Between 1645 and 1647, historians believe the self-styled Witchfinder General’s bloody crusade across East Anglia resulted in the executions of more than 100 women. The diary is written by Puritan Nehemiah Wallington, who tells how a supposed coven of witches was found in the village of Manningtree in the 1640s.
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It tells the story of a girl who had apparently admitted to ‘carnal copulation with the Devil’ after he’d appeared in her bedroom in the shape of a young man. The confession, by a young Essex girl named Rebecca West, implicated her mother, Anne, in witchcraft – saving her own life but condemning her mother to hang.
Matthew Hopkins (c. 1620 – 12 August 1647) was an English witch-hunter whose career flourished during the time of the English Civil War. He claimed to hold the office of Witchfinder General, although that title was never bestowed by Parliament.
The work of Matthew Hopkins resulted in the execution of scores of innocent village women for allegedly consorting with the Devil.
Hopkins’ witch-finding career began in March 1644 and lasted until his retirement in 1647. During that period, he and his associates were responsible for more people being hanged for witchcraft than in the previous 100 years, and were solely responsible for the increase in witch trials during those years.
He is believed to have been responsible for the deaths of 300 women between the years 1644 and 1646. The trials in Manningtree – Hopkins’ home village are among the most notorious of his brutal campaign.
Suspicion had fallen on villager Elizabeth Clarke and Hopkins was appointed to question her in March 1645. She was also examined for ‘devil’s marks’ like warts or moles.
Tortured at Colchester Castle, Rebecca broke down and named several other women, including Anne West and her daughter Rebecca. They were already being blamed for deaths of two children.
Rebecca’s dramatic account was given at their trial in Chelmsford in July 1645. Wallington writes: ‘When she [Rebecca] looked upon the ground she saw herself encompassed in flames of fire and as soon as she was separated from her mother the tortures and the flames began to cease.
‘As soon as her confession was fully ended she found her contience [sic] so satisfied and disburdened of all tortures she thought herself the happiest creature in the world.’
With no legal representation, all but Rebecca were found guilty, and a total of 19 women – including Clarke – went to the gallows.
Wallington is thought to have based his account on contemporary pamphlets. He died in 1658. Now, the old diary is kept at Tatton Hall, Cheshire and it is being made public by a team from Manchester University’s John Rylands Library who are ‘digitising’ the diary.
While Hopkins’ demise is still a mystery, although much of his life is a well-recorded, open book. One account, by William Andrews a 19th Century writer on Essex folklore, asserts that Hopkins was charged with stealing a book containing a list of all the witches in England, which he purportedly obtained by means of sorcery.
Hopkins declared his innocence, but an angry crowd forced him to undergo his own “swimming” trial. Some accounts say he drowned, while others say he floated and was condemned and hanged. However, no records of his trial exist.
According to local legend, Hopkins’ ghost is said to haunt Mistley Pond. An apparition wearing 17th Century garments is apparently seen roving the locality, particularly on Friday nights near to the Witches Sabbats.
Source: Paranormal Magazine January 2011: “Civil War witch hunt detailed in old diary”