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"The Witch, No. 1" (c) Wikimedia Commons / Joseph E. Baker


From the early 15th to the late 18th century, the Great Witch Craze swept through Europe and the European colonies in America. Hundreds of women and several men were tried and executed for practicing black magic, the majority during the three-year reign of terror of one of medieval history’s most notorious figures: Matthew Hopkins, the Witchfinder General.
In the Middle Ages religion was a vital part of everyday life. Being a good Christian kept you safe, for you were guaranteed a place in Heaven in the afterlife. However, in the 1400s, Christianity came under threat from an invisible force. Starting among the educated elite, then spreading like wildfire, the idea emerged that a group of evildoers were acting insidiously and in unison to endanger Christianity: witches.
Around two hundred years later, some time between 1619 and 1622, a boy named Matthew Hopkins was born in the village of Great Wenham in Suffolk. The son of the local vicar (a popular Puritan clergyman called James Hopkins), Matthew was brought up in a strictly religious household. By the time he reached his early twenties, as civil war broke out in England between the Parliamentarians and Royalists, his religious zeal had translated into a virulent hatred of witches.
Bury St Edmunds witch trialsThe Bury St Edmunds Assizes was the scene of an infamous witch trial and execution, presided over by the Witchfinder General
Hopkins began his witch-hunting career when he overheard women in Manningtree, Essex speaking of their communions with the Devil. His associate John Stearne made the first accusation, and Hopkins acted as his assistant. Twenty-three women were tried as witches, and all twenty-three died. Before long, Hopkins’ fervour had outstripped Stearne’s, and he became the lead witch hunter. They and their associates travelled all over East Anglia, claiming to be officially commissioned by Parliament to track down and prosecute witches. Hopkins gave himself the title that would soon strike fear into the hearts of innocent women: the Witchfinder General.
It was necessary to prove that a witch had made a pact with the Devil. Once proof of this pact was found, she went from common criminal to a heretic against Christianity, a sin so terrible that it could not be tried via ordinary legal procedure. The Devil would never tell the truth in a court of law, therefore confessions had to be extracted by other means.
Torture was illegal, yet the Witchfinder General used sleep deprivation, cutting, pricking and the swimming test, in which the accused were tied to a chair and thrown into a river to see if they would float, to uncover witches. From each town he visited he received ample pay (his services in Stowmarket, Suffolk alone earned him over £3,300 in today’s money). The more witches he rooted out, tried and executed, the more Hopkins grew rich.
Matthew Hopkins, the Witchfinder General Despite being the Witchfinder General for just 3 years, Matthew Hopkins sent hundreds of people to their deaths
During his time as Witchfinder General, Hopkins sent around 300 women to their deaths, more than had been executed in the previous 160 years. One dark day in Bury St Edmunds, 18 people were hung in just a few hours, all at the behest of the Witchfinder General.
Hopkins’ reign of terror was to be short lived, however. In 1647, after just three years, he retired as Witchfinder General. He moved back to Manningtree, and before the year ended had died of supposed tuberculosis. His disturbing legacy lived on, his book ‘The Discovery of Witches’ providing a blueprint for further persecution of witches over the next hundred years. In the 20th century he was the subject of several cult horror films including ‘The Witchfinder General,’ and he remains to this day a legendary villain.


Suffolk has many stories to tell, some darker than others. You can discover these gripping tales in our article The Darker Side of Suffolk, or our film series #TheOtherSide. And if you have a partiular favourite, why not share it via Facebook, Twitter or Instagram using the hashtag #TheOtherSide?