Bewitched by the heritage of East Anglia
- Credit: Andy Abbott
Matthew Hopkins, The Witchfinder General, and his reign of terror across East Anglia continues to hold a horrific grip on our imaginations. Arts editor Andrew Clarke spoke to theatre-maker Greg Hanson about how the witch trials have inspired a new play
To modern eyes Britain, in the mid-17th century, went through a three-year bout of madness. A mass hysteria seized the country and between the years of 1644 and 1647 more than 300 women were executed as witches – the vast majority of these in East Anglia, home of Matthew Hopkins, the so-called Witchfinder General.
According to contemporary records, between the early 15th and late 18th centuries, there were only 500 executions for witchcraft across the country, so for 300 of those to be carried out in East Anglia in just three years suggests that Matthew Hopkins and his friend John Stearne had been particularly busy.
His reign of terror only came to an end with his premature death at the age of 27, after which all the demons and devils seemed to have disappeared.
It has been suggested that this was because the people of Suffolk, Norfolk and Essex had had their fill of slaughter.
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Although, this collective madness only lasted for three short years, it has left an indelible mark on our collective consciousness. The fact that the witch-hunts remain an important part of our social history reveals just how traumatic this period was.
But, who was Matthew Hopkins? Suffolk-based theatre company Bring Out Your Dead Productions have devised a new play which seeks to look at Matthew Hopkins the man rather than Hopkins the Monster and to explore exactly what was going on during those fraught years between 1644 and 1647.
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Covenant: A True and Exact Relation of Witches Found in East Anglia has been written by company founders Hatty Ashton and Greg Hanson in collaboration with UEA Professor of History Malcolm Gaskill.
The inspiration for the play came from a folk-punk song called 18 Witches by Suffolk band Thy Last Drop, along with a general dissatisfaction with the Vincent Price film The Witchfinder General which both Hatty and Greg played fast and loose with the facts.
“Hatty played me the song 18 Witches which is all about the East Anglian witch trials and we knew immediately that this would make a terrific play,” said Greg.
The play is being staged this week at Moyes Hall Museum in Bury St Edmunds which provides audiences with instant atmosphere. “Becca Gibbs, our designer, told us at the first production meeting that she wouldn’t have to do a lot in terms of set because the backdrop of Moyes Hall does all the hard work for her. It immediately transports you to another place in time.”
So, why did the people of East Anglia start seeing witches behind every hedge row? Was it a mass hysteria or a chance to get even with difficult neighbours? Or was Matthew Hopkins a charismatic mass murderer who used this as an opportunity to line his pockets while torturing some of the most vulnerable people in society?
Greg admits that he approached the story with a lot of questions as it was not a period that he initially knew a lot about.
“The best thing that happened was that very early on we were put in contact with Malcolm Gaskill, who wrote the definitive work on the East Anglian witch-hunts, Witchfinders: A 17th Century Tragedy and he was very good at dispelling a lot of the myths and misconceptions surrounding what happened at the time.
“He made it clear that prior to Hopkins witch trials were not at all common. The idea that people were hanging witches left, right and centre just wasn’t true. It was also not true that Hopkins was doing it to earn money or people were being accused as a result of disputes between neighbours.
“This was a time when everybody really believed that witches existed and if you accused someone then it was a serious matter because if someone was wrongly condemned to death then the weight of their soul rested on your shoulders when you yourself arrived at the pearly gates, so it was taken extremely seriously.”
Greg said he and Hatty used actual historical incidents uncovered in research to form the backbone of the story along with a look at why Hopkins became so concerned about witches. “We take the view that he was a man looking to prove himself. He was a very religious man, a puritan, and he thought that exposing women who had turned their back on God would be a worthwhile way of proving himself as a worthy member of society.”
Covenant runs until November 4 at Moyes Hall Museum, Bury St Edmunds.