Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Hopkins, Matthew

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HOPKINS, MATTHEW (d. 1647), witchfinder, son of James Hopkins, ‘minister of Wenham,’ Suffolk, was a native of that county. He is said to have been a lawyer, first at Ipswich, afterwards at Manningtree, Essex. Little is known of him prior to 1644, when he began his three years' career as a witch-seeker, ‘a trade never taken up in England till this’ (Gaule). The date indicates that this was one of the baser forms of the religious excitement which broke bounds with the civil war. Hopkins says that his experience of witches began in March 1644, when seven or eight of them lived near him at Manningtree. Every six weeks they met, in company with other witches, on a Friday night, and offered sacrifices to the devil. He procured the condemnation of twenty-nine witches in a batch; four, he says, were brought twenty-five miles to be hanged for sending the devil, like a bear, to kill him in his garden. He then set up as ‘Witch Finder Generall,’ and, on the invitation of different towns, made journeys for the discovery of witches through Essex, Suffolk, Norfolk, and Huntingdonshire. His assistants were John Stern and a woman employed as searcher. They rode on horseback, and Hopkins charged 20s. for expenses in each town they visited. Supposed witches were urged to confess, and on the strength of their own confession were hanged. When they confessed nothing they were searched; ‘divers,’ says Hopkins, ‘have come ten or twelve miles to be searched, of their own accord, and hanged for their labour.’ The special mark of a witch was a third ‘pap’ or ‘teat’ on some part of the body; this was searched for with little regard to decency. If the search was fruitless, the accused were placed cross-legged, and bound if necessary, on a table in the middle of a closed room, with a small hole in the door for their ‘imps’ to enter by. In this manner they were kept for twenty-four hours, sometimes for over two days, without sleep or food. The next measure was to walk them about till their feet were blistered. Thus confessions were produced. Elizabeth Clark, an old, one-legged beggar-woman, gave the names of her ‘imps’ as ‘Holt,’ a ‘white kitling;’ ‘Jarmara,’ a ‘fat spaniel’ without legs; ‘Sacke and Sugar,’ a ‘black rabbet;’ ‘Newes,’ a ‘polcat;’ and ‘Vinegar Tom,’ a greyhound with ox-head and horns. Another called her ‘imps’ ‘Ilemauzar’ (or ‘Elemauzer’), ‘Pyewackett,’ ‘Pecke in the Crowne,’ and ‘Griezzell Greedigutt,’ names, says Hopkins, ‘which no mortal could invent.’ At Hoxne, Suffolk, a poor creature, kept sleepless and fasting, confessed an ‘imp Nan;’ after a night's rest she said she knew of no ‘Nan’ but a pullet she sometimes called by that name. In case this inquisition failed, the victim was thrown into a pool, with thumbs and toes bound together crosswise; the possession of a ‘teat’ prevented the body from sinking, hence those who ‘swam’ were hanged.

Not only were such measures sanctioned by local authorities, but a special commission of oyer and terminer was granted for the trial of witches at Bury St. Edmunds, Suffolk, in 1645. Serjeant John Godbolt [q. v.] was the judge. Samuel Fairclough [q. v.], who was on the commission, preached two sermons on witchcraft at the opening of the assize before taking his place on the bench. Edmund Calamy the elder [q. v.] was also on the commission. A Suffolk clergyman who had preached against the ‘discovery’ was ‘forced to recant’ by the commission. Baxter had no doubt of the reality of the ‘confessions.’ The number of victims was very large. Hopkins states that sixty were hanged in Essex in one year, probably 1644, and some at Norwich. Hutchinson specifies sixteen executions at Yarmouth in 1644, fifteen in Essex and one at Cambridge in 1645, nearly forty at Bury St. Edmunds in 1645–6, and many in Huntingdonshire in 1646. One of the worst cases was that of John Lowes, who had been for fifty years vicar of Brandeston, Suffolk, and who, when nearly eighty years old, was kept awake for several nights together, then run about till he was breathless, after which ‘they swam him’ at Framlingham, Suffolk. At last he confessed that he had two ‘imps,’ one of which he had sent to sink a ship. He was hanged at Framlingham, having read the burial office on his own behalf prior to his execution.

To John Gaule, vicar of Great Staughton, Huntingdonshire, is due the merit of exposing these proceedings. Gaule was a puritan and a Cromwellian, who believed in witchcraft, but not in Hopkins. A letter from Hopkins to one of his parishioners complains of Gaule's opposition. On 30 June 1646 Gaule published a small book containing the substance of a month's sermons on witchcraft. ‘Every old woman,’ he says, ‘with a wrinkled face, a furr'd brow, a hairy lip, a gobber tooth, a squint eye, a squeaking voyce, or a scolding tongue, having a rugged coate on her back, a skull-cap on her head, a spindle in her hand, and a dog or cat by her side, is not only suspected but pronounced for a witch.’ Hopkins's ‘signs’ discover ‘no other witch but the user of them.’ This hint was taken up in certain ‘queries’ presented to the judges at the Norfolk assize, suggesting that Hopkins was himself a witch. He replied in a defensive pamphlet, published on 18 May 1647. This did not save him from the application of his own method of trial. According to Hutchinson his thumbs and toes were tied, ‘he swam,’ and was hanged. The register of Mistley-cum-Manningtree contains the entry, ‘Matthew Hopkins, son of Mr. James Hopkins, minister of Wenham, was buried at Mistley. Augt 12, 1647’ (Notes and Queries, 7 Oct. 1854, p. 285). Butler alludes to him (Hudibras, pt. ii. canto iii. ll. 139–54) as ‘a leger to the devil’ empowered by parliament,

Who after proved himself a witch,
And made a rod for his own breech.

He published ‘The Discovery of Witches: in Answer to Severall Queries, lately delivered to the Judges of Assize for the County of Norfolk. And now published by Matthew Hopkins, Witchfinder. For the benefit of the whole Kingdom,’ &c., 1647, 4to. Prefixed is a curious plate (reproduced by Caulfield) with full-length likenesses of Hopkins, Elizabeth Clark with her ‘imps,’ and another witch. His likeness has also been separately reproduced by Caulfield.

[Hopkins's Discovery; Gaule's Select Cases of Conscience touching Witches and Witchcrafts, 1646; Gaule's Pys-mantia. The Mag-astromancer, 1652, p. 207; Howell's Letters, 1726, pp. 405, 441 (letters of 3 Feb. 1646 and 20 Feb. 1647); Clarke's Lives, 1683, p. 172 b (Fairclough); Baxter's Certainty of the World of Spirits (1691), 1834, p. 20 sq.; Hutchinson's Historical Essay concerning Witchcraft, 1720, pp. 50 sq.; Anthologia Hibernica, June 1793, pp. 424 sq.; Granger's Biog. Hist. of England, 1824, iii. 255; Notes and Queries, 16 Nov. 1850, p. 413; information from the Rev. W. H. Barlee, Brandeston.]

A. G.