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18 June 2014
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Myths and Legends
Witch-finder witch?

Brutal inquisition

Political and religious chaos reigned throughout the period of the English Civil Wars (1642-49) and it was with this distraction that the previously unheard of, Matthew Hopkins, assumed the title of Witch-finder General in 1645. Records of his career in witch hunting are obscure, but it appears to have come about after he had moved to Manningtree, Essex in 1644.

He believed that he found that there were seven or eight witches regularly practicing their dark arts close to his house. Records do not show how he dealt with them, but his puritan background gave him a strong motivation to destroy the "works of the devil" and, as an impoverished lawyer, he could see the financial incentive of pursuing the hunt on a wider scale.

As in Europe, witch-hunting throughout England was, to all intents and purposes, a judicial operation, but occasionally, agitated villagers would take justice into their own hands, executing suspected witches in a vigilante style.
Matthew Hopkins - Witch-finder General
But... was Hopkins a witch himself?
© Essex County Council
However, after Hopkins took on the witch-hunts, this rarely happened.

Witchcraft accusations started to spread throughout East Anglia, spurred on by Hopkins' actions. In Sudbury 117 people were tried and examined, and in Norfolk 40 women were tried and examined by the Norfolk Assizes in 1645. Eight women were tried and at least five executed in Huntingdonshire by the summer of 1646. Independent borough jurisdictions were also busy during the period 1645-1646 - trying and examining women for witchcraft.

The torture of witches to extract confession in England, the vast majority of which were female, was less violent than in Europe – the methods favoured in England were bread-and-water diets, tethering of limbs and sleep deprivation, otherwise known as "watching". Other brutalities which were not practiced, included thumbscrews or, as preferred on the continent, "Spanish boots", which were large boots of leather or metal into which boiling water or molten lead was poured, with the accused's feet still in them, of course.

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