The reign of terror brought to East Anglia by the Witchfinder General is being brought to life this autumn in a new play being premiered in Ipswich.

The Red Rose Chain Theatre's latest production is The Ungodly - a new play by artistic director Joanna Carrick that brings the terror brought by Matthew Hopkins in the 1640s to life.

It should also dispel a few myths about the Witchfinder General that have grown up since the 1968 horror film was released.

Hopkins was the son of the vicar of Great Wenham, just outside Ipswich, but his father died when he was 14 and his mother married the vicar of Mistley and moved to Essex.

East Anglian Daily Times: A contemporary pamphlet showing Matthew Hopkins, Witchfinder GeneralA contemporary pamphlet showing Matthew Hopkins, Witchfinder General (Image: Archant)

At a young age he became a zealous Puritan with an interest in driving out witchcraft - and by his mid-20s he was engaged in a crusade across Suffolk and north Essex that led to the execution of hundreds of alleged "witches."

"Witchfinder General" was a title he gave himself - but his reign of terror didn't last that long. It really started in 1642 and in 1647 he died of natural causes, probably TB, aged just 27.

By that time his actions were already being seriously questioned and he was falling out of favour.

Ms Carrick said that in writing the play she had been doing research for many years and had actually started preparing it long before the lockdown.

East Anglian Daily Times: Actors Nadia Jackson and Christopher Ashman during rehearsals for The Ungodly.Actors Nadia Jackson and Christopher Ashman during rehearsals for The Ungodly. (Image: Red Rose Chain Theatre)

And as she found out more, she came to realise there were several parallels with modern life in Hopkins' story - even though the outcomes might not be so extreme.

She said: "The central family in this aren't all religious zealots, they're just trying to make their way in life in and ordinary way.

"But they have lost several children - as people did in those days - and they get sucked into the witchhunt."

The way that the family was drawn into the witchhunt after hearing what strange ideas had resonance with some of the conspiracy theories and extremist ideas that are heard now, she felt.

In the 17th century East Anglia - because of its close links with Europe - was a hotbed of extreme Puritanism and this allowed the fanatacism of Hopkins to come to the fore.

East Anglian Daily Times: Vincent Moisey plays Matthew Hopkins in The UngodlyVincent Moisey plays Matthew Hopkins in The Ungodly (Image: Red Rose Chain Theatre)

Ms Carrick said: "This extremism was very misogynistic - there were far more women, particularly single women, executed for witchcraft than there were men."

One exception to that was Brandeston rector John Lowes. He was 80 years old, very old for that time, and was disliked by many parishioners for being too "Papist."

In 1642 he was tortured, confessed to summoning up demons, and was hung from a tree in his own churchyard.

Ms Carrick said: "That was unusual in that it was a man who was persecuted."

Over the years the myths about Matthew Hopkins have been fed by retelling his story - especially the 1968 film starring Vincent Prices.

East Anglian Daily Times: The 1968 film brought the Witchfinder General to the public eye - but was not that accurate!The 1968 film brought the Witchfinder General to the public eye - but was not that accurate! (Image: Archant)

She said: "The persecution was a terrible time, but Hopkins was nothing like Vincent Price! He was dead of natural causes at 28, nothing like the film!

But the film did help to maintain interest in the story and to keep the legend alive in many people's lives.

Hopkins' influence was also said to have helped provoke the Salem Witch Trials in America 40 years after his death - trials that have also featured in literature and films such as Arthur Miller's The Crucible which was seen as a critique of the McCarthy anti-Communist hearings of the 1950s.

The Ungodly runs at the Avenue Theatre at Gippeswyck Hall in Ipswich from October 24 until November 11.

It features many of the cast who delighted audiences at Sutton Hoo with The Winter's Tale during the summer - and rehearsals are now underway.

Tickets can be bought through Red Rose Chain's website.