Hopkins, Matthew (?–1647?) England’s most notorious
professional witch-hunter, who brought about the
condemnations and executions of at least 230 alleged
witches, more than all other witch-hunters combined
during the 160-year peak of the country’s witch hysteria.
Hopkins was born in Wenham, Suffolk, the son of a
minister. Little is known about him before 1645, when
he took up his witch-hunting activities. Prior to that, he
made a meager living as a mediocre lawyer, first in Ipswich
and then in Manningtree.
In 1645 he announced publicly that a group of witches
in Manningtree had tried to kill him. He abandoned his
law practice and went into business to rid the countryside
of witches. He advertised that for a fee, he and an associate,
John Stearne, would travel to a village and rout them
Hopkins knew little about witches beyond reading
King James I’s Daemonologie, but he had no shortage of
business. He exploited the Puritans’ hatred of witchcraft,
the public’s fear of it and the political turmoil of the English
Civil War (1642–48). Added to this volatile mixture
was a rise of feminism among women who, during the
Civil War, spoke up about their discontent with their station
in life and the way England was being governed. It
was not uncommon for politically active Royalist women
to become branded as “sorceresses” and “whores of Babylon”
by the Parliamentary faction. Some of the witch-hunt
victims may have been singled out because they were suspected
Hopkins’ method of operation was to turn gossip and
innuendo into formal accusations of witchcraft and Devilworship.
Since every village had at least one hag rumored
to be a witch, Hopkins was enormously successful. Most
of the accused, however, were merely unpopular people
against whom others had grudges. Hopkins dubbed himself
“Witch-finder General” and claimed to be appointed
by Parliament to hunt witches. He boasted that he possessed
the “Devil’s List,” a coded list of the names of all
the witches in England.
His first victim was a one-legged hag, Elizabeth Clark.
Hopkins tortured her until she confessed to sleeping with
the Devil and harboring several familiars. She accused
five other persons of witchcraft. The inquisitions and extorted
confessions mushroomed until at least 38 persons
were remanded for trial in Chelmsford. Hopkins and Stearne
testified to seeing the imps and familiars of many of
the accused appear and try to help them. They were aided
by 92 villagers who voluntarily stepped forward to offer
“evidence” and “testimony.” Of the 38 known accused, 17
were hanged; six were declared guilty but reprieved; four
died in prison; and two were acquitted. The fate of the
remainder is not certain (see Chelmsford witches).
With that success, Hopkins took on four more assistants
and went witch-hunting throughout Essex, Suffolk,
Huntingdonshire, Norfolk, Cambridge and neighboring
counties. His fees were outrageously high, between four
and 26 pounds and perhaps much higher; the prevailing
wage was sixpence a day. To justify his fees, Hopkins argued
that ferreting out witches required great skill, and he
denied that he and Stearne profited from their business.
The use of torture in witch trials was forbidden in
England, but it was routinely applied in most cases. Hopkins
was no exception, but his torture was often excessive.
He beat, starved and denied sleep to his victims. His
more brutal, and favored, methods included pricking the
skin for insensitive spots (see witch’s mark), searching
for blemishes as small as flea bites, which could be interpreted
as Devil’s marks, walking victims back and forth
in their cells until their feet were blistered, and swimming.
In the latter, the victims were bound and thrown
into water; if they floated, they were guilty.
When the victims were worn down by torture, Hopkins
plied them with leading questions such as, “How is
it you came to be acquainted with the Devil?” All he required
were nods and monosyllabic answers. He and his
associates filled in the colorful details of the alleged malevolent
activities. Most of the charges were of bewitching
people and their livestock to death; causing illness and
lameness; and entertaining evil spirits such a familiars,
which usually were nothing more than household pets.
He was particularly fond of getting victims to admit they
had signed Devil’s pacts.
Not all of his victims were framed. One man, a butcher,
traveled about 10 miles to confess voluntarily. He was
hanged. Another man claimed to entertain his familiar
while in jail; no one else could see the creature.
Later in 1645 Hopkins enjoyed another successful
mass witch trial in Suffolk, in which at least 124 persons
were arrested and 68 were hanged. One of them was a
70-year-old clergyman, who, after being “walked” and
denied sleep, confessed to having a pact with the Devil,
having several familiars and to bewitching cattle.
Throughout his witch-hunting, Hopkins constantly
searched for evidence that networks of organized covens
of witches existed. He found nothing to substantiate this
In 1646 Hopkins’s witch-hunting career ended almost
as abruptly as it had begun. He over-extended himself in
greed and zeal. He was publicly criticized for his excessive
tortures and high fees and began to meet resistance from
judges and local authorities. In the eastern counties, mass
witch trials declined, though witches were still brought
to trial. Hopkins began to be criticized severely for forcing
the swimming test upon people who did not want to
take it. He and Stearne separated, with Hopkins returning
to Manningtree and Stearne moving to Lawshall.
The fate of Hopkins remains a mystery. There is no
trace of him after 1647. Popular legend has it that he was
accused of witchcraft and “died miserably.” William Andrews,
a 19th-century writer on Essex folklore, stated in
Bygone Essex” (1892) that Hopkins was passing through
Suffolk and was himself accused of “being in league with
the Devil, and was charged with having stolen a memorandum
book containing a list of all the witches in England,
which he obtained by means of sorcery.”
Hopkins pleaded innocent but was “swum” at Mistley
Pond by an angry mob. According to some accounts, he
drowned, while others say he floated, was condemned and
hanged. No record exists of a trial, if there was one. There
is a record of his burial at the Mistley Church in 1647,
though there is no tombstone (not uncommon for 17thcentury
graves). One chronicler of the times said that the
burial must have been done “in the dark of night” outside
the precincts of the Church, witnessed by no one local.
Hopkins’ ghost is said to haunt Mistley Pond. An apparition
dressed in 17th-century attire is reportedly seen in
According to another story circulated, Hopkins, having
fallen out of favor with the public, escaped to New
Stearne, however, stated in 1648, “I am certain (notwithstanding
whatsoever hath been said of him) he died
peacefully at Manningtree, after a long sickensse of a
consumption, as many of his generation had done before
him, without any trouble of conscience for what he had
done, as was falsely reported of him.”