Midweek Writer-Rummage: The Witch-Hunts of the English Civil War

I know I said I’d covered my research for ‘Moon Goddess’ but, in a way, this is related as it was one of my starting points. Even though none of this was used directly in the story, it’s still interesting enough to share.

When people talk of ‘witch-hunts’, they generally either mean the 17th century Salem witch-hunts or the McCarthy witch-hunts of 1950s America. But, in 1645, England endured its own terrifying version during the Civil War. Although there had been regular witchcraft trials following the Witchcraft Acts of 1563 and 1604, these had declined by the 17th century, thanks to a shift in crown and church policies. Also, a good number of well-publicised frauds had made people more sceptical and less willing to believe.

Why then, in the spring of 1645, did East Anglia succumb to fears of witches? Fears which, in the space of 2 years, resulted in the deaths of 300 people?

The Civil War was influenced, not only by the tyranny of Charles I’s rule and the political climate of the time, but also by religious fervour. The King and his Royalists were denounced as men “against the Lord’s cause”; this meant that he must surely be allied with the devil.

 King Charles I

King Charles I

We must remember that the mindset of the time was so different to that of modern times – people had an all-encompassing belief in heaven and hell, in God and the devil; of harmful witchcraft. It was perfectly natural for ordinary people to believe that there were those who indulged in destructive practices that could damage their livestock, their families, even kill their children. With the constant threat of death in wartime, and the fear of not knowing who to trust, it must have been a very frightening time.

If those pre-existing tensions had not been exploited, I wonder if the witch-hunts would have taken place. Unfortunately for the victims, two men appeared who did exploit those tensions and suspicions – Matthew Hopkins and John Stearne.

 Matthew Hopkins

Matthew Hopkins

Not much is known of them. To begin with, Hopkins was appointed as Stearne’s assistant. Their appearance before the magistrate in Manningtree in 1644, to do with accusations of witchcraft – Hopkins said he’d overheard various women discussing their meetings with the Devil – marked the start of their vicious career in witch-hunting.

The witch-hunts took place mainly in East Anglia and slightly beyond, areas of strong Puritan and Parliamentarian influences. That it spread as quickly as it did could have been because, at the time, Cromwell’s armies were defeating the Royalists with town after town falling to the Parliamentarians. The impending sense of victory brought with it the need to conduct a religious and moral cleansing; witches were caught in the net of cleansing.

 'Oliver Cromwell' ~ Samuel Cooper

'Oliver Cromwell' ~ Samuel Cooper

Hopkins called himself ‘Witchfinder General’ although Parliament had never appointed him in this or any official role. Together with Stearne, they travelled through eastern England, claiming that they had been officially commissioned by Parliament to carry out their witch-hunts. It turns out they were well paid for their work, with each town paying “fees” to cover their costs and travelling expenses.

Despite there being little evidence to confirm it, it is believed that Hopkins had been trained as a lawyer. There is no doubt that he was a skilled interrogator, using leading questions to make suspected witches incriminate themselves. Disturbingly, both men pushed the boundaries of the law by employing physical and psychological pressure to wear the suspects down, including sleep deprivation and walking them constantly to the point of exhaustion.

They also used the dubious practice of swimming witches. Contrary to popular thought, this was not a punishment as the end goal is not for anyone to drown. It was meant to expose the guilt of the witch through a symbolic rejection of their bodies from water – if the accused sank, they were innocent; if they floated, they were guilty. But, of course, if someone is under water long enough, they end up drowning. By the 1640s, it had already been long outlawed as a superstitious practice, but was still used in rural communities as part of the decision-making process.

It came as no surprise to me to learn that the typical accused person brought before Hopkins and Stearne was someone with a poor reputation and a low social status, usually a woman. I admit to being surprised on reading that there were a fair number of men who’d been accused as well.

Even though their diabolical witch-hunts lasted 2 years, there was already opposition to their work soon after they started. The opposition finally culminated in either late 1646 or early 1647, when a damning critique of Hopkins’ witch-hunt was presented to the judges at the Norfolk Assizes; the critique was probably based on the indictment of John Gaule, a Puritan cleric, who preached against Hopkins through his sermons to suppress witch-hunting. Hopkins reacted to the critique by writing a short pamphlet, ‘The Discovery of Witches’, which was published in Norwich and then London. Full of lies and devoid of logic, it ended up revealing the sort of man Hopkins truly was. By the time the court session resumed, both, Hopkins and Stearne, had retired.

 (British Library)

(British Library)

To put the results of their ‘career’ into perspective: it’s estimated that the witch trials which took place between the early 15th and late 18th centuries, resulted in fewer than 500 executions. If the evidence is true, then Hopkins and Stearne were responsible for the deaths of 300 people in 2 years. Which means, in the space of 2 years, those 2 men sent more people to the gallows than all other witch-hunters in England of the previous 160 years.