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Matthew Hopkins

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Black and white image of Hopkins. He holds a stick in one hand and has the other placed on his hip, and wears a large hat and wide boots.
A portrait of Matthew Hopkins, 'The Celebrated Witch-finder', from the 1837 edition of The Discovery of Witches.

Matthew Hopkins (c. 1620 – 12 August 1647) was an English witch-hunter whose career flourished during the English Civil War. He was mainly active in East Anglia and claimed to hold the office of Witchfinder General, although that title was never bestowed by Parliament.[1]

The son of a Puritan minister, Hopkins began his career as a witch-finder in March 1644[a] and lasted until his retirement in 1647. Hopkins and his colleague John Stearne sent more accused people to be hanged for witchcraft than all the other witch-hunters in England of the previous 160 years,[2][3][4] and were solely responsible for the increase in witch trials during those years.[5][6][7][8][9][10][11]

Early life


Little is known of Matthew Hopkins before 1644, and there are no surviving contemporary documents concerning him or his family.[12] He was born in Great Wenham, Suffolk,[13][14][15] and was the fourth son[13] of six children.[16] His father, James Hopkins, was a Puritan clergyman and vicar of St John's of Great Wenham, in Suffolk.[15][17] The family at one point held title "to lands and tenements in Framlingham 'at the castle'".[18][19] His father was popular with his parishioners, one of whom in 1619 left money to purchase Bibles for his then three children James, John and Thomas.[14]

Thus Matthew Hopkins could not have been born before 1619, and could not have been older than 28 when he died, but he may have been as young as 25.[20] Although James Hopkins had died in 1634,[14] when the iconoclast William Dowsing, commissioned in 1643 by the Parliamentarian Earl of Manchester[21] "for the destruction of monuments of idolatry and superstition", visited the parish in 1645 he observed that "there was nothing to reform".[22] Hopkins's brother John became Minister of South Fambridge in 1645 but was removed from the post a year later for neglecting his work.[23] Hopkins states in his book The Discovery of Witches (1647)[24] that he "never travelled far ... to gain his experience".[25]

In the early 1640s, Hopkins moved to Manningtree, Essex, a town on the River Stour, about 10 miles (16 km) from Wenham. According to tradition, Hopkins used his recently acquired inheritance of a hundred marks[26] (£66 13s. 4d.) to establish himself as a gentleman and to buy the Thorn Inn in Mistley.[27] From the way that he presented evidence in trials, Hopkins is commonly thought to have been trained as a lawyer, but there is scant evidence to suggest this was the case.[28]


Frontispiece from Matthew Hopkins's The Discovery of Witches (1647), showing witches identifying their familiar spirits

Following the Lancaster Witch Trials (1612–1634), William Harvey, physician to King Charles I of England, had been ordered to examine the four women accused,[29] and from this there came a requirement to have material proof of being a witch.[30] The work of Hopkins and John Stearne was not necessarily to prove any of the accused had committed acts of maleficium, but to prove that they had made a covenant with the Devil.[31] Before this point, any malicious acts on the part of witches were treated identically to those of other criminals, until it was seen that, according to contemporary beliefs about the structure of witchcraft, they owed their powers to a deliberate act of their choosing.[32]

Witches then became heretics to Christianity, which became the greatest of their crimes and sins.[33] Within continental and Roman Law witchcraft was crimen exceptum: a crime so foul that all normal legal procedures were superseded. Because the Devil was not going to "confess", it was necessary to gain a confession from the human involved.[34]

The witch-hunts undertaken by Stearne and Hopkins were mainly in East Anglia, in the counties of Suffolk, Essex, Norfolk, Cambridgeshire and Huntingdonshire, with a few in the counties of Northamptonshire and Bedfordshire.[1] They extended throughout the area of strongest Puritan and Parliamentarian influences which formed the powerful and influential Eastern Association from 1644 to 1647, which was centred on Essex.[35][36] Both Hopkins and Stearne would have required some form of letters of safe conduct[37][38] to be able to travel throughout the counties.[39]

According to his book The Discovery of Witches,[24] Hopkins began his career as a witch-finder after he overheard women discussing their meetings with the Devil in March 1644 in Manningtree. The first accusations were actually made by Stearne, and Hopkins was appointed as his assistant. Twenty-three women were accused of witchcraft and were tried at Chelmsford in 1645. As the English Civil War was in progress, the trial was conducted not by justices of assize, but by justices of the peace presided over by the Earl of Warwick.[40] Four died in prison and nineteen were convicted and hanged. During this period, excepting Middlesex and chartered towns, no records show any person charged of witchcraft being sentenced to death other than by the judges of the assizes.[41]

Hopkins and Stearne, accompanied by the women who performed the pricking, were soon travelling over eastern England, claiming to be officially commissioned by Parliament to uncover and prosecute witches. Together with their female assistants, they were well paid for their work, and it has been suggested that this was a motivation for his actions.[42] Hopkins stated[24] that "his fees were to maintain his company with three horses",[43][44] and that he took "twenty shillings a town".[44] The records at Stowmarket show their costs charged to the town to have been £23 (equivalent to £4,700 in 2023) plus his travelling expenses.[45]

The costs to the local community of Hopkins and his company were such that, in 1645, a special local tax rate had to be levied in Ipswich.[46] Parliament was well aware of Hopkins and his team's activities, as shown by the concerned reports of the Bury St. Edmunds witch trials of 1645. Before the trial, a report was carried to Parliament – "as if some busie men had made use of some ill Arts to extort such confession"[47] – that a special Commission of Oyer and Terminer was granted for the trial of these witches.[47] After the trial and execution the Moderate Intelligencer, a parliamentary paper published during the English Civil War, in an editorial of 4–11 September 1645, expressed unease with the affairs in Bury.

Methods of investigation


Methods of investigating witchcraft drew heavy inspiration from the Daemonologie of King James I, which was directly cited in Hopkins's The Discovery of Witches.[48] Although torture was nominally unlawful in England, Hopkins often used techniques such as sleep deprivation to extract confessions from his victims.[49] He would also cut the arm of the accused with a blunt knife, and if she did not bleed, she was said to be a witch. Another of his methods was the swimming test, based on the idea that as witches had renounced their baptism, water would reject them. Suspects were tied to a chair and thrown into water: all those who "swam" (floated) were considered to be witches. Hopkins was warned against the use of "swimming" without receiving the victim's permission first.[50] This led to the legal abandonment of the test by the end of 1645.[50]

Hopkins and his assistants also looked for the Devil's mark. This was a mark that all witches or sorcerers were thought to possess that was said to be dead to all feeling and would not bleed – although it was sometimes a mole, birthmark or an extra nipple.[51] If the suspected witch had no such visible marks invisible ones could be discovered by pricking. Therefore, "witch prickers" were employed, who pricked the accused with knives and special needles looking for such marks, normally after the suspect had been shaved of all body hair.[52][53] It was believed that the witch's familiar, an animal such as a cat or dog, would drink the witch's blood from the mark, as a baby drinks milk from the nipple.



Hopkins and his company quickly ran into opposition after their work began,[40] but one of his main antagonists was John Gaule, vicar of Great Staughton in Huntingdonshire.[54][55] Gaule had attended a woman from St Neots who was held in gaol charged with witchcraft until such time as Hopkins could attend. Upon hearing that the woman had been interviewed, Hopkins wrote a letter[54][56] to a contact asking whether he would be given a "good welcome". Gaule hearing of this letter wrote his publication Select Cases of Conscience touching Witches and Witchcrafts; London, (1646)[57] – dedicated to Colonel Walton of the House of Commons[54] – and began a programme of Sunday sermons to suppress witch-hunting.[56]

In Norfolk, both Hopkins and Stearne were questioned by justices of the assizes about the torturing and fees.[58] Hopkins was asked if methods of investigation did not make the finders themselves witches, and if with all his knowledge did he not also have a secret,[44][59] or had used "unlawful courses of torture".[59] By the time this court session resumed in 1647, Stearne and Hopkins had retired, Hopkins to Manningtree and Stearne to Bury St Edmunds.[44][59][60]

Colonial impact


Hopkins's witch-hunting methods were outlined in his book The Discovery of Witches, which was published in 1647. These practices were recommended in law books.[61] During the year following the publication of Hopkins's book, trials and executions for witchcraft began in the New England colonies with the hanging of Alse Young of Windsor, Connecticut, on May 26, 1647, followed by the conviction of Margaret Jones. As described in the journal of Governor John Winthrop, the evidence assembled against Margaret Jones was gathered by the use of Hopkins's techniques of "searching" and "watching".[61]

Jones's execution was the first in a witch-hunt that lasted in New England from 1648 until 1663.[62] About eighty people throughout New England were accused of practising witchcraft during that period, of whom fifteen women and two men were executed.[62] Some of Hopkins's methods were employed during the Salem Witch Trials,[63] which occurred primarily in Salem, Massachusetts, in 1692–93. These trials resulted in 19 executions for witchcraft,[64][65] one man, Giles Corey, pressed to death for refusing to plead,[66] and 150 imprisonments.

Death and legacy


Matthew Hopkins died at his home in Manningtree, Essex, on 12 August 1647, probably of pleural tuberculosis. He was buried a few hours after his death in the graveyard of the Church of St Mary at Mistley Heath.[67] In the words of historian Malcolm Gaskill, Matthew Hopkins "lives on as an anti-hero and bogeyman – utterly ethereal, endlessly malleable".[68] According to historian Rossell Hope Robbins,[69] Hopkins "acquired an evil reputation which in later days made his name synonymous with fingerman or informer paid by authorities to commit perjury".[70]

What historian James Sharpe has characterised as a "pleasing legend" grew up around the circumstances of Hopkins's death, according to which he was subjected to his own swimming test and executed as a witch, but the parish registry at Mistley confirms his burial there.[15]


  1. ^ At this time the New Year did not occur until 25 March; all Old Style Dates have been rendered as New Style, with the year beginning on 1 January


  • Boyer, Paul S.; Nissenbaum, Stephen, eds. (1972), Salem-Village Witchcraft: A Documentary Record of Local Conflict in Colonial New England, Northeastern University Press, ISBN 978-1-55553-165-2
  • Cabell, Craig (2006), Witchfinder General: The Biography of Matthew Hopkins, Sutton Publishing, ISBN 978-0-7509-4269-0
  • Deacon, Richard (1976), Matthew Hopkins: Witch Finder General, Frederick Muller, ISBN 978-0-584-10164-5
  • Gaskill, Malcolm (2005), Witchfinders: A Seventeenth-Century English Tragedy, John Murray, ISBN 978-0-7195-6120-7
  • Geis, Gilbert; Bunn Ivan (1997), A Trial of Witches A Seventeenth–century Witchcraft Prosecution, Routledge, ISBN 978-0-415-17109-0
  • Notestein, Wallace (1911), A History of Witchcraft In England from 1558 to 1718, American Historical Association 1911 (reissued 1965) New York Russell & Russell, ISBN 978-1169793521
  • Robbins, Rossell Hope (1959), The Encyclopedia of Witchcraft and Demonology, Peter Nevill
  • Russell, Jeffrey B (1981), A History of Witchcraft, Thames & Hudson, ISBN 978-1-55553-165-2
  • Seth, Robert (1969), Children Against Witches, Robert Hale Co., ISBN 978-0-7091-0603-6
  • Sharpe, James (2002), "The Lancaster witches in historical context", in Poole, Robert (ed.), The Lancashire Witches: Histories and Stories, Manchester University Press, pp. 1–18, ISBN 978-0-7190-6204-9
  • Thomas, Keith (1971), Religion and the Decline of Magic – Studies in Popular Beliefs in Sixteenth and Seventeenth Century England, Penguin Books, ISBN 978-0-14-013744-6

Further reading



  1. ^ a b Robbins, Rossell Hope (1959). "Hopkins, Matthew". The Encyclopedia of Witchcraft and Demonology. New York Crown Publishers. After Essex, he turned to Norfolk and Suffolk. By the next year, he had extended his operations with a team of six - himself, John Stearne, and four prickers - to the counties of Cambridge, Northampton, Huntingdon, and Bedford. He had become indeed the Witch Finder General.
  2. ^ Notestein 1911: p. 195
  3. ^ Russell 1981: pp. 97–98
  4. ^ Thomas 1971: p. 537, ... in Essex there were no executions after 1626 until 1645.
  5. ^ Deacon 1976: p. 41
  6. ^ Notestein 1911: p. 164
  7. ^ Thomas 1971: p. 528
  8. ^ Sharpe 2002, p. 3
  9. ^ Notestein 1911: p. 194, quoting Stearne who "boasted that he knew of 200"
  10. ^ Notestein 1911: p. 195, quoting James Howell Familiar Letters, II 551, dates February 3, 1646/7 of "near 300"
  11. ^ Thomas 1971: pp. 544, 537,"... when the campaign of Matthew Hopkins and his associates resulted in the execution of several hundred witches ..."
  12. ^ Cabell 2006: p. 9; it is the author's opinion that "unfortunately one cannot dispute that all Hopkins documentation was deliberately destroyed after his death".
  13. ^ a b Gaskill 2005: p. 9
  14. ^ a b c Deacon 1976: p. 13
  15. ^ a b c Sharpe, James (2004). "Hopkins, Matthew (d. 1647)". Dictionary of National Biography. Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (online ed.). Oxford University Press. doi:10.1093/ref:odnb/13751. Retrieved 18 October 2009. (Subscription or UK public library membership required.)
  16. ^ Deacon 1976: pp. 15–17
  17. ^ Deacon 1976: pp. 13, 17
  18. ^ Gaskill 2005: p. 23; Deacon 1976: p. 17; quoting James Hopkins's last will and testament
  19. ^ Knowles, George. "Matthew Hopkins – Witch–finder General". Archived from the original on 5 March 2016.
  20. ^ Cabell 2006: p. 6
  21. ^ Cabell 2006: p. 19
  22. ^ Gaskill 2005: p. 13
  23. ^ Deacon 1976: p. 14
  24. ^ a b c The Discovery of Witches – In Answer to Several Queries, Lately Delivered to the Judges of Assize for the County of Norfolk; London; 1647
  25. ^ Cabell 2006: p. 15
  26. ^ Gaskill 2005: p. 23
  27. ^ Gaskill 2005: p. 27
  28. ^ Deacon 1976: pp. 58–59
  29. ^ "Witchcraft Trials". The National Archives. Retrieved 22 February 2018. SP 16/269 – SP16/271
  30. ^ Gaskill 2005: pp. 46–47
  31. ^ Thomas 1971: p 543; Gaskill 2005: p 47
  32. ^ Thomas 1971: pp. 521, 542–543
  33. ^ Thomas 1971: pp. 542–543
  34. ^ Robbins 1959: p. 498
  35. ^ Deacon 1976: p. 39
  36. ^ Notestein 1911: p. 197
  37. ^ Gaskill 2005: p. 79
  38. ^ Cabell 2006: p. 46
  39. ^ Deacon 1976: pp. 70–71 Deacon proposing that Hopkins knew John Thurloe future spy master for Cromwell, who facilitated any travelling. See also .Cabell 2006: p33
  40. ^ a b Thomas 1971: p. 545
  41. ^ Notestein 1911: p. 201
  42. ^ Russell 1981: p98
  43. ^ Cabell 2006: p36
  44. ^ a b c d Notestein 1911: p. 193
  45. ^ Notestein 1911: p183 & p193; quoting A.G. Hollingsworth, History of Stowmarket (Ipswich 1844)
  46. ^ Thomas 1971: p544, quoting Ipswich and East Suffolk R.O. Quarterly Sessions Order Book, 1639 – 57, and Memorials of Old Suffolk, ed V.B.Redstone(1908).
  47. ^ a b Notestein 1911: p. 178
  48. ^ Hopkins, Matthew (1647). The Discovery of Witches. Query 10.{{cite book}}: CS1 maint: location (link)
  49. ^ Notestein 1911: p. 167; three days and nights of "watching" brought Elizabeth Clarke to "confess many things";
  50. ^ a b Cabell 2006: p. 22
  51. ^ Robbins 1959: p. 552
  52. ^ Robbins 1959: p. 398
  53. ^ Robbins 1959: p. 469; ... justification for shaving applied especially, but not exclusively, in England"
  54. ^ a b c Notestein 1911: p. 187
  55. ^ Gaskill 2005: pp. 219–220
  56. ^ a b Gaskill 2005: p. 220
  57. ^ Gaule, John (17 May 2014). "Select Cases of Conscience Touching Witches and Witchcraft".
  58. ^ Robbins 1959: p. 252
  59. ^ a b c Gaskill 2005: p. 238
  60. ^ Robbins 1959: p. 253
  61. ^ a b Jewett, Clarence F. The memorial history of Boston: including Suffolk County, Massachusetts. 1630–1880. Ticknor and Company. 1881 Pgs. 133–137
  62. ^ a b Fraden, Judith Bloom, Dennis Brindell Fraden. The Salem Witch Trials. Marshall Cavendish. 2008. Pg. 15
  63. ^ Upham, Caroline (1895). Salem Witchcraft in Outline. E. Putnam. pp. 5.
  64. ^ The Death Warrant of Bridget Bishop
  65. ^ Death Warrant for Sarah Good, Rebecca Nurse, Susannah Martin, Elizabeth How & Sarah Wilds,
  66. ^ Boyer & Nissenbaum 1972: p. 8
  67. ^ Gaskill 2005:p. 263
  68. ^ Gaskill 2005: p. 283
  69. ^ "Rossell Hope Robbins". Rossell Hope Robbins. Good Reads. Retrieved 28 February 2016.
  70. ^ Robbins 1959: p. 248