An English Tragedy

Witchfinders

by Malcolm Gaskill

A Review

‘Even the illusion of a diabolical saviour might be preferable to the certainty of God’s damnation.’

‘Most extraordinary were the complaints of parishioners at Brandeston – not that their minister John Lowes had been set up on a charge of witchcraft – and hanged like a dog, but that they were now expected to pay for it.’

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On July 18, 1645, a poor, elderly, one-legged widow called Elizabeth Clarke was hanged at Chelmsford, Essex, in front of the usual jeering and cheering crowd. Never mind the torture and indignities which Elizabeth had to suffer before she was finally condemned, she had to be helped onto the platform so that the noose could be put around her neck. Her crime? She was accused, tried and found guilty of being a witch!

‘Executions crowds were fickle . . . hangings were what people made them: part stage play, part sporting contest – visceral dramas of moral and emotional ambivalence.’

Elizabeth Clarke was only one of hundreds of women (mainly women, but men too) during those years denounced by their neighbours and submitted to ordeals too terrible to contemplate. Many were executed. What was special about Elizabeth is that her case was a trigger in Eastern England for a campaign of officially sanctioned persecution by two “gentlemen” of the district – Matthew Hopkins and John Stearne.

Hopkins and Stearne are probably the best-known of England’s witchfinders. Their reign was short. However, the havoc they wreaked and the reasons for it are almost impossible for the modern European mind to grasp. Their story, how at the invitation of seemingly respectable burgers of East Anglia, they made a living out of the superstition and downright wickedness of their fellow citizens.

Such is the theme of Malcolm Gaskill’s remarkable book, Witchfinders, A Seventeenth-Century English Tragedy.

What sort of book is it?  Gaskill is a professional historian, a fellow at Oxford University, and his research is detailed and impeccable. Supported by hundreds of contemporary documents, he charts the progress, case by case, of the two witchfinders’ careers. He endeavours to explain why their efforts were so “successful” and why, ultimately, the practice of witchfinding fell into disrepute.

Britain was at war with itself, militarily, as Cavaliers battled Roundheads for control of the realm. But there was another war going on, a religious war. Protestants – Puritan, Presbyterian and Independent – battled Catholics ( including those of the recently formed Church of England. They also fought among themselves. In the country, people starved and fell ill with sicknesses for which medical science (such as it was) had no explanation and no cure. The “righteous” – and the not-so-righteous – believed in God, Satan, Heaven, Hell, eternal damnation – and in devils, spirits, magic and witches, not as things that were elsewhere, but as real powers living in their midst.

In these perilous times, when disaster struck a household, people looked round for someone or something to blame. So very often, it was the lower classes, the poor, the eccentric, the “scolds” and the outspoken who took it. If an illness, a death, could not be explained by natural means, it had to be supernatural. Witchcraft! In the Puritan fundamentalists of the seventeenth century, we can perhaps see the same intolerance as we so often do in our world today. Racism and religious bigotry was rife. ‘Jews, Turks, heathens and papists’ were legitimate targets for their hatred; witches were beyond the pale.

Hopkins and Stearne never accused anyone. But they went about their business with zeal and an army of searchers, living off the communities they “served”, interrogating, and supervising sleep deprivation and physical torture, all in the name of the God they claimed to serve.

‘Most important to [Stearne[ was not the piling of horror upon horror, but the way his travels provided a practical education . . .’

What is almost incredible about the east Anglian cases is the relative eagerness with which accused witches confessed to their crimes and embraced their nature. Even when no torture was involved, some would embellish their supposed powers with stories of suckling imps and satanic copulations. One might suspect that an unhealthy and unsatisfied obsession with sex might be partly responsible, and I have no doubt it was. Yet equally  astonishing is that there were victims of persecution outside the perceived norms. Take the case of John Lowes, a once respectable clergyman in his eighties, who was accused, imprisoned, “swum” and eventually executed – because he didn’t care for Calvinism.

There is some evidence that ergot, encouraged to spread by poor weather conditions, played a part, but that cannot excuse or explain the fury, the venom, the hatred with which neighbour pursued neighbour. They stood by while their fellow citizens were stripped and searched for “evidence” of Satan’s mark. They cheered when they were strung up on the gallows.

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‘Puritan preachers, grateful for God’s deliverance, could not ignore the wickedness of cavaliers, malignants, papists and atheists that still contaminated every corner of the land; the devil, it was said, made them hate peace as much as they hated parliament.’

When compared to the deaths caused directly by the Civil War and by other natural disaster such as famine and disease, the number of so-called witches hanged for their “crime” was insignificant indeed. It was a small number compared to the thousands believed to have been killed in neighbouring Scotland, and it pales into insignificance  when measured against the slaughter in continental Europe. But it was no less horrific and barbaric for that.

The flavour of Witchfinders can be judged from a few quotations (rather more than I generally give). The style I found to be a cross between humorous and cynical. I don’t know whether this was intentional or not but it certainly kept me reading. The quotations that the author gives us (from contemporary sources) contribute to the book’s overall tone. Many are very gruesome indeed.

Heavy with dates, facts and names, Witchfinders isn’t a book to be read in a couple of evenings. However, for anyone with an interest in the subject and in seventeenth century history, perseverance brings its own reward.

Though, over the decades and centuries, myth has tended to replace truth, Hopkins did in fact die a natural death. Yet he lives on in the public imagination, in stories, as a man hoisted by his own petard, probably a witch himself and hanged because of it. Such is the world we live in.

‘Twenty-five years after Matthew Hopkins’ death, his tragedy was being replayed [in the theatre] as comedy.’

*****

 

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