Witch-finders were proclaimed professionals. Working in their own local areas and provinces, they understood the lores of witchcraft and how to detect a witch. Given the freedom to question and torture anyone they wished, extracting statements, they would give testimony when the said witch, and in most cases, witches, came to trial. And often on their statement alone would the accused be tried and convicted.

Not all those accused were found guilty. In some cases the courts found the accusers to be liars and cheats. It was well worth accusing a neighbour of bewitching when animals went sick or ill-fortune befell the family. Once the accused witch was found guilty, the accuser, in recompense, was granted the witches property.

Essex hanged more witches than any other county in England. The trials were usually held at Chelmsford. The most proliferate time was while Matthew Hopkins was witch-finder. In a single day 19 witches were hanged, all elderly women. The witch-hunts were more cruel and prominent here because of the religious beliefs. It was mainly a Protestant area where they believed that the immortal soul was immune, but flesh and blood was not, and turned to the bible which claims; (Exodus xxii, v 18:) thou wilt not suffer a witch to live. Even with a strong belief in the Lord and God, no one was insufferable to witchcraft.

Though some popes went to measures to condone witch mania, people of the Catholic faith were more tolerable as their bible and saints could save them, and so with the bell, book, and candle.

Though witches had been put on trial, it wasn't for being a witch that they were accused. Laws against the crimes of witchcraft were introduced in 1542 and repealed in 1547. The law was again introduced in 1563 and it was three years later that they were put into practice. The first case was held at Chelmsford in 1566. Put on trial was Agnes Waterhouse, her daughter Joan, and Elizabeth Francis. The women lived at Hatfield Peverel and the evidence seems to have been aimed more at a cat named Satan, which was said to have passed in ownership to the three women. Elizabeth Francis served a year in prison until the witch-trials began in earnest when she was hanged in 1579. Joan Waterhouse was released, but her mother confessed to the crimes, possibly to save her daughter, and was hanged. She was 63-years-old and found guilty on the evidence of a 12-year-old girl. She was also condemned by the courts when she could only recite her prayers in Latin, a crime in itself to the righteous Protestants that were taking a firm hold on England.

The witch-finders needed the witch hysteria to keep them in business. Moving from town to village, usually with assistants in their employ, they charged for their services. Some of these became very powerful people. None so more in England was the self-proclaimed Witch-finder General, Matthew Hopkins.

Having read a few books on the subject, he was convinced that he had to scourge the area of this pestilence. He lived during the 17th century at Manningtree in Essex, and it was here in 1644 that he decided there was a whole coven working towards evil. The coven was said to meet near his own home, every six weeks on a Friday night, and there make sacrifices.

In 1645 he had enough evidence to bring to trial 32 people. Elizabeth Clarke was his first victim in Manningtree. She was an old crippled woman with one leg who he found easy to terrorise. The power he had over another person must have done his ego the world of good. By the time he had finished his questioning the frightened woman had named 32 other conspirators. Further interrogations brought Rebecca West round to admitting she had married the Devil. Many of these were hanged at Chelmsford, 19 of them on Hopkins word alone. Bridget Mayers pleaded not guilty. Anne West was on trial for being the daughter of a witch. Five were found guilty but reprieved. Eight remained in gaol with four dying.

Hopkins went about rooting out the guilty, not to mention the money paid for each proclaimed witch. To this effect it lead to twenty-nine women being tried and hanged. Often on his word alone, he had several methods for declaration. To have any animal for a pet was enough for Hopkins to claim these to be the witches "familiar" or the devil in disguise. These animals suckled either milk or blood from the witch to gain their power.

Matthew Hopkins was a lawyer, but not very successful at his trade, not until it came to the witch trials. Perhaps the people needed something or someone to blame as the country was in the grip of civil war. With the records being sketchy, it will never be known for certain how many alleged witches was tried and executed due to Matthew Hopkins, though it is near the 400 mark. In his short reign of terror he had killed more than a third of the total executed in England over two centuries.

Before the Manningtree witch trials were over, Hopkins, with two assistants, John Stearne and Goody Philips, made their way to the counties of Norfolk and Sussex in search of more witches to eradicate. In this venture he was very successful, and a much wealthier. It is recorded that Aldeburgh paid him £6 for his services, which was a lot of money in those days. He ingratiated more at King's Lynn where he gratefully received £15. Stawmarket were even more grateful and gave him £23.

In his interrogations the women were stripped in a search for what Hopkins believed was a nipple from which the devil or his familiars would suckle. A mole, wart, or flea bite was enough to condemn a person to having the mark of the devil. Hopkins was not above using deceit as it was a known fact that a witch could be subservient to pain. Witnesses would be certain of a witch after seeing a demonstration where Hopkins or his assistants would insert a three inch spike into the accused with no sign of pain, not realising the spike was retracting into the handle. Once these methods had been used, all that was needed was a confession.

The use of the rack was illegal, but starvation, solitary confinement, and being bound cross-legged were all acceptable, and after days of such treatment, usually a confession came swiftly. One 80-year-old woman was made to walk without rest for five days and nights.

In the case of Elizabeth Clarke, Hopkins stated he had seen visitations by four familiars in the guise of various animals. She did not deny this and admitted to having slept with the devil on a number of occasions over a period of several years.

An elderly person keeping pet animals during Matthew Hopkins reign as witch-finder was putting themselves in jeopardy. At Catworth in Huntingdonshire, Widow Weed admitted that her two pet dogs were familiars and was duly hanged for the confession. Faith Mills also confessed that her three pet birds were the same.

For his short-comings in his early career, Hopkins seems to have been able to convince juries of the most ludicrous tales as being truth. In Cambridge he told a court that a male witch named Old Stranguide had flown through the air on a black dog over Great Shefford. A torn garment was produced in evidence that he had ripped them on the weathervane of the steeple.

It is estimated that in doing his duty as witch-finder, Matthew Hopkins brought to trial 124 persons in Suffolk alone, 68 of which were hanged.

No one was safe from Matthew Hopkins accusations, not even the clergy. In 1645, John Lowes, a parson at Branson was put on trial at Bury St. Edmunds along with another man, Thomas Edward Cooper, and fifteen females.

Whatever Hopkins motives, whether for notoriety, power, or wealth, his witch-finding days were going out of favour. John Gaule, a parson of Huntingdonshire went as far as publishing a leaflet exposing Matthew Hopkins and his methods of extracting confessions by mental torture.

In the summer of 1646 Hopkins retired to his home at Manningtree, a far wealthier man. There are stories that he was accused and tried for being a witch and exonerated, though none of this can be founded on fact. He died in 1647, possibly from tuberculosis.


Paranormal X 2009


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