The profusion of pointy hats, cute costumes, sweets and, of course, pumpkins for carving on shop shelves marks our increasing willingness to celebrate the macabre and spooky for Halloween at the end of October.
But some 370 years ago, to be accused of witchcraft was anything but fun. Especially if the rumour stuck and you found yourself hauled up in front of Matthew Hopkins, the self-styled ‘Witchfinder General’ from Essex – the subject of horror films, books and ghost stories in the three centuries since his reign of terror in East Anglia.
Little is known about Hopkins’ early life, other than he was born in Suffolk (at Little Wenham) around 1620 and moved to Manningtree, Essex in his mid-twenties. Believed to have trained as a lawyer but failing to make a decent living, Hopkins used what legal skills he did have to forge a new and highly lucrative career as a witch finder.
Witchcraft was not made a capital offence in Britain until 1563 – although it was deemed heresy and was denounced as such by Pope Innocent VIII in 1484. Those accused were often elderly women whom also had the misfortune to be poor. If they had a cat, or other pet, this was taken as proof positive that they were in league with the Devil, as domestic animals were held to be shape-changing ‘familiars’.
Initially, proving that someone was indeed a witch was a little problematical. Torture was illegal while everyone knew that the Devil would never tell the truth. Amid the turmoil of the Civil War and rampant anti-Catholic sentiment, Hopkins’ own Protestant faith and ingenuity soon found itself in demand.
The trial that sealed his notoriety was that of ‘swimming’. The suspect’s limbs would be bound together and they would be lowered into water by ropes. The principle was simple: if they sank and drowned, they were innocent and in heaven; if they floated, they would be tried as a witch. A harrowing scene in Michael Reeves’ legendary 1968 movie Witchfinder General starring Vincent Price as Hopkins captures the sheer terror and horror of trial by swimming.
Original records of some of his trials can be viewed today in the Essex Record Office in Chelmsford.
Believed to be responsible for over 200 executions, a gruesome reminder of Hopkins’ reign of terror was discovered in St. Osyth in 1921. Two female skeletons were found in a garden, pinned into unmarked graves and with iron rivets driven through their joints. This was to make sure a witch could not return from the grave.
Though many of the Acts against witchcraft were repealed in 1736, witch hunting still went on. In 1863, an alleged male witch was drowned in a pond in Hedingham.
And what of Hopkins himself? The precise details of his death are unclear. Writing on Essex folklore in the 19th century, William Andrews described Hopkins being charged with the theft of a book containing the names of all the witches in England, which he acquired by means of sorcery. Protesting his innocence, the once feared ‘Witchfinder General’ was made to undergo his own trial by swimming. Accounts vary as to what happened. Some say he floated, was tried and hanged; others that he drowned. There are no records to confirm he was ever tried and the more likely story is that he died at home in Manningtree, from pleural tuberculosis.
He lies buried in the churchyard of what was St Mary the Virgin, at Mistley Heath. All that remains of the church itself are two sentinel-like towers. Though constructed long after Hopkins’ death, they add to the area’s mystique. Especially as, nearby, is the pond that his ghost is said to haunt. Local tradition also has it that, upon inheriting 100 marks, Hopkins attempted to establish himself as a gentleman and bought the nearby Thorn Inn.
Today, the building that replaced the original in 1723 is The Mistley Thorn, a restaurant with rooms renowned for its warm welcome and superb cooking. It’s ‘Witchfinder General’ heritage is commemorated with a plaque on the wall outside.
In Manningtree, The Red Lion sits near the top of South Street, and it was from here that Hopkins reputedly dragged his elderly and crippled neighbour Elizabeth Clarke, accusing her of being a drunken sot and ‘nourisher’ of animals; namely a white cat (called Holt), a polecat (Newes), a black rabbit (Sacke and Sugar), a fat spaniel (Jarmara) and an ox-headed greyhound called Vinegar Tom. Having successfully secured her conviction as a witch and subsequent death by hanging, the emboldened Hopkins created the title of ‘Witchfinder General’.
Elizabeth’s ghost is said to haunt the shore of Seafield Bay, an area of mudflats known as The Walls. Hopkins himself has occasionally been ‘seen’ at The Red Lion. Just a few steps up South Street from The Red Lion, is the remains of a village green. This small, neat lawn bears no trace of the dark secret its past holds, for it was once the hanging place where around ten witches met their terrible end.