Monday, 25 March 2013

Matthew Hopkins, the Witchfinder General

Witch Trials, Magic, & Blood
When I was a mere lad, growing up near salty marshes and fens that supposedly still harbored smugglers' troves and Saxon burial mounds; I once had the opportunity to work-experience in a library.

It was not a big or an old library; in fact it was one of those low, one-story buildings a bit like an enlarged porta-cabin. Governmental cut backs I guess, even back then.

But the small economical library was situated right next door to the parsh church of Hadleigh, and its adjacent museum. I remember spending my lunch breaks in that small park that housed the museum, church and library, an X-Men comic held in one hand with my sandwiches in the other. The work-experience itself wasn't taxing at all, and the sum total of my duties appeared to be handling the Dewey Decimal system and Lost Books category. I never really assumed that my job would lead to anything, and I'm sure that my GCSE teachers pretty much thought the same! What did happen during that time however, was that I became introduced to the works and gruesome deeds of Matthew Hopkins, the last Witchfinder General of the British Isles.

Matthew Hopkins himself was a puritanical fanatic by all accounts, and was at turns a torturer, a father-confesser, a thief, and it seems a political pedant of sorts. Much has been written about him, and his vile exploits have even made their way into film. For our purposes here however, it is interesting to cover the bare facts; that pretty much everything that you may have heard or think about when you hear the term 'Witch Trial' (dunking in water, seeing if some poor widow is immune to burning, weighing someone against a duck or what have you) is based on the exploits of this man.

I know. Not a pleasant bunny, huh?

Matthew Hopkins was not, contrary to popular belief an agent of the Crown or Church; but he was a political opportunist who became the self-appointed WitchFinder General for England, inspiring many other sadists to do the same for the next 40 years. He took advantage of the English Civil War to raise his mob and lay claim to the title, and from there seemed to 'arrange' with local mayors and landlords to share the profits from the lands confiscated from his 'Witches'.

We have to remember that over 300 individuals, mostly all women, widows and children were sentenced to death during this period because of the Witch Trials. Most of them came from and around the county of Essex.

I remember walking into Hadleigh museum one day, looking at the gruesome exhibits of this strange man. Here there were as a mock-up of the chair that the unfortunates would sit on, and over here accounts and records from the time. The only thing that stays with me from that time and that my researches have been trying to uncover ever since, was  the series of journals supposedly written by the Witchfinder himself.

I remember the teenaged me gazing at the huge leather bound tome, held as it was in a glass box and wondering why on earth it contained such strange drawings. The journal before me held pictures of circles and rites, sigils and kabbalistic references, documented as 'an example' of the sorts of evil that Hopkins was ferreting out.

It was probably then that I started to wonder about the sorts of cunning-men and wise-women out there in the world, and the cruel madness of those that pursued them. The Matthew Hopkins museum in Hadleigh, Essex probably influenced my conception of the Templars in 'The Mage of Dunnersley' more than any other subsequent research.

The idea of what ruthless people do still brings me nightmares.

Extra Reading:
h2g2's guide to Matthew Hopkins
Walllngton's Diary of the Witchfinder Trials
Witch Trials on the web - a memorial site to those who perished.

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