed in England for witchcraft, in the 14 months Hopkins and Stearns operated they were responsible for more than 300 of those.