17th Century Witch Hunter, Matthew Hopkins

10074815_110291958761.jpg Matthew Hopkins was born in Wenham Magna, Suffolk, England. He was a Folk Figure, becoming England’s notorious “Witchfinder General,” active during the English Civil War. He was said to have exploited the fear and unrest of the times for his personal gain. Little is known of his early life and his birthdate (1619) is only approximate. He was the son of a Puritan clergyman, James Hopkins, and had knowledge of the law, but there is no evidence to support the story that he was a failed attorney, practicing in Essex.

Matthewhopkins.png We know little of Hopkins until his reign of terror began in 1644. In March 1644, having read a book on witchcraft, he brought accusations against six people in Manningtree, calling them “witches” who had attempted to kill him. He thereupon became a “Witch Finder Generall,” going about Essex, Suffolk, Norfolk, and Huntingdon getting villagers and townspeople to hire him and his two assistants (for a fee) to search out witches, force their confessions, and have them hanged by the authorities. Throughout his reign of terror 1644-1647, Hopkins acquired a feared and evil reputation as a ‘fingerman’ (informer), paid by local authorities to commit perjury.  Together with his henchman and fellow ‘Witch-Pricker’ John Sterne, in just 14 months, Hopkins was responsible for the condemnations and executions of some 230 alleged witches, more than all the other witch-hunters that proliferated during the 160-year peak of the country’s witchcraft hysteria. The hapless victims even included a few Anglican clergymen.

His first victim was Elizabeth Clarke, a one-legged old woman whose mother had been executed as a witch. Clarke was held in a cell for several days, where she was interrogated nearly non-stop. Eventually, she confessed to being in league with the Devil and implicated 31 others as well. Hopkins’s allegations brought about the hanging of 19 individuals. Four others died in prison. Emboldened by his success, Hopkins hired four assistants and began hunting for witches all over Suffolk, Essex, and East Anglia. He claimed that the Puritan Parliament had appointed him “Witchfinder Generall.” He made a fortune charging the towns he visited exorbitant fees for his services.


Engraving of needles used to prick suspected witches and so to determine their guilt via Historic UK

 Many of his methods of inquisition were not far removed from actual  torture. Hopkins got confessions from his victims through sleep deprivation and other bloodless means of physical coercion. He pricked any skin deformity on the accused that was thought to be an extra pap for suckling imps; such parts, if insensible, were believed to prove that the accused was a witch. Another method was to force the accused to walk about all night, for only when at rest could a witch summon his or her familiars, who would terrify the accusers away. A further test was to fling the accused bound by a rope into water, because a witch, having denied his or her baptism, would in turn be repelled by the water. If the accused floated, they were found guilty of witchcraft. If they drowned, they were declared innocent.

 The Find a Grave site tells us, “Hopkins’s favorite targets were elderly widows (especially if they owned cats) and people who were unpopular with their neighbors (and thus vulnerable to malicious accusations). His best known victim, however, was a clergyman, John Lowe, the 70 year-old vicar of Brandeston. After Hopkins and his crew had nearly drowned him, kept him awake for three days and nights, and forced him to walk without rest until his feet blistered, Lowe wearily confessed to a host of supernatural crimes, including causing a shipwreck off the coast of Harwich. He later recanted his confession, but was condemned anyway. Denied benefit of clergy, Lowe recited his own burial service on the way to the gallows. (The Lowe case reveals just how bigoted the local justices could be: no one bothered to check if a ship had actually foundered off Harwich. It also helps explain how Hopkins could conduct his widespread ‘investigations’ with such impunity). During his 14-month reign of terror throughout the provinces of eastern England, Hopkins had between 230 and 400 people executed as witches, while scores more died under torture or imprisonment. Eventually, opposition rose against him. In the spring of 1646, the Reverend John Gaule of Great Staughton looked into Hopkins’ methods and published his findings in a scathing pamphlet, ‘Select Cases of Conscience towards Witches and Witchcraft.’ Gaule also denounced him from the pulpit, hinting that the ‘Witchfinder General’ was himself a witch. Hopkins replied with a pamphlet of his own, ‘The Discovery of Witches,’ but his reputation had been thoroughly debunked. Faced with mounting public resentment, and already in poor health, Hopkins disbanded his team in May 1646 and retired to the village of Mistley in Essex. He died of tuberculosis and was buried in the old churchyard (now destroyed) at Mistley Heath on August 12, 1647. The tale that he had been lynched by vengeful villagers probably stems from Samuel Butler’s poem “Hudibras” (1663), which satirized the witchhunter. Another legend asserts that his ghost wanders between Manningtree and Mistley, pointing an accusing finger at passersby. His brief, bloody career was the subject of a horror film, “Witchfinder General” (released in the United States as “The Conqueror Worm”, 1968), with Vincent Price playing Hopkins.”


There was an impact upon the American colonies following these events. Hopkins’s book was publishing in 1647. It outlined his witch-hunting methods. These practices were also recommended in the law books of the day. Trials and executions for witchcraft began in the New England colonies in 1648, with the hanging of Alse Young of Windsor, Connecticut, on May 26, 1647, followed by the conviction of Margaret Jones.  Governor John Winthrop’s journal describes the evidence against Jones. This was the beginning of witch hunts in America, running from 1648 to 1663. About eighty people throughout New England were accused of practising witchcraft during that period, of whom fifteen women and two men were executed. Some of Hopkins’ methods were once again employed during the Salem Witch Trials, taking place in Salem, Massachusetts in 1692-1693. Nineteen executions resulted from these trials, and another 150 were imprisoned.  


“Matthew Hopkins,” Controversial.com 

“Matthew Hopkins,” Encyclopedia Britannica 

“Matthew Hopkins,” Find a Grave 

“Matthew Hopkins,” Wikipedia

“Matthew Hopkins, Witch Finder,” Historic UK 

Project Gutenberg: The Discovery of Witches: In Answer to severall QUERIES, LATELY Delivered to the Judges of Assize for the County of NORFOLK. And now published By MATTHEW HOPKINS, Witch-finder, FOR The Benefit of the whole KINGDOME. M. DC. XLVII.


About Regina Jeffers

Regina Jeffers is the award-winning author of Austenesque, Regency and historical romantic suspense.
This entry was posted in British history, Church of England, gothic and paranormal, legends, medieval, mystery and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to 17th Century Witch Hunter, Matthew Hopkins

  1. carolcork says:

    Regina, I remember seeing “Witchfinder General” when it was first released back in the 1960s and Vincent Price’s portrayal was quite spine-chilling.

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