Essex: Beth Underdown’s new book on Manningtree’s Witchfinder General, Matthew Hopkins
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What do you do if your brother turns out to be a serial killer? The Witchfinder’s Sister poses the question
Glamorous business, this writing life? Not always. Beth Underdown is two sleeps away from the publication of her first novel – she’s been counting – but this is not the time to sit back with a glass of something sparkling. Beth lives on the edge of the Peak District – in a two-up, two-down terraced house perched on the edge of a gorge offering inspiring views towards Kinder Scout, a windswept plateau about 600m above sea level. This morning it snowed – “determinedly” – and she’s out of coal. A delivery is due, but it hasn’t arrived by four o’clock.
Luckily, the white stuff hasn’t hung about, but the environment is much harsher than milder and flatter East Anglia, which this month is almost her second home.
It’s the evil and self-styled Witchfinder General, Matthew Hopkins, who’s bringing her 200 miles south-east. The man who thrived during the instability of the Civil War years, and is believed to be responsible for the deaths of 300 or so innocent women in less than three years, conducted most of his witch-hunts in Suffolk, Essex, Norfolk and Cambridgeshire.
Beth came across him by chance – but knew immediately he could spark a novel. She was working towards a masters degree in creative writing at the University of Manchester. “I suppose I’d never thought that writing would be a job, so there was a point where I thought I might be a midwife, and was doing some work experience. And ended up reading a book about midwifery in the 17th Century. That’s where I noticed Matthew Hopkins mentioned.” This was late 2012/early 2013.
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How did the persecutor of alleged witches – often vulnerable widows with few to speak up for them – come to be name-checked in a footnote? Beth thinks it’s because he used midwives to examine suspects for hidden marks on their bodies that proved the women were tools of the devil, and to testify against them.
Hopkins was born in Great Wenham, south-west of Ipswich. His Puritan father, James, was vicar of the church of St John. Matthew was the fourth child of six. It’s thought Matthew must have been born in 1619 at the earliest, making him less than 30 when he died in 1647. Perhaps even in his mid-20s. Pity he put so few years to such savage use.
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In the early 1640s he moved to the Essex/Suffolk border – to Manningtree. It was in 1644 that Hopkins began his witch-hunts. It’s said he and those working with him bear responsibility for more people being hanged for witchcraft than in the 100 years before.
Hopkins and right-hand man John Stearne are in the frame for prompting the executions of about 60% of those killed in England, after witchcraft trials, for the whole period from the early 15th to the late 18th centuries. It’s mind-blowing and frightening. And horrible. Hopkins used sleep deprivation to draw confessions. Women were also roped to a chair and thrown into water. If they floated, they were guilty.
Doing God’s work was profitable for the “Witch Finder Generall” – as it said on his 1647 booklet The Discovery of Witches. He charged towns and villages for his services. Quite a lot. Stowmarket had to find £23 and travelling expenses – quite a sum, then. Ipswich imposed a special tax to meet its obligations.
Beth, reading all she could find, found “something about it felt very compelling”. So much so that she started writing a fictional story, based on Hopkins, in the spring of 2013. She even did an extremely early chapter as part of her dissertation. Now the whole story is out: The Witchfinder’s Sister. The sibling is fictional Alice, who comes back to Essex a widow and pregnant just before her brother begins his reign of terror.
Alice finds that home is no longer a place of safety. Her brother has changed, and rumours are spreading through the town: whispers of witchcraft, and of a great book in which he is writing women’s names. How will his obsession play out?
For Beth, the fascination revolves around Alice’s degree of complicity.
“As I learned more about Hopkins’ victims, I did a lot of thinking about what might have driven him to do what he did – and how the neighbours of the women he targeted could have stood by while it all unfolded.”
Was she shocked by what she learned of Hopkins? “Definitely hugely shocked at the scale of it. It might have been nipped in the bud a bit sooner in a more politically stable time.
“One of the things that still upsets me is how little evidence there is left about the women that were killed. It sounds a bit trite, but look how much effect wealth and literacy have even in terms of how you’re remembered. What survived of most of these women is their confession, which was written down by someone else.
“Quite often, in these confessions, the same forms of words are used, and the same kind of accusations are used, and the same kind of details emerge. For instance, that they’re widowed; that they’ve lost children.”
Instability caused by the civil war, the breakdown of parts of the social order and the established legal system, superstition and perhaps the desire to find scapegoats seems to have allowed twisted people to do their worst. “The King’s army was near to East Anglia and the fear of retribution would have been huge. Parts of East Anglia had been strongly Parliamentarian.
“And think about the way news spread. With Twitter and instant news, we’ve got a pretty good idea about what’s going on around us. Then, all it would have to be was a rumour some men had been seen on a road somewhere and that would spark panic and lead to the barricading of Colchester.”
I always find it amazing that Matthew Hopkins isn’t more widely known around the country.
“Definitely hugely patchy,” Beth agrees, “and what there is tends to be as a result of the horror films.” (A 1968 movie called Witchfinder General, starring Vincent Price, was filmed largely in Suffolk.)
Beth hails from the area near Pendle in Lancashire where, in 1612, notorious trials led to 10 people being hanged as witches. That story is quite well known, “but there are surviving accounts. I don’t like making comparisons like this, but it was ‘only’ 12 people who were accused in the Pendle witch trials. It’s interesting they should have this greater cultural awareness attached to them”.
Are there lessons we should take? “I guess one thing I would be careful of insinuating is that witch-hunts don’t happen these days. Growing up, one of my good friends was albino. She had family in South Africa and would visit sometimes. I was aware through her that in some parts of Africa albino people were still at risk because they were considered cursed.
“One of the things I’m preoccupied about in the book is what it means to be a bystander: how easy it is to be a bystander, and how incredibly difficult to not be: to stand up against something.
“It’s kind of applicable in any of the extremisms that are gaining pace again. I wasn’t deliberately setting out to make a point when I wrote the book; I think it’s just telling how history does make patterns and how human behaviours don’t change hugely. It would be a pretty grievous mistake to think we are somehow more enlightened than then, because I don’t think we are. We’re just luckier in the way the law works, and things like that.
“I think one of the challenges our society faces is how to help principled and strong people stay in politics. It’s probably quite easy to become disillusioned, being in politics, and think it would be better to go and do something that’s more clearly rewarding.”
She says her work is “a book about a serial killer, not a book about witchcraft”. Beth has Hopkins as a past victim of bullying, and with facial scarring. Those are imaginings, she says. So how does she see him? “What he did was horrendous and dreadful. It sounds airy-fairy to say ‘I spent time with him’ – I didn’t; he’s dead – but it feels as if I have. Trying to imagine what it was like to be in his shoes. I wouldn’t say it extends quite as far as sympathy, but it’s almost like being related to him: like this dreadful, incorrigible person, but nevertheless (someone) I have a connection to.”
You sound a bit like fictional sister Alice! She laughs. “I suppose, thinking about Matthew Hopkins for this amount of time, I am left with the feeling that people don’t get like that by themselves. I don’t think it’s an excuse, but something can be a reason without being an excuse.” Beth doesn’t know why he turned out the way he did, “but I suppose I have come away persuaded there must have been something, and the book is one proposition of the kind of thing it might have been”.
That fictional sister is still there in her head, it seems.
“I still carry with me the ability to know what Alice would think about stuff. I know she would react differently to someone holding a door open for her than I would.
“Her voice arrived quite quickly, and that’s the bit of the writing process I don’t like speaking about a whole lot.
“One of the things I try to get across when I’m teaching is how so much of writing is about graft – about sitting down and doing it like a job – but in those early days things are very instinctive. Early scraps of things she would say arrived as if someone had spoken them into my ear. Which in any other profession would make people pretty concerned about you! But they arrive as if someone else had said them and I just write them down.
“It definitely wasn’t like that with the whole book. I can only assume part of your brain is doing something without you almost knowing about it.”
* The Witchfinder’s Sister is published by Viking at £12.99
See Beth in Essex
She has a discussion evening at Foyles in Chelmsford on Wednesday, March 15 (6.30pm to 8pm), a talk and signing session at Colchester Waterstones on Monday, March 20 (7pm to 8.30pm), and a “meet the author” date at Wivenhoe Bookshop on Friday, March 31 (6.30pm).
A Northern lass heads south
Beth made a trip to Essex in the spring/early summer of 2014 to get a sense of where Hopkins lived and spread terror. It was her first visit to the county. “I think it’s beautiful and has its own very particular feeling. Very different to where I’m from.”
She spent four or five days in Essex, walking a lot in the Manningtree and Tendring areas and using the oldest map she could find: one from about 1810 – before the railways were built, obviously before the Tarmac of the A12 cut south between Little Wenham and Manningtree, and trying to find the age-old routes that Hopkins and his fictional sister might have trod.
The author went to the pond at Mistley said to be haunted by the ghost of the witchfinder.
“It varies in terms of atmosphere. There are times you go and get a proper shiver. There are other times when all the gulls land on it – I think it might be to do with what the tides are doing – and I think they chase the ghost away!”
She also went to the remains of St Mary’s church, Mistley Heath, were Hopkins is said to have been buried. She found it fallen down “and just a field with sheep.
“You can see stumps of gravestones poking through the grass. A creepy spot. Standing there was really odd. I thought ‘He’s actually buried in that field…’ and part of the oddness was that so little was left of him, in terms of concrete evidence.
“The weird connection at that moment was very strong – almost as if he was going to tap me on the shoulder and say ‘What have you done with my life?’ Just odd…”
Beth didn’t make another trip to Essex before finishing the book. Partly that was down to being ill for about a year and a half with chronic, undiagnosed, bladder pain
“I was in pain for most of the day, every day, so was writing in fairly snatched chunks of time in the early stages of book.”
When she was better, and the book nearly done, she felt the first experience of coming to Essex had been quite intense. A second trip might detract from the strong feeling of that visit.
Beth on her visit to Essex in 2014 – and The Only Way is Essex link!
“I didn’t know much about Essex before my first research trip. I knew it was flat, and that sometimes people were glamorous (sorry, that’s TOWIE’s fault).
“I booked a B&B, pulled on my least flattering anorak, Google-mapped the drive, and winced. But when I arrived, I fell in love. ‘My bit’ of Essex is the Tendring Hundred, at the northern edge of the county. It fills your eyes up with sky and water; often, the sea is very close but out of sight.
“There’s a feeling of place that I’ve tried to capture in my book – the feeling you get at the edge of the estuary near Wrabness, all mud and reeds and birds calling. In the Tendring churchyard full of fallen leaves. In Wivenhoe, with its winding streets, weathered docks and waiting coils of rope.
“History isn’t always made obvious in Essex – sometimes you have to go looking for it. There’s no marker, for instance, at the church where Matthew Hopkins was buried. The church itself has long since fallen down, and now it’s just a sheep field.
“At first, you just see uneven grass; then (when you look carefully), broken gravestones, almost sunk into the earth. This is a land that keeps its secrets.
“But for all that, Essex people know their history, and love talking about it. Everyone got chatting when I said I was writing about the witch hunts. One lady, walking five or six muddy dogs, saw me taking pictures of Mistley pond and stopped to warn me about the ghost of Hopkins that has often been seen on the spot. A waitress in a café remembered acting out the story of the witch hunts in a primary school play.
“The Essex women I met remembered their history, were proud of their bit of the world. I was a bit disappointed not to see a single fake tan – although I think I did catch one or two pitying glances at my lucky research anorak…”
Tell us about that sad anorak…
Beth laughs. It was inherited from her mum. “It’s very unprepossessing. If you’re imagining some yellow hipster anorak, it’s not that. It’s navy blue. Just an old kind of cagoule.
“I like to hill-walk, and I’ve got proper gear for that, but this is one I wear for climbing over fences and snagging on them.
“The thing to know is it’s deeply unflattering, so when I go in cafes I look properly mad – which I think I quite often do anyway!”
So: Tell us about your life
Beth Underdown was born in Rochdale in 1987 and went to school in Oldham. She studied English literature at the University of York.
In terms of writing, she did a lot in childhood – was a runner-up, in fact, (“commended poet”) in the national Foyle Young Poets of the Year Award in 2004.
“I was a bit fallow when I was at university,” she admits. “Does it have to do with confidence or does it have to do with just drinking a lot? I did like a drink when I was at uni, and I did work a lot as a waitress.”
She also acknowledges she’d gone “from being pretty bright at school to very much just average. And there were people there who were very confident”.
After York, Beth went to London, joining a graduate entry scheme at Phaidon, publisher of books about art, food, fashion, culture and more.
She ended up on the cookery side, “which was great and mad – doing things like going to Ikea with a really big rucksack to buy a load of matching crockery for a shoot and bringing it across London”.
It was at this point she began writing again – going to some lengths to fulfil the need.
“I’m a morning person and it reached a point where I was getting up at five in the morning to write in this café before work. I thought ‘Actually, I need to be spending more time doing this, if I am going to do anything with it.’ And I think I had possibly reached London saturation point. I know now I’m definitely a rural person.”
So, after nearly two years there, Beth returned to the North, moved back in with her parents and began a masters degree at The University of Manchester.
And what about this? Last September, she began a teaching job there – lecturing in creative writing.
A second novel is well underway. It’s also historical: set in Cornwall – in 1899, probably. “I’m a sucker for setting books in places a really long drive away,” she laughs. It starts with a death, but it’s not that simple.
At some stage she would like to write a sequel to The Witchfinder’s Sister. “If you read the last line, you’ll understand why.”
Describe yourself in three words…
“Oh no! I don’t know! This is like a job interview I had once, where they said, out of nowhere, ‘Which fictional character would you be?’ I said I’d be Elizabeth Bennet (from Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice) but was then totally unable to think of a reason. I still got the job, though!”
That was with the AQA exam board, after her masters degree: content co-ordinator for the English lit papers, for a couple of years.
“If you really want three words: tenacious. Er… boring. Because I’m quite dull. I go to bed really early. I’ll leave it as two words. Tenacious and boring. That’ll do. That’s what all writers should be, I think. If you’re as interesting as your subject matter, something has gone deeply wrong!”
Bought her house last year. Reckons backyard is the size of a large double bed.
Enjoys hiking. Gardens in summer. Likes National Trust properties. Sings in a choir.