The real witch hunters: Hopkins and Stearne
Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters is the latest film to appeal to an audience fascination with the macabre. But witch hunters are not mere figments of Hollywood's imagination. They have their place in our own history, just a few hundred years ago.
On the night of 24 March 1645, Matthew Hopkins and John Stearne visited the home of Elizabeth Clarke in the small Essex town of Manningtree.
The 80-year-old woman, poor and with a missing leg, had the misfortune to be accused of witchcraft at a time when bizarre but damning evidence was easy for a zealous witch hunter to find.
A bodily blemish, such as a wart or mole on the body of the accused, was a witch's teat used to suckle the devil's imps. A small animal, real or imagined, was a witch's familiar.'Carnal relations'
End Quote Professor Lyndal Roper University of Oxford
Women accused of witchcraft tend to be past child-bearing age”
For three days and nights Clarke was deprived of sleep as four women and two men kept watch, on the lookout for signs of her devilry. With Hopkins and Stearne now leading the inquiry, Elizabeth confessed. She had enjoyed "carnal relations" with the devil several times a week for the past six or seven years, she said.
She offered to reveal her imps, or familiars, to the watching throng. "I will shew you my impes, for they be ready to come."
After some time had passed the group were said to have witnessed a small white cat emerge from the shadows, followed by a "fat spaniel", a "long-legg'd Greyhound with a head like an Oxe", and a clutch of other "devilish creatures" bearing the shape of animals.
In the 1640s, East Anglia was mired in the kind of religious conflict in which witch-hunts can thrive - when opposing beliefs could readily be equated with heresy or evil.
There were pockets of Catholic practice as well as areas of intense Puritanism, creating a climate of paranoia and fear, particularly in the context of the Civil War.
While belief in witchcraft was common, witch-hunts and professional witch hunters like Matthew Hopkins and John Stearne were not. They were to become the forefront of what Professor Malcolm Gaskill of the University of East Anglia terms "the most brutal witch-hunt in English history".
Allegations of witchcraft could be prompted by commonplace events such as the death of livestock, an unexplained illness, or the death of a child. Elizabeth Clarke was accused of witchcraft by a local man, John Rivet, after his wife fell ill. The charges laid against her included the killing of a clothier's child, and spoiling beer.
Crucially, Clarke implicated other local women in witchcraft crimes. This allowed Hopkins and Stearne to set about exposing the many witches they believed to be hiding in their midst.
From Essex they moved into Suffolk, splitting up and working their way through the county and beyond.
In this ferocious period across 1645 and 1646, more than 100 women were hanged as witches.'Gaunt old hag'
The Civil War: Key Points of Conflict
- 22 Aug 1642: King Charles I signals the start of the English Civil War by raising his standard at Nottingham
- 23 Oct 1642: Royalist and Parliamentarian armies clash at Edgehill in Warwickshire
- 2 Jul 1644: The North is effectively lost to the King after the defeat of his nephew Prince Rupert's army at Marston Moor
- 14 Jun 1645: The Royalist troops are decimated by the New Model Army at Naseby
- 5 May 1646: Charles I surrenders to the Scots
- 30 Jan 1649: Charles I is executed in London
Poor, older women were the main victims, matching public expectations of a witch. The Discoverie of Witchcraft written in 1584 by witchcraft sceptic Reginald Scot describes those typically accused of witchcraft as "old, lame, bleare-eied, pale, fowle... poore, sullen, superstitious and papist".
"Witchcraft is very closely related to [a personification of] envy," says Professor Lyndal Roper, of the University of Oxford, who has extensively researched the witch-hunts of Germany.
"Artistic representations of envy show her as a gaunt old hag."
"Women accused of witchcraft tend to be past child-bearing age - fertility is very important."
Older women, she contends, were viewed as envious of younger women's fertility and their role in society. Moreover, fertility constituted a woman's basic social function.
"If a new mother or infant failed to thrive, she might accuse an older woman, often the lying-in maid, of having harmed them by witchcraft."
Hopkins and Stearne were the ringmasters but they could not have done it without the help, and belief, of others.
"There's a tendency to think that they are the bogeymen who stand alone and that they are forcing this upon people," says Gaskill.
"But there's nothing they could have done had they not had the support of a whole range of people."
"The form which Hopkins' campaign took was unpalatable to many but the inspiration for it may have been more conventional in Puritan circles than we might imagine. Rather than believing, in the way we tend to, that this is a world of growth and progress, the godly feel that the world is accelerating towards Armageddon, the Final Conflict."
"The godly feel that they - the saved not the drowned - will inherit the Earth as living saints."
The conditions required for a witch-hunt may be extreme but in the religious and social conflict of East Anglia during the English Civil War, Hopkins and Stearne found exactly that - a perfect storm which bore them through the region on a wave of paranoia, grievance and zeal.