“Within the context of the causes of witch-hunting, 1603 – 1712, how typical were the causes of Matthew Hopkins campaigns, 1645-1647?”

The witch hunts took place between the years 1450-1750[1], peaking between the years 1610-1630[2]. Their purpose was to identify and persecute supposed witches, primarily when a threat to Christian society was perceived.  The King James Bible states that “Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live[3],” showing that the belief in witchcraft was not a new idea as it was embedded throughout most Christian cultures across the world. The witch hunts varied in intensity, location and time[4]; various factors influenced the cause of each hunt, such as gender, profit and a genuine belief in maleficium combined with the insufficient medical knowledge of the time. B. A. Pavlac states that whilst there are some essential similarities regarding the witch hunts, these factors differ depending on the time and place[5]. The start date, 1603, is important in English witch hunts as this is when King James I came to power holding a strong belief in witchcraft. He introduced the 1604 Act which transferred the trial of witches from the Church into the courts and included execution for witches[6]. The end date, 1712, is another change in ruler and consequently understanding. Queen Anne pardoned Jane Wenham who was the last witch to be sentenced to execution in England; however later others were still charged with witchcraft[7], showing that the belief in witchcraft did not disappear overnight. The focus period of 1645-47 witnesses a dramatic change in witch hunting with Hopkins, the Witchfinder General. Hopkins executed an estimated 200 witches; this is substantial as only 1000 executions for witchcraft took place across 200 years, with Hopkins’ 200 accounting for 20% of the total figure. Contextually these time periods cover times of crisis such as the English Civil War, Reformation, Counter Reformation and Renaissance – the impact of which will be considered.  

It can be argued that men’s misogyny and perverted sexuality were a cause of the witch hunts. During the Elizabethan period, men were expected to provide for the family whilst women were to be housewives and mothers. Women typically had a child every two years; which was considered a great honour as children were seen as blessings from God. In the midst of this patriarchal society, men were considered the leaders whilst women were regarded as the weaker sex that could be physically reprimanded by their husbands[8]. Barstow states that misogyny is “a basic force underlying these trials” as she believes male judges and priests to have devised a conspiracy theory to punish women who were at risk of stepping out of line within society[9], reflecting an elite influence which shaped witch hunting for their own advantage to eradicate political opposition[10]. Matthew Hopkins supposedly did not think very highly of women and saw violent behaviour towards females as acceptable. With the exception of John Lowes, an elderly priest, Hopkins’ victims were women, such as the elderly and vulnerable one-legged Elizabeth Clark[11] .Realistically, she would be no threat to the village but due to the Elizabethan poor laws as she would be a burden upon society[12]. Barstow concludes that male witch hunters were driven by their perverted sexuality, enhanced by the little resistance they were faced with, given the low opinion of women within society; men were able to achieve “unchallengeable sexual power over women” through women’s imprisonment and sexual abuse[13]. This can be argued for Hopkins as 15 year old Rebecca West supposedly slept with him to compromise her release after she was accused of being a witch[14]. Despite this, it can be argued that Matthew Hopkins was not a misogynist as he was known to have travelled in the company of two women who assisted him in the hunt for witches and carried out the body searches[15]. Most of Hopkin’s victims such as Elizabeth Clark, were older and less sexually desirable which would dismiss the perverted sexuality debate[16]. In comparison, the Pendle trials of 1612 show accusations coming from women, such as the young Jennet Device[17]. This could be a case of confessional conflict as Device would have received pressure from the judges and had no choice but to comply, which could also link to the religious debate in that Device would wish to accuse others to dissociate herself from the devil and prove her Christian values. Given the judges would be male it could be argued that this was a case of disguised misogyny, reflecting the elite influence. The accused witches in Germany after 1650 had a single similarity: their connection to motherhood whereby mothers would accuse the lie-in maid of performing witchcraft[18]. The fact that supposed witches were accused by other women dismisses the gender debate entirely as this is clearly not a war between the sexes, but rather an example of influence from below in that it was the villagers making the accusations of witchcraft rather than the authorities. During this time women would have had limited power as men were considered the superior sex, as supported in law, therefore this was a way in which women could exert power over each other and occasionally males.

Continuing the gender debate, Scarre and Callow state that the witch hunts were the “final triumph of men over women”, believing them to be an example of “gynocide” comparable to acts of genocide such as the Holocaust. Barstow agrees stating the statistics to be “sufficient enough to document the intentional mass murder of women[19]. Whilst it cannot be disputed that Hopkins primarily targeted women, one of his last victims was the elderly priest John Lowes who was referred to Hopkins for his Catholic practices[20]. This would link to the confessional debate as Hopkins is proving his true Christian nature and dissociating himself with the devil. Lowes was subjected to four nights of beatings and sleep deprivation before being bullied into confessing his sorcery[21]. This suggests that male victims were treated with the same harshness as women, disputing the gynocide argument as both men and women were punished equally. However, this explanation does ignore the way in which witches were sought out which did have the potential for gender bias. The gynocide argument can be contradicted by the Finland trials that took place during the 16th century as 60% of those accused of witchcraft, and 70% of those found guilty were male victims. This can be explained by the Finnish folk traditions which associate the supernatural with men[22]. Only 10 of the 120 witch trials in Iceland involved women, and only 1 female victim was subject to burning[23]. Similarly, only 8% of those sentenced to execution in Iceland were female[24].

Although 92% of those executed in English hunts were female[25], it can be argued that Hopkins’ campaigns were not typical of witch-hunting between the years 1603-1712 as the Pendle trials were not driven by misogyny, but village women, therefore the war between the sexes can be disputed. Whilst Hopkins’ victims may have been primarily female, this is not representative of all witch hunts of the era as trials in Finland, Normandy and Russia, victimised males[26]. Briggs argues that accusing people of witchcraft and following through with execution was a way for the elites to exercise moral and social control by labelling and threatening punishment for deviant behaviour[27]. As the social and gender hierarchy was similar, it is likely that this increased the risk of women being targeted rather than misogynistic views.

The Elizabethan poor law gave overseers the duty of distributing money for the relief of the poor, collected from property owners[28]. The poor and vulnerable would have been a burden upon society, therefore they easily became victims of witchcraft. Levack states that there was no money to be made by the authorities but only by lawyers, court officials and witch-finders, with little money being gained from the poor victims themselves[29]. Hopkin’s would have earned around 200-300 guineas for his execution of 200-300 witches. This would be the equivalent of £200-300, but would have had more value. In comparison, a farm labourer would expect to earn about 2s a week[30]. Hopkins had his expenses, such as horses, paid for by the towns, walking away from every trial with “a portly bag of cash[31]. Similarly, the Scottish Witch pricker who was called in to examine accused witches in Newcastle[32], was paid 20s for each witch found guilty, until his methods raised suspicions and he was forced to flee[33].

The financial motive is apparent during the Lancashire trials of 1633. Edmund Robinson confessed under court pressure that his accusations of witchcraft stemmed from inspiration from the Device story, and his father accusing those failing to pay for his work[34]. Similarly, financial disputes disrupted the community of Salem during 1692. The previous minister George Burrows had his salary withheld by the church goers. To compensate for this he borrowed money off the Puttnams, but was unable to pay his debt until the town paid his salary. Despite this justified reasoning, Putnam was humiliated and continued to press charges against Burrows’ witchcraft[35]. Whilst these two examples argue the financial debate, they are examples of neighbourly disputes, arguing that social factors contributed to the cause. Those who were accused of witchcraft and were imprisoned had to pay for their food and bedding. Whilst they were locked up, Sheriff George Corwin confiscated the victims’ property[36]. However, when the trials ended, monetary compensations were made to the families accused, arguing that actually the witch trials were not a result of a yearning for extra profit. Yet Corwin still made a profit as he kept the land he had confiscated. Arguably, the cost of witch hunting was considerable for the town, as pitch and wood was needed in order to burn victims, and torturers charged high fees; some witch hunts ended because the town was unable to fund them[37]. This shows that the profit motive is flawed with the exception of some individual trials.

It can be argued that Hopkin’s is typical of witch trial causes between the years 1603-1712 as the Salem and Lancashire trials were also largely motivated by finance. However, these trials differ to Hopkin’s campaigns as they stemmed from neighbourly disputes and did not have an appointed ‘Witchfinder General’ who was appointed and made profit.

It is possible that the witch hunts were influenced by a genuine belief in Demonologie and maleficium that stemmed from the King James and Christian faith. The lack of medical knowledge and a want for something to blame for natural disasters people of this time were unable to explain created a scapegoating phenomenon during a period of crisis. The century saw a rise in prices, famine, and infant mortality whilst faced with the plague and social dislocation which led to war[38]. Fudge supports this by declaring the witch hunts a “product of enormous strain and stress” with the population experiencing the Renaissance, Reformation, Counter Reformation and English Civil War[39]. This can be said of Matthew Hopkins’ trials as he was commissioned by the villagers based on their suspicions and accusations[40]. The majority of villagers were of the lower classes who were uneducated and more superstitious than the upper classes, combined with a religious belief of God and fear of the devil, showing a ‘from below’ influence. Traditional beliefs that witches were acting on the orders from the devil, and due to being unable to explain illness and death, they wanted a scapegoat to accuse in order to give themselves closure[41]. This can be linked to the religious motive as anything seen as a threat to Christian society was often blamed as a cause of disaster. Hopkins was an “orthodox Puritan of narrowest views[42] following in his father’s steps. As an extremist Protestant, Hopkins would have seen Catholics as non-conformists and “dangerous dissenters who needed suppressing”, suggesting that the accusations of witchcraft came a want for control over the people through religion, due to seeing devil associates’ as a threat to Christian society[43]. It is said in The Witchfinder General that “Hopkins would not be stopped from doing the Lord’s work[44]. Hopkins was influenced by King James I’s Daemonologie and his hatred for witches and paranoia of conspiracies of people trying to kill him after November plot of 1605. Due to the 1604 Witchcraft Act Against Conjuration making witches illegal and condemning to execution[45], Hopkins was merely following the laws of the time which is an example of the elite influence as the King made laws against witchcraft which were to be obeyed from those below[46]. James died in 1625, yet his influence through Daemonologie and laws continued.  However, Pavlac states that there is no scientific evidence to suggest that the magic witches claimed to perform actually worked[47], despite ordinary people believing in witchcraft, as shown by the Pendle trial whereby Alison Device believes she had bewitched a man[48].

Similarly, the Salem trials of 1692 show traditionalist views of religion as they were based upon a lack of medical knowledge, as a doctor was unable to explain the fits of the Minister’s daughter and niece. Their fits were violent and uncontrollable and they were unable to eat or sleep. Unable to diagnose the girls, the doctor concluded that they were bewitched; witchcraft to puritans was supposedly as real to them as “rocks and trees”[49]. Tituba, the minister’s slave was accused of the witchcraft. As a native she was perceived as a threat due to recent native attacks, and was associated with the devil due to her dark skin[50]. It could be argued here that in addition to the lack of medical knowledge upon diagnosis, the trial was also motivated by religion as they feared the devil was a threat to Christian society. Relating back to George Burrows, the previous minister of Salem, it was thought that because the devil was unholy the accused witch would be unable to recite the Lord’s Prayer without mistake; however George Burrows was able to and yet was still convicted and hanged for the sake of neighbourly and financial disputes[51].

With regards to the Pendle trials, Alison Device was convinced that she had bewitched a man through cursing as he had suddenly fallen ill, most likely of a stroke. The consequent Lancashire trials 22 years later emphasise that the witch trials were most likely the result of a lack of scientific knowledge as a play was made from witness’s testimonies, telling of a greyhound turning into a witch and taking a boy into a house of witches. In the space of 22 years, people were able to laugh about witchcraft, highlighting a change in attitudes and reducing the below influence due to geographical significance and the advance in science such as early forensics for example the physician William Harvey concluded for Charles I, that the supposed ‘devil’s marks’ were not unnatural, discrediting the physical evidence that would have been used against victims in trial[52].

In the Augsburg trials of Germany 1669, lying in maid Anna Ebeler was accused of murdering her employer with soup which gave her a fever. In addition to poisoning children as they became thin and dried out, a baby was said to be “unable to suckle from its mother” whilst others were covered in blisters and strange growths. Ebeler was also accused of stopping a woman’s menstruation[53]. It is almost certain that Ebeler was used as a scapegoat for the villagers wanting someone to blame for their problems which could not be explained by their insufficient medical knowledge as rural areas were less developed. This shows that the Renaissance ideas were not widespread, emphasising the importance of location. Likewise, Jane Wenham, who was the last witch to be sentenced to execution in England, was accused of murdering her husband, Edward Wenham who died in 1699, just a few months after the death of her first husband. This fuelled the ‘rumour mill’ as the neighbours suspected that their deaths were a result of Wenham’s Witchcraft[54]. The result of Wenham’s trial was a death sentence. However after consulting with Queen Anne and providing simple explanations for the strange happenings, the judge pardoned Wenham. This shows a continued elite influence as they are in control of the final decisions regarding execution.

Hopkin’s trials could be considered typical with regards to the causes of witch hunts between 1603-1712 as the suspicions from the villagers came from a need to assign a cause to natural disasters they were unable to explain such as illness, death and poor harvests. It is evident that due to a lack of understanding from the below influence, people were being used as scapegoats in a time of stress during the English Civil War, creating a genuine belief in maleficium which in turn enhanced the fear and prosecution.

In conclusion, whilst there are similarities with regards to the causes of the witch hunts, these differ depending on their time and place. Despite misogynistic views being displayed by punishing women for stepping out of line, which reflects an elite influence, it can be argued that Hopkins’ campaigns were not typical of witch-hunting between the years 1603-1712 as other trials were driven by the accusations of village women, therefore this was not a case of misogyny. The elite influence is typical of the witch trials as Device was a victim of confessional conflict, pressured by the above influence and the need to dissociate herself from the devil in order to prove her true Christianity. Despite having sufficient enough statistics to document the intentional mass murder of women, the ‘gynocide’ argument can be partially disputed as although Hopkins’ victims were primarily female, the trials in Finland victimised more males than females. It can be argued that Hopkin’s campaigns were typical of witch hunting between the years 1603-1712 as trials such as Salem and Lancashire are also examples of the promise of money being a primary incentive for the trials.  It is evident that due to a lack of understanding of the time period, people were being used as scapegoats for natural problems they were unable to explain, thus creating a genuine belief in maleficium from the below influence. In Hopkins’ time this would be stress within society caused by the English Civil War. This could be further enhanced by religious beliefs as Hopkins was an extreme Puritan who saw Catholics as non-conformers who needed suppressing. As they were seen as a threat to society they were therefore accused of witchcraft harming their Christian society. This is representative of the causes of witchcraft as the fear of the devil was evident in the Salem trials as the natives were accused of bewitching the children because of the skin colour being associated with the devil at the time. Overall, whilst the factors leading up to the motives for the witch hunts may differ, such as geographic location, time, and individual hostility, the causes of the Hopkins campaigns with regards to financial gain and lack of medical knowledge were typical causes of the witch hunts between 1603 and 1712, with the exception being misogyny which could be claimed as a popular belief in hunting women.


Word count: 3998

Bibliography:

  1. Cabell, C. (2006) The Witchfinder General, Gloucestershire: Sutton Publishing, p.xxii
  2. Greenwood, S. (2001) The Encyclopedia of Magic Witchcraft, The Geography of Witch Hunts: Anness
  3. Pickering, A. (2009) Different Interpretations of Witch-hunting in early modern Europe, c.1560-c.1660. Pearson Education

Source evaluation

Different Interpretations of Witch-hunting in early modern Europe, c.1560-c.1660 is useful for this question as it is aimed at A-level OCR history students. The historical and debates including the feminist, economic and social perspectives from the reputable historian Levack, are written in depth but are easily comprehensible to help add to my coursework. The textbook is approved and edited by the OCR exam board this increases the reliability of the source as it will be factually accurate. Overall this source was useful for historical interpretation and the comparison of the motives for the witch trials.

Whilst I have used Wikipedia as a reference point for dates or definitions, I chose not to use Wikipedia as a main source as it can be unreliable due to anyone on the internet having the ability to alter information who may not be fully educated in the subject and are not necessarily from a recognised research centre. On the other hand, the Witch-hunt page I looked at was highly referenced. Although not all sources may be dated, this is not necessarily important as they are documenting historical events which do not need to have the most recent coverage to be relevant; this goes for any hard copy of information which may be otherwise considered out of date. However historian’s interpretations are constantly evolving and there could be more recent arguments which are missed, for example feminist debates have risen with the advancement women’s position within society. Overall Wikipedia was useful in confirming dates or guiding me towards other areas to research in depth from other sources. 

The Encyclopedia of Magic Witchcraft was useful in finding trials to compare to Hopkins’, various sources were not relevant to the discussion as the dates were not within the exam question, therefore I had to carefully select the information to include. Despite this, the information I used on trials from other countries was useful in creating an argument from similarities and differences. Written by Susan Greenwood with a personal interest in magic, this could be considered biased however she has a thesis on modern magic after studying anthropology which would deem her as a credible author.

For the majority of my essay on Hopkins, I used The Witchfinder General. Whilst it can be argued that this source is not as reliable as the OCR textbook as this biography was written by a sensationalist, who writes about his interpretations on topics he considers controversial and entertaining, therefore he writes in this manner in order to provoke public interest at the expense of accuracy, such as the assassination of JFK. I found this source gave me the evaluation points I needed in sufficient detail. Although with regards to some areas the biography was lacking in specific dates or facts, it is highly probable that this is due to the poor written records from this time, rather than being a consequence of the author’s lack of research. The limited material on Hopkins means that the choice of sources are also limited.


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[41] Cabell, C. (2006) The Witchfinder General, Gloucestershire: Sutton Publishing, p.19

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