Audience spellbound by Heritage Group’s talk on the Witch Trials……

An enthralled audience of more than 50 villagers listened to Ivan Bunn’s fascinating talk about the 1645-46 Witch trials of Bury St. Edmund’s. He spoke of Matthew Hopkins, the Witchfinder General, who is the most notorious name in the history of English witchcraft.

In conjunction with his henchman and fellow witch-pricker, John Stearne, Hopkins was responsible for the condemnations and executions of 230 alleged witches in a 14 month period in 1645-6. He was described as a religious zealot, an extreme Puritan and violently anti-catholic. He was the son of James Hopkins, a minister of Wenham, near Manningtree and was finally buried at Mistley, Essex, having died in his late twenties of tuberculosis. There is some evidence that he worked in the legal profession, from his performances when giving evidence during the trials, although he was probably not a lawyer.

Ivan went on to describe how Hopkins and Stearne did not have to prove the accused had committed malicious acts but the fact they had made a covenant with the Devil. The greatest sin of all was that they had become heretics to Christianity and, as such, it was necessary to gain a confession, frequently by torture. Methods such as sleep deprivation, being tied to a chair and submerged in water to see if they floated (those that floated were deemed to be witches) or cut with a blunt knife. Female assistants were hired to watch suspects and to examine the accused for the Devil’s mark which would not bleed. (probably a mole or birthmark). It was believed that the witch’s familiar, usually a cat or dog, would suckle from this mark. The accused were sentenced by justices of the peace at the assizes and usually hanged if found guilty.

Hopkins and Stearne, accompanied by their ‘pricking assistants’ became famous and their services were requested all over East Anglia. They claimed to be officially commissioned by Parliament, although there is no record of this. They were very well-paid for their services, which appeared to be the main motivation. The expense to the local community was such that a special tax had to be levied in Ipswich in 1645.The witchfinders ran into opposition very soon after their work began and John Gaule, vicar of Great Staughton, began a programme of sermons to suppress witch-hunting. The justices of the assizes in Norfolk questioned Hopkins and Stearne about their torturing and fees and suggested that their methods could possibly be construed as witchcraft as well. By the time the court resumed in 1647 both witchfinders had retired.

Ivan finished his talk by showing interesting archived records relating to some locally convicted witches. A gruesome but fascinating tale and Matthew Hopkins lives on as ‘an anti-hero and bogeyman’!

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