In 1542 an Act of Parliament passed The Witchcraft Act making it a crime punishable by death. Five years later it was repealed but on accession to the English throne, King James VI of Scotland who became James I of England, the Witchcraft Statute was passed and again the act became punishable by death. King James himself was so fascinated with the occult that he wrote and published a best-selling book about it Daemonologie which explored witchcraft and demonic magic and make clear the King's advocacy for torture and execution of witches. Any 'invocation, conjuration or employment of any wicked spirit' became a hanging offence instead of imprisonment.
All of which seems to have given free reign to Matthew Hopkins, son of a Puritan clergyman, who assumed for himself the title Witch-Finder General in 1645 during the troubled times of the English Civil War. Claiming to be officially commissioned by Parliament, a booklet detailing his witch-hunting methods: ‘The Discovery of Witches’, published in 1647, was delivered to the Judges of Assize for the County of Norfolk 'for the benefit of the whole kingdome' and appears to have given him license to travel East Anglia examining and trying women for witchcraft. It was very much in his interests to do so since he charged 'twenty shillings a town', with records showing that the small market town of Stowmarket in Suffolk, paid the equivalent in today's money of £3,300 for his services plus travelling expenses at a time when the average farm worker’s wage was just 6 pence a day. The cost to the local community was such that, in 1645, a special local tax rate had to be levied in Ipswich.
Such was the fear and suspicion that abounded, anything out of the ordinary it seems could be attributed to witchcraft. Toads featured large should they appear nearby. Ailing or lice-ridden people and animals were clearly cursed. Curdling milk or falling chimneys all could be attributed to anyone unfortunate enough to be born with a birth mark, moles or other disfigurements or who had simply had an argument with a neighbour.
The methods used for deciding a witch were both brutal and bizarre. Hopkins and his assistants looked out for ''the Devil's mark', something all witches or sorcerers were supposed to possess. Said to be dead to all feeling, it would not bleed other than to suckle a witches's animal familiar with blood, such as a baby drinks milk from the nipple.
To make matters worse for the accused, if the suspect had no such visible marks, invisible ones could be 'discovered' by the hunters who shaved off the suspect's body hair then pierced the skin with a needle or sliced her arm with a blunt knife for a convincing exhibition, for if she did not bleed she was said to be a witch.
Hopkins’ favoured method however was the 'swimming test' based on the idea that as witches had renounced their holy baptism, water would reject them. So the unfortunate suspect was tied to a chair and ducked in the river or the village pond. If she did not drown she faced trial as a witch. If she died, she would be declared innocent and received into heaven.
Thanks to Matthew Hopkins, the largest single witch trial in England took place in Bury St. Edmund in 1645 when 18 people were executed by hanging but not before they had had their nails cut and locks of hair shorn from their heads. These were stored in brown jars in the basement of the court in the belief that if you were not whole when you died, you would be unable to come back as a complete witch in the next life!
After just three years as Witch-finder General, Matthew Hopkins retired, moving back to Manningtree in Essex. Before the year ended he had died, supposedly of tuberculosis. Sadly, his book lived on to provide a blueprint for further persecution of witches over the next hundred years, the last being executed in Devon in March, 1684.