Matthew Hopkins: Witch Hunter

Little is known about Matthew Hopkin’s childhood, but his actions in early adulthood are infamous throughout England. Dubbing himself Britain’s Witch Finder General, Hopkins managed to kill more “witches” in England than every other witch hunter over a span of 160 years combined.

Unfortunately, witch hunts were common in Europe for centuries, but the 17th century was especially prolific. Up to this point in time church doctrine had flip-flopped back and forth on witches. As the Thirty Years’ War ravaged Europe, not only were millions of people killed in military conflict, but civil violence, famine, and disease were also on the rise. As the war was mostly fueled by religious conflict between Protestant and Catholic nation-states, religious fervor became a volatile force among civilian populations.

Previously, witches had been seen as people who possessed supernatural abilities but were not necessarily in league with the devil. After facing multiple zealous witch hunts, Britain had actually already put into place that mere possession of supernatural powers was not a crime, but using those powers to do harm or make a deal with Satan were.

As hysteric stories about magical men and women engaging in naked dances, human sacrifice, and cannibalism spread through the popular culture, people were whipped into a frenzy to get rid of witches. Soon everything was blamed on the malicious intent of witches. The local hermit, old women, and anyone who seemed different was soon accused of witchcraft. In the midst of all this unrest and turmoil, Matthew Hopkins found his chance to funnel people’s fears into filling his wallet.

Hopkins began hunting witches, claiming he was from the Witch Finder General’s office in London. Though historians have found no official documentation that his actions were government-sanctioned, many didn’t care. For 20 shillings he and his crew of witch exterminators would come to town and investigate. According to some, he even enjoyed a finders-fee of another 20 shillings for each and every witch he found.

witch mark

He contested that anyone with supernatural powers could only have gotten them from Satan. Devil-worshipers, he argued, however, would never admit their allegiance. Outright torture was also outlawed, so Hopkins had to get creative with his means of proving someone was a witch. He concocted various tests to prove their malevolence. Witches were thought to have a mark proving their allegiance to evil. A birthmark, third nipple, or even a suspect bruise were often enough. In his search, Hopkins would shave every hair from a person’s body and strip them naked. If the mark wasn’t visible, he was sure it at least wouldn’t bleed. He pricked holes into people’s bodies, and cut at their flesh with dull knives looking for a place that wouldn’t bleed.

Another commonly held point of witch lore at the time was that water would reject them, reasoning that a witch was rejected by water because they had rejected baptism. Hopkins would have women tied up, stuffed into sacks, and thrown into water. He promised that if they sank someone would dive in to rescue them, but this process was dangerous, and could often result in drowning either way. If they floated, they were executed.

witch finder general

Hopkins career was bloody, resulting in the execution of an estimated 300 witches. Though many were caught up in the zealotry of his witch-hunting crusade, some people decried his actions. People sent concerned letters to Parliament and a concerned vicar called for Hopkins to answer accusations of torture. The slowed process of the courts in the midst of the 30 Years’ War, however, didn’t get to the case until the Witch Finder General had retired. Believe it or not, Hopkins was only 25 by the time he completed his witch-hunting crusade, dying of tuberculosis shortly thereafter.

Though Hopkins’ reign of terror was relatively short, his methods were recorded in The Discovery of Witches—a book instructing others how to hunt witches. Though he killed a few hundred witches in Britain, its estimated millions died in Germany. He even influenced the events across the Atlantic in Salem.