Hopkins, Matthew

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 out.

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 spies.

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 neighbouring 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 favoured, 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 colourful 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, travelled 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 belief.

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 the vicinity.

According to another story circulated, Hopkins, having fallen out of favour with the public, escaped to New England.

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.”



  • Deacon, Richard. Matthew Hopkins: Witch Finder General. London: Frederick Muller, 1976.
  • Russell, Jeffrey B. A History of Witchcraft. London: Thames and Hudson, 1980.
  • Thomas, Keith. Religion and the Decline of Magic. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1971.


The Encyclopedia of Witches, Witchcraft and Wicca – written by Rosemary Ellen Guiley – Copyright © 1989, 1999, 2008 by Visionary Living, Inc.