Medieval folk had long suspected that the Devil was
carrying out his evil work on earth with the help of his minions. In 1484 Pope
Innocent VIII declared this to be the truth in his Papal Bull (newsletter). This
kicked off the big European Witch Craze, which lasted for nearly two centuries.
The hotbeds of the witch-hunts were the
German-speaking lands, France and Scotland, however in 1645 England, notably
Essex, was in the grip of witch fever. Between 1560 and 1680 in Essex alone 317
women and 23 men were tried for witchcraft, and over 100 were hanged. In 1645
there were 36 witch trials in Essex.
The first law against witchcraft was in 1542,
followed by more laws in 1563 and 1604, making the death penalty liable for
'invoking evil spirits and using witchcraft, charms or sorcery whereby any
person shall happen to be killed or destroyed'
King James (VI of Scotland and I of England) was a
keen believer in witchery - writing a book, 'Demonologie' and even taking part
in the interrogation of a suspected witch, Agnes Sampson of Keith in Scotland.
The persecutions were aided by difficult times for
ordinary people in the early seventeenth century - religious strife between
Catholics and Protestants, political arguments leading up to the Civil War,
rising inflation meaning higher food prices, and a huge increase in the gap
between rich and poor.
Many people did turn to spiritual and alternative
guidance in this tough times, rather like the current interest in alternative
medicines, however in these times such ideas were frowned upon by both Catholic
and Protestant leaders, as well as the Kings and Queens of the day. Even Henry
VIII used witchcraft as a charge against his soon-to-be ex-wife Ann Boleyn.
Matthew Hopkins was from Wenham in Suffolk, the son
of a minister. He became a lawyer and received a fee for every witch who was
hanged. He soon became wealthy and famous as the 'Witchfinder General'. It is
believed that in total, Hopkins may have had up to 400 people hanged. He would
usually accuse elderly, lonely women of witchcraft - women who had no-one to
It is said that one of his methods was to prick a
suspect's 'witch mark' with a knife, to see if it bled. If the mark did not
bleed, the accused was guilty of being in league with the devil. However Hopkins
may have been using a knife with a retractable blade - he was a businessman
after all. Hopkins' luck ran out in 1647 when he himself was hanged for
witchcraft. Just desserts!