The ghost of the Witchfinder General from Great Wenham still haunts Mistley
It is believed that the wraith of Matthew Hopkins appears in 17th costume, complete with pointed hat, near Mistley Pond – once a scene of horror as he dunked his bound victims into the water during his reign of terror, writes James Marston.
He has been famously portrayed by Vincent Price, and remains the subject of horror films and spooky stories nearly 400 years after his birth – but who was Matthew Hopkins, and how did he embark on his career as Witchfinder General?
Adam Jones, of Visit Essex, has researched the subject.
He said that 370 years ago people believed in the existence of witches.
He added: “Little is known about Hopkins’ early life, other than he was the son of a priest and was born in Great Wenham in Suffolk around 1620 and moved to Manningtree, Essex, in his mid-twenties. It is thought he may have trained as a lawyer or a clerk and had some legal knowledge. Hopkins used what legal skills he did have to forge a new and highly lucrative career as a witch-finder.”
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Witchcraft was not made a capital offence in Britain until 1563 and those accused were often elderly women who were also poor.
Adam said: “If they had a cat, or other pet, this was taken as proof positive that they were in league with the devil, as domestic animals were held to be shape-changing ‘familiars’.”
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By the 17th century, torture had been made illegal.
Adam said: “Hopkins and his assistant, John Stearne, would deprive their suspect of sleep. Hopkins believed that witches fed their familiars with their own blood; so, by keeping them under guard, ‘watching’ as he called it, he deprived them of their powers. Confessions were made without resorting to physical means.”
He added: “Hopkins emerged in the backdrop of the English Civil War and a society that was paranoid about witches. Towns and villages paid Hopkins to rid their close-knit communities of witches.
“The opportunity was sometimes used to settle old scores and Hopkins turned up and did it for them.”
Hopkins’s reign of terror lasted just a few years.
Adam said: “He inherited 100 marks and bought an inn in Mistley. He wanted to set himself up as a gentleman. He lived in Manningtree. His first victim was his neighbour Elizabeth Clarke.
“Hopkins dragged her from The Red Lion pub in Manningtree and accused her of being a witch. She went on trial for witchcraft and was hanged. I think this emboldened him when he realised it was something he could do and he set himself up as Witchfinder General.”
With much of his work in East Anglia – Suffolk and Essex in particular – Hopkins made a living out of his work.
Adam said: “He was paid £6 by the people of Aldeburgh for ridding the town of witches, and the grateful townsfolk of Stowmarket gave him £23.”
Hopkins’ techniques also developed. Adam said: “A suspect’s limbs would be bound together and they would be lowered into water by ropes. The principle was simple: if they sank and drowned, they were innocent and in heaven; if they floated, they would be tried as a witch. He is believed to have been responsible for more than 200 trials and executions.”
But by 1647 it was all over and Hopkins was dead, aged just 27.
Adam said there is a legend that he was killed by his own methods by angry townsfolk who turned against him, but it is more likely he died of a form of tuberculosis.
He was buried in the churchyard at Mistleythorn, as it was then known.
Adam said: “The medieval church was pulled down and replaced by a Robert Adam-designed Georgian church of which only the two towers survive today.
He added: “It is a fascinating story and it all happened over a short period of time.
“Although a lot of people did get off following a trial, he is more remembered for his success than his failures.
“He justified his work because there was a genuine belief in witches and witchcraft.”