17th Century - the Reformation and the burgeoning new "religion" of science was a spreading influence across the face of Europe. The Church of England knew something had to be done to counter a world that might reach beyond its influence. If not now, perhaps sometime in the future. And what better counter to the world of reason, than the world of the supernatural. And what represented the world of the supernatural on this earthly plain? Well, witches of course (and perhaps the Catholics as well for good measure).
The call against these woman (and men) reached a fiery pitch during this century, perhaps brought originally to fore by James VI-I. His fevered persecutions of those suspected of dabbling in the black arts and their supposed attempts upon his life saw no previous equal in Britain. Indeed, witch trials (and executions) in Scotland alone were second only to those of Germany (with its much larger population).
The trial of the North Berwick Witches is particularly notorious. James accused a group of witches and warlocks of trying to sink his ship as he journeyed with his new queen from Denmark to Scotland by casting spells that brought up terrible storms (that did manage to sink his wedding/treasure ship). The tenor of the prosecution and subsequent trial set the stage for what was to come in the decades ahead.
15th Century Touchstone
Pope Innocent VIII issued his notorious Papal bull of 1484: Summis Desiderates. So salacious and shocking was it, that it was used as a preface to the book Malleus Maleficarum (The Hammer of Witches), published by two German Catholic Inquisitors in 1486. In it, it described in detail ritual satanic and sexual aberrations as practiced by witches - women in particular. In fact, pointedly and deliberately so. What else were all these people afraid of? A changing world? Women's place within it? A power structure altering away from the Churches of Europe (the largest landowners on the continent)?
1645-1647 The Reign of Matthew's Terror
For such a notorious character, surprisingly little is k nown of Matthew Hopkins prior to his moving onto the bloody stage as (self-appointed) Witchfinder General. The English Civil war was still raging across the length and breath of Britain (much activity generated from Scotland, so perhaps it is time that history acknowledged it by changing its name (don't hold you breath).
Even in areas unaffected by direct military activity, the severity of the times and events carried tremendous weight - fear and economic upheaval are deadly, self-promoting friends, and in the countryside of England, sectarian fears (at the least) unleashed deadly men consumed with a dread focus - the rooting out of witches.
There is a notion that Hopkins may have been a lawyer, or at least had some training in the profession, but no one really know. There are rumors and some documentation that he was the son of a minister. What prompted this singularly cruel man? The question begs to be answered, but there are just no good answers. It could have been the lure of money and cheap opportunism; a viscous nature uncluttered by remorse, decency or a bad conscience; perhaps even a misapplied and misinterpreted religious conviction - but that might be giving him far too much the benefit of the doubt. He certainly wasn't alone in his profession - there were others so inclined roving the countryside. We will probably never know.
One of the first documented cases instigated by Hopkins was against a woman named Elizabeth Clarke. She was a one-legged widow, or so the story says (many women who came under suspicion of witchcraft were widows, or women who had no strong men or family to protect them), and the Witchfinder General soon had a confession out of her which stated she was a little too familiar with her "familiars" - generally considered to be demons in the guise of earthly beasts (cats, goats, etc.). The women were often searched for a third teat as proof of satanic connections (woe be it to anyone who had a not terribly uncommon superfluous third nipple) - it was this which "nurtured" the demon.
Finally, some influential people and institutions began to tire of Hopkins and his ilk. Parliament itself published their own pamphlet questioning the practices of witch finder's in general. Even some brave clergymen went on record denouncing the rather ridiculous and arbitrary methods used to find these followers of Satan. They even hinted that Hopkins himself might be a witch!
Stories vary as to whether or not Hopkins benefited financially from his evil activities - some say he did, others that he was on a holy quest, and monies obtained were slight.
The End of the Witchfinder General
As might be expected, there are two conflicting stories about the demise of Matthew Hopkins. One states that he returned to his home village, discredited, were he may have did in 1648 of consumption. The other tale - probably apocryphal, but wonderful and fitting if true - is that he himself was accused of witchcraft, tied and "floated" - and of course drowned. I guess that proved he wasn't a witch after all.
In the late 60's an English film about Hopkins was made called Witchfinder General, starring Vincent Price as Hopkins. Though a low budget affair, it is a reasonably sober tale dealing with the events surrounding this evil man. In American it was re-titled The Conqueror Worm after a short poem by Edgar Allan Poe. I guess they figured Americans wouldn't know what a "Witchfinder General" was - but what made them think we would know what on earth a "conqueror worm" was supposed to be?