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18 June 2014
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Legacies - Essex

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Myths and Legends
Matthew Hopkins - Witch-finder General
Hopkins used devious methods to extract confessions

© Essex County Council
Witch-finder witch?

The exact number of witches executed by Hopkins and his assistant John Stearne cannot be precisely quantified. But in a paper published by Carol Buckley – 'Orders of the Day', she quotes Stearne as estimating that quote "as many as 200 were hanged. The statistics suggest that the East Anglia trials of 1644-1646 represented a major panic and were comparable to the European witch crazes of the late 16th - early 17th century".

In 1603, James VI of Scotland became James I of the united kingdoms of Scotland and England. By the end of the first year of his accession he had produced a new edition of his book, 'Daemonologie', written to counter those who argued against the belief in witchcraft and demonic magic. He had also convinced Parliament to pass a new witch act, The Witchcraft Statute of 1604, which revoked Queen Elizabeth I's Witchcraft Act of 1563. It was essentially the most severe law, making it a capital offence if the victim was injured and incorporating a number of continental notions of witchcraft, including those of, a pact with, and worship of, the devil.
Trial of a witch by ducking in a mill pond - woodcut by un-named artist c1600
Hopkins' preferred method of trial was ducking
© Mary Evans Picture Library
It also became a crime to exhume bodies for magical purposes.

The new legislation brought England into line with Europe regarding the definition and prosecution of witchcraft, and remained in force until 1736, when it was repealed The newly accepted concept provided the foundation for the legal definition of the crime of witchcraft in many jurisdictions in England and served as the main link between the practice of harmful magic and the alleged worship of the devil.

Under James I, hanging was mandatory for the first offence of maleficia, even where the bewitched person did not die; whereas under Elizabethan law, the penalty was a year's imprisonment. However, for divination of stolen property, making love philtres (an aphrodisiac drink), or harming property, the penalty remained, for a first transgression, one year's imprisonment and time in the pillory. The pillory was a wooden box with holes for the accused's head and limbs to protrude from. They were kept in villages to be used for the public humiliation of any convicted person in full view of their fellow villagers or townsfolk.

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