Witch Craze: the Political Landscape

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In Scotland things were not so good for witches under the reign of James 1st, he took a keen interest in witch trials and considered himself to be an expert in the field. He wrote Daemonologie in 1597 and left a trail of witch hunts and persecution behind him when he came to the UK. Now its worth bearing in mind at this point that the Christian belief was that a Witch made a pact with the Devil deliberately and did not act alone. So basically if you find one then there was always more. As you can imagine this took the focus away from the ‘strange healer’ of the village to a heady association is guilt approach. Not only that but there was no difference between black or white magic both were viewed as bad as each other.

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The political landscape at that time was turbulent to say the least, England was going through a civil war with two extremely opposing views. the Parlimentarians versus the Monarchy. The whole country was in state of social unrest with poverty, famine and plague. Religion had also been thrown into uncertainty, with factions split into sides – protestant/roman catholic = Monarchy, Puritans = Parlimentarians. Not only this but in the out lying villagers and towns the strength of these alliances weakened and you were met with varying levels of belief systems including older more pagan beliefs. These are the undercurrents and effects on day to day life that everybody faced so its not hard to understand that old jealousy’s, slights and feuds raised there head.

In regards to witch hunting, this was nothing new especially in Europe, if you look into the case of witch finders such as Julius Echter von Mespelbrunn or Nicholas Eymerich along with various publications such as 1376 Directorium Inquisitoria, incidently written by Nicholas, then its hardly surprising that at some point it would infect the UK. In 1612 Sebastion Michaels a French inquisitor wrote The admirable history of possession and conversion of a penitent woman. A few years before our very own James 1st was also overly concerned with witches writing Daemonologie in 1597 and leaving a trail of witch trials behind him in Scotland when he came to England so its hardly surprising that the surge in witch hunting took a leap at this time. In 1613 James passed a law stating the death penalty for anyone proved to have caused harm through witch craft or magicks.

Generally the hunting of witches was a distasteful business to the lords and priests of the area, they had loftier concerns at hand, raised taxes, general unrest and the poverty of the times dictated this and quite frankly didnt have the time or concern to go about the business of proof of witches, it was a matter of folklore and superstition. All of a sudden a new job opportunity opened up and it suddenly became a lucritive way of earning a living!

An original complaint against a person for witchcraft would always come from the local populace, the local leader would then call in a witchfinder to find the proof that this was the case. Its in this environment that John Stearne and Matthew Hopkins take the lead roll. The witch finders job was to find proof under the remit of the law, bearing in mind torture had been abolished in 1640. Firstly the accused was body searched looking for feeding teats or witches mark’s, this wasn’t done by the witch finders themselves but would be done by men and woman employed for the task such as local midwife’s or well standing men. If such a mark was found then the witch finder would step in and the process of getting a confession would start, a series of deprivations and scrutiny would start. 

First the accused would be seated on a stool and watched, they would be denied food, water, sleep or comfort breaks. It doesnt sound too tortuous does it but imagine the situation, a person already under nourished and dehydrated, probably been rough handled, in fear for your life just being watched for a devil imp to appear for feeding. These ‘imps’ would appear in many forms, a beetle, a mouse, a fly anything living coming near you was considered evidence that you were a witch. This treatment would continue with bouts of verbal abuse, a compelling you to confess your sins, everything was done to effectively push a person to the limits of their physical and mental well being. 

If the first step didnt achieve the required result then the accused was walked until they collapsed then walked some more. A key point you have to remember is that they were not looking to prove the accused had performed any magick but that they had made a pack with the devil. A confession to this was what they were after and got. Not only that but the belief was that when you found one witch you found others so the drive to name others or accomplices was apparent in the questioning. As soon as that confession was obtained then the accused was put into a local gaol, moved into a main prison ready for the Azzizes basically the court and trial, the Witch finder would then present the evidence and off he would go onto another village or town employed to hunt for the next witch. Whole villages were dessimated by suspicion, accusation and jealousies.

A couple of points here – water dunking was frowned upon but still used on the odd occasion, there are a couple of references in regards to Hopkins but it wasn’t his usual method. It was eventually banned in 1645. Bleeding – basically cutting a person with a blunt knife – if they did not bleed then they were a witch – there are no verified records of Hopkins using this methods. Hopkins prefered to break the spirit of an already weakened person, he was a person’s worse fear – a bully with power! In regards to the death penalty in England, hanging was the method, the images of witches burning at the stake are all from the Europe inquisitions. Hopkins and Stearne became infamous in history due to their exploits within the witch trails in Essex, the number of men and women accused in Essex alone reached to over 200 people and excessive amount compared to other counties.

Also this is incredible when you consider the alledged age of Hopkins 25yrs, this is an estimate as we have no birth records. His reign of terror only lasted for approx 13-18mnths there are varying accounts depending on the source, after which he sank back into obscurity. So one wonders why this happened, well the witch finder wasnt beyond critisism or accusation themselves. Their methods of obtaining confession drew the attention of high ranking officials and were even accused of being witches themselves, after all how comes they are so good at finding witches unless they themselves have made a pact!

Matthew Hopkins is actually a very enigmatic figure in himself, in fact any information about him is conjecture or assumption until 1641, he has no birth certificate, academic records and there are only vague references for this period. The belief is that he worked in Law and lived in Mistley after growing up in Manningtree. His age is a guesstimate and there is only one reference in death records stating he died on 12th August 1647 and is buried in Mistley. He has become a shadowy figure in history, forever lost in the mists of time, surrounded by myths and legends.

Whenever we look back at history you have to bare fully in mind the time period and external influences being played out on whichever personage or situation you are researching. The witch trials were built on political and social unrest, power and religion. Emotional responses were based on fear and survival. To try and understand the witch trials you have to try to transport yourself back to that time period, imagine the day to day struggle for a meal where your physical well being is dependent on if you live or die, god forbid you fall ill! Social standing is based on wealth, who you married and your character is judged on how many times you go to church or your political opinion. These factors matter so we not only learn the facts and figures of a case but actually understand it.

This is one of the reasons the paranormal is so interesting to me it encompasses so many angles and avenues, rabbit holes if you will. I first started looking at Matthew Hopkins when I was looking into writing the Demon Blog, the devil imps being proof that some one was a witch interested me so I was following that line of enquiry. Of course I knew about Matthew Hopkins, I do live in Essex after all, I had heard the stories, but I hadn’t researched him in depth. What I found out surprised me and horrified me. Witch hunt mentality happens to this day, we see it played out on social media and the broader media spectrums. The only difference is that society has evolved or has it!!

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