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.

Midweek Writer-Rummage: The Caul

Today’s rummage through my research topics has unearthed ‘caul’. It’s a thin, filmy membrane, the remnants of the amniotic sac, that covers or partly covers the head of a baby at birth; such births are rare. This is not to be confused with the ‘en-caul’ birth, which occurs when the baby is born inside the intact amniotic sac. 

The Latin term is ‘Caput galeatum’ which literally means ‘head helmet’. The caul is harmless and is easily and quickly removed by the doctor or midwife following the child’s birth. A child born with a caul is known as a ‘caulbearer’. 

Cauls were/are used in a method of divination known as amniomancy (from the Latin ‘amnion’, which means ‘membrane’); this practice dates to, at least, Roman times. By inspecting the caul, the diviner predicts the baby’s future. If the caul is red, it is said the baby will have a happy life; but if it is lead-coloured, the child will have misfortunes.

There is written and oral references to cauls being kept as protective amulets. This, from 1507 (unfortunately, I didn’t make a note as to its origin):

I tell you for a trouthe that yf ony man bere ypon hym in some batayll the lytell moders wombe, knowe that he may not be hurte nor wounded in his body.

Historically, in ancient Rome, a child born with a caul was believed to be an omen of good luck. The son of the Roman Emperor Macrinus was born with a caul that formed a ‘diadem’ on his head; he was named Diadumenian (208-218). He served his father briefly as Caesar (‘imperial character’) when he was 9 years old, and as Augustus (‘majestic’) when he was 10. Turned out he was far from lucky – when the Syrian legions revolted, they executed Macrinus then Diadumenian in 218.



The belief that a baby born with a caul signifies good fortune carried on into medieval times. It was considered an omen that the child was destined for greatness, and caulbearers were considered immune to witchcraft. Gathering the caul was seen as an important tradition of childbirth. By rubbing a sheet of paper across the baby’s head and face, the midwife would press the material of the caul onto the paper. The caul would then be presented to the mother, to be kept as an heirloom.

It was said that caulbearers are gifted to ‘see beyond the veil’; the ‘veil’ being the caul, and a term used to describe the separation between dimensions. Over the course of history, a legend also developed that suggested anyone possessing a baby’s caul would themselves be blessed with good luck, and the caul would protect the person from death by drowning. No surprise then that cauls were highly sought after and prized by sailors. Women often sold cauls to sailors for a fair sum, which they were willing to pay.

Caulbearers were said to be able to see the future. In Iceland, the child’s guardian spirit was said to reside in the caul and so it was carefully preserved. But not all believed cauls were a good thing – in Romania, it was believed that a child born in a caul would become a vampire after death.

References to caulbearers being special occur in literature from the Bible onwards; Moses was said to have been born with a caul.

'The Finding of Moses' ~ Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema

'The Finding of Moses' ~ Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema

There are quite a few references in literature; I’ve included ones from books I’ve read:

The Grimm fairy tale, ‘The Devil with the Three Golden Hairs’, in which a poor woman gives birth to a son with a caul. It was interpreted to mean that he would marry the king’s daughter when he was 14 years old.

Charles Dickens’ ‘David Copperfield’: ‘I was born with a caul, which was advertised for sale, in the newspapers, at the low price of fifteen guineas…

Alvin Miller, the protagonist in Orson Scott Card’s series ‘The Tales of Alvin Maker’, is born with a caul in the first book, titled ‘Seventh Son’. Being the seventh son of a seventh son, the caul is a sign of his strong magical gift.

In Stephen King’s ‘The Shining’, Jack Torrance’s son, Danny, was born with a caul that made it seem as if he had “no face” when he was born.

There are more well-known people born with a caul than I realised, including


(detail from the Alexander Mosaic)

(detail from the Alexander Mosaic)

Alexander the Great

Lord Byron

'Napoleon in Coronation Robes' ~ Francois Gérard

'Napoleon in Coronation Robes' ~ Francois Gérard


King James VI and I

Lillian Gish

(by Allan Warren, 1968)

(by Allan Warren, 1968)


… to name a few.

The Sunday Section: Ancient Egypt - The Osiris Myth

Perhaps the most popular and elaborate story in Ancient Egyptian mythology is that of the murder of Osiris.  

Osiris (wikimedia commons)

One reason for its popularity is that the characters and their emotions mirror that of real people.  According to the Egyptologist, J Gwyn Griffiths, the myth conveys a “ strong sense of family loyalty and devotion”.  Another reason is the myth’s implication of a pleasant afterlife for the deceased.  Also, the myth’s complex symbolism embraces key Egyptian concepts of kingship and succession, ma’at and chaos, and death and the afterlife.  Interestingly, the elements that made up the worship of Isis, Osiris, Nephthys and Set were derived from this myth.

There is no one standard version of the Osiris myth as it was used in many ways, with different conflicting versions.  Of all the interpretations, this is the one I’m most familiar with.  Curiously, despite the numerous references to the murder of Osiris, the act itself is never clearly described.  This is because the Egyptians believed that written words had the power to affect reality.  The story is, more or less, in two parts, with Osiris’ death and resurrection in the first, and his son, Horus, battling Set in the second.

Osiris, the first son of Geb and Nut, took over ruling Egypt when Geb retired to the heavens.  After marrying his sister, Isis, Osiris began his wise reign of the Egyptians.  Turning them from cannibalism, he introduced them to farming instead; and also framed a legal code for them.  Under his wise rule, the country flourished.  Eager to share his knowledge and wisdom to the world, he entrusted the rule of the land to his queen, and left to travel the world.  Under Isis’ equally wise rule, the land continued to thrive.

Osiris and Isis

However, all was not well in the land.  Osiris’ brother, Set, nursed a murderous hatred for his brother, envying Osiris’ power.  He used his cunning to gain allies, whom he also bribed to ensure their loyalty, and they set about devising a plan to kill Osiris when he returned.  Set found out Osiris’ exact measurements, and had a box made that would fit only him.

When Osiris returned, Set held a banquet in his brother’s honour.  After much food had been eaten, and much beer drunk, Set ordered the beautiful cedar box, inlaid with ebony and ivory, gold and silver, to be brought into the hall, saying that he would make a gift of it to the person who fitted it exactly.  Everyone present took their turn but it fit none of them.  Until Osiris stepped in and lay down, smiling in surprise at the exact fit.  In the next instant, Set and his fellow conspirators slammed the lid shut, and sealed it with lead.  The box was then thrown into the Nile, and Set announced that he was now king of Egypt.

Set (L)

Consumed with grief, Isis travelled along the Nile, searching for the box that contained her husband, so she could bury him properly.  Her search eventually led her to Phoenicia where she met the queen.  Keeping her identity secret, she was taken on as a nurse to the queen’s infant son.  Growing fond of the child, Isis decided to bestow immortality on him.  Waiting until night when all were asleep, she performed a ritual that involved holding the infant over a fire to burn away his mortality.  But the queen entered the room before the ritual was complete.  Seeing her son being held over a fire, she screamed and snatched her son away, undoing Isis’ spell.  She demanded an explanation, and Isis revealed her true identity.  Awed, the queen begged forgiveness, and asked why Isis was travelling as a commoner.  Isis spoke of her quest to recover her husband’s body, and she described the box that held Osiris.  Shocked, the queen realised that the box Isis described was in her house.  She explained that a box had become lodged in a tamarisk bush, which had swiftly grown into a mighty tree; her husband had had it cut down to be made into a pillar in their hall.  On being told, the king ordered the tree to be cut down, and the box was revealed.  Tearing it open, Isis wept over the body of her husband. 

Carrying the box back to Egypt, Isis, and her sister, Nephthys, set about reviving Osiris.  They were aided by Thoth with his magical and healing powers, and Anubis, the god of embalming and funerary rites.  

Osiris between Isis and Nephthys - Dendera temple complex (Francesco Gasparetti)

Once Osiris was made whole, Isis, hovering over him in the form of a bird, conceived their son, Horus.  

Isis in bird form hovering over Osiris, with Isis and Horus, as yet unborn, on either side - Abydos (Olaf Tausch)

Osiris rising between Isis and Nephthys

But, once claimed by death, not even a god can remain in the land of the living.  Osiris descended to the Netherworld, t Duat, to stand in judgment over the souls of the dead.

Osiris with Isis and Nephthys (isiopolis)

To hide from Set and his followers, Isis hid in the swamps of the Nile delta; it was here that she gave birth to Horus, and raised him, with the help of Nephthys, who was Horus’ nursemaid and watchful guardian.

Osiris, Isis and infant Horus (Andrew Bossi)

Learning of Horus’ existence, knowing that the child was the rightful heir, Set sent demons and snakes to kill the child, but, each time, Isis and Nephthys successfully protected him, and he grew into adulthood, strong and ready to face his uncle.


Horus challenged Set for the throne, and they fought for many days.  Although violent, the contest has also been described as a legal judgment before the Ennead, a group of 9 deities in Egyptian mythology, to decide who should inherit the throne.  (Confusingly, the Ennead, who were worshipped at Heliopolis, consisted, not only, of Atum, his children, Shu and Tefnut, their children, Geb and Nut, but also their children, Osiris, Isis, Set and Nephthys.)

In the course of the conflict, mutilations were inflicted by both parties, with Set tearing out one of Horus’ eyes, and Horus injuring Set’s testicles.  The damage that Set endured signified a loss of virility and strength.  But the loss of the Eye of Horus was more important.  As a sky deity, Horus’ right eye was said to be the sun, and his left eye, the moon.  The loss of the Eye of Horus was equated with the darkening of the moon, and eclipses.  In Egyptian religion, the return of the Eye of Horus represented the return of the moon to its full brightness, the kingship being bestowed on Horus, and other aspects ofma’at

Horus, helped by Isis, spearing Set, in the guise of a hippopotamus

The resolution of the conflict is, again, varied.  One view has Horus and Set dividing the realm between them, with Horus receiving the fertile lands around the Nile, and Set having the barren desert.  Another view is that Horus triumphed, and Set was totally defeated, and exiled from Egypt.  Horus took the throne, and Egypt, finally, had its rightful king.  The land flourished again, and Horus sired 4 sons from whom the line of Pharaohs were descended.

Horus and Set, tying the papyrus and the lotus, symbols for Lower and Upper Egypt repectively, showing the balance between them ( tour egypt)

Horus wearing the double crown of Egypt (cow of gold)

The Eye of Horus, flanked by the Four Sons of Horus

Horus protecting Khafre

A couple of interesting notes – one of the reasons given for Set’s hatred of his brother was that he discovered his wife, Nephthys, had seduced Osiris, and borne their son, Anubis.  I always found that confusing as it was Nephthys who mourned with Isis over Osiris, and it was she who was Horus’ ‘nursing-mother’ and guardian.  


But recent Egyptological research now holds that there is little evidence linking Nephthys and Set.  Jessica Levai, in her paper, ‘Nephthys and Seth: Anatomy of a Mythical Marriage’, argues that the evidence suggests that:

“… while Nephthys’ marriage to Set was a part of Egyptian mythology, it was not a part of the myth of the murder and resurrection of Osiris.  She was not paired with Set the villain, but with Set’s other aspect, the benevolent figure who was the killer of Apophis.  This was the aspect of Set worshipped in the western oases during the Roman period, where he is depicted with Nephthys as co-ruler.

Set with Nephthys (joan lansberry)

Also, the part of the story that tells of Isis attempting to bestow immortality on the Phoenician queen’s son is very similar to the Greek mythological story of Demeter searching for her daughter, Persephone, who had been kidnapped by Hades, Lord of the Underworld; as a gift to Celeus' for his hospitality, Demeter had sought to make his son, Demophon, immortal.

So, dear reader, that concludes the Sunday Section of Ancient Egypt.  I haven’t decided what the next Section is going to cover.  I won’t be posting next week as I’ll probably be recovering from a late Saturday night, celebrating the wedding of the daughter of one of my best friends; her daughter is Gordon’s first friend – they’ve known each other since he was 8 months old …