Hopkins, Matthew

Hopkins, Matthew
(d. 1647)
   Notorious for having instigated England's only large-scale witch-hunt, in East Anglia in 1645/6, in which nearly 250 people were tried or investigated; court records being incomplete, the actual number executed is unknown, but 100 seems a reasonable minimum. Hopkins belonged to the minor Puritan gentry, being the son of a Suffolk minister and himself a lawyer; he called himself the 'Witch-Finder General', and at first was well supported by the local communities. He and his associate John Stearne claimed expertise in identifying witches; suspects were stripped and their bodies examined for marks where familiars sucked, and then kept awake, still naked and tied in uncomfortable positions, till they confessed. This came close to torture, which was illegal; when circuit judges from London next visited Essex, the activities of Hopkins and Stearne were terminated. After a blistering attack from a clergyman, John Gaule, both men wrote booklets defending their work: Hopkins, The Discovery of Witches (1647), and Stearne, A Confirmation and Discovery of Witchcraft (1648). Hopkins died in 1647, probably of tuberculosis; legend alleged that he had himself been suspected of witchcraft and made to undergo the swimming test, but there is no evidence to support this.
   His reputation was maintained in popular memory. In the 1930s, Gerald Gardner was given a rod topped with a cross, carved with the name 'Matthew Hopkins', and labelled 'Matthew Hopkins's sceptre or tutti-stick, used by him in his travels in the South of England finding and exposing witches. Circa 1790'. Likewise, a box containing various dried leaves, twigs, scraps of skin and bone with magical signs on, a doll's head pierced with a pin, a human finger bone, a lead six-pointed star, and a parchment reading: 'Matthew Hopkins's talisman against alle witches craft.' A label on the box itself reads: 'This talisman, made and sold by Matthew Hopkins about 1790, was given to me by my father, Joseph Carter, of Home Farm, Hill Top, near Marlborough, and contains the finger etc. of Mary Holt, a notorious Wiltshire witch. Signed S.
   Carter' (G. B. Gardner, Folk-Lore 50 (1939), 18890, with illustrations). The date is obviously wrong; perhaps these objects were bought in 1790 from a Wiltshire cunning man, who was claiming either to have inherited them from Hopkins or to be following a Hopkins recipe.
   ■ There are references to Hopkins in all books on English witchcraft, the fullest analysis being in Sharpe, 1996: 128-47; see also Deacon, 1976.

A Dictionary of English folklore. . 2014.

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