Sunday, 27 October 2013

The Witchfinder General... A story for Halloween

Among the (possibly) inappropriate reading I indulged in as a young teenager (where was Harry Potter?), I devoured the stories of Robert Neill, who wrote several books set in the English Civil War period. His book “Witch Bane” begins with a young woman suspected of witchcraft being publicly stripped and submitted to trial by “pricking”. (It was a common belief held that a witch could be discovered through the process of pricking their skin with needles, pins and bodkins and body of the woman (or man!) was closely searched for the “witch’s mark” to which the bodkin was applied in the belief that the person would not feel pain or bleed when pricked). Even though “Witch Bane” is long out of print, I won’t give away any more of the plot but the slightly salacious cover alone was enough to grip me from the start!

So as Halloween approaches and thoughts turn to ghosties and ghoulies and long legged beasties and things that go bump in the night”, I cast around for an appropriate topic for this post. There are others  who are  experts in the area of seventeenth century witches but, in the memory of “Witch Bane”, I thought I might have a look at one person whose name inspired fear throughout England of the 1640s and 1650s… Matthew Hopkins - The Witchfinder General.

"Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live" EXODUS xxn. 18

In 1604 James I passed the the Witchcraft Statute which made “witchcraft” a capital offence if the victim was injured. It also incorporated a number of continental notions of witchcraft, including those of, a pact with, and worship of, the devil and made the exhumation of bodies for “magical purposes” a crime. This statute remained in force until 1736, when it was finally repealed. Following the Lancashire witch trials of 1634, there was a requirement of material proof of being a witch (some physical manifestion of a pact with the devil).

Little is known of Matthew Hopkins’ early life. It is thought he was born in Little Wenham in Suffolk in the early 1620s (making him a comparitively young man at the time he rose to infamy). It is postulated that he studied law.

The English Civil War (1642-1645) was at its height when Matthew first comes to public notice. In a country torn apart by violence, politics and religion and where fear and superstition prevailed, the moment was opportune for a young man with a fervent belief that he had the power to rid the country of witches and in 1644 we have the first public mention of Matthew. Essex and the Eastern counties where Matthew worked was the seat of power for the puritan forces and it is from this seething hot bed of religious fervour that the witch mania rose.

In 1644 Hopkins fell in with an already established “witch pricker”, John Stearne. Hopkins claimed to have overheard several witches discussing their meetings with the devil: “…March 1644 he had some seven or eight of that horrible sect of Witches living in the Towne where he lived, a Towne in Essex called Maningtree, with divers other adjacent Witches of other towns, who every six weeks in the night (being alwayes on the Friday night) had their meeting close by his house and had their severall solemne sacrifices there offered to the Devill, one of which this discoverer heard speaking to her Imps one night, and bid them goe to another Witch…”

As a consequence a trial of twenty three women was held at Chelmsford in 1645. Four died in prison and nineteen were hung. Following the notoriety of that trial Hopkins and Stearne became self appointed “witch finders” (the term Witch Finder General bears no official stamp of approval). The work of carrying out the “pricking” was done by well paid (and no doubt zealous) female assistants. In the vacuum of proper authority caused by the war, Hopkins and Stearne operated throughout the eastern counties with relative impunity.

Hopkins’ favourite methods of interrogation (bearing in mind torture was by now illegal in England) were “swimming” (where the woman was bound and thrown into a pond…if she floated she was deemed a witch as she was being rejected the waters of baptism…if she sank, and most likely drowned, then obviously she was innocent); cutting with a blunt knife or sleep deprivation. Hopkins was ordered to discontinue swimming in 1645, unless he had the subject’s permission! By far his favourite was “pricking” (described briefly above). The victim would be shaved of all hair and if a mole or an extra nipple was discovered, it was deemed that this would be the means by which the witch would suckle the devil or an incubus or imp. If found guilty the most common form of execution was hanging. It is estimated that Hopkins was probably responsible for the death of some 200 people between 1645 and 1647.

He wrote a pamphlet describing his methods - The Discovery of Witches - which made its way across the Atlantic to the new colonies and his methods were employed in the witch trials of the New World, most notably the Salem witch trial of the 1690s.

However by 1647 Hopkins began to run into opposition. Sermons were preached against the work of Hopkins and Stearne and his methods (and the fees he charged for his work) were called into question by the authorities in Norfolk.

Mistley Pond
Matthew Hopkins died in August 1647 in his home town of Manningtee in Essex. While it is more than likely that nothing more extraordinary than tuberculosis carried him off, for such a controversial figure there is a legend that he met his end after being accused of witchcraft and subjected to his own ‘swimming’ test. It is said his ghost haunts the pond at Mistley.

The last execution in England for witchcraft was Alicia Molland who was executed in Essex in March 1684,he last conviction in 1712

And in the spirit of Halloween here is the master of horror himself, Vincent Price, in his 1968 portrayal of Matthew Hopkins in the film "The Witchfinder General". 

Sweet dreams...

Sunday, 20 October 2013

Did education drive Miss Yale crazy?

 This week the Hoydens are delighted to welcome CHRISTY K. ROBINSON to their den. Christy is passionate about all things seventeenth century and the author of two recent autobiographical novels on Mary Dyer (more about Christy and Mary later...)

When asked how much educated men were superior to those uneducated, Aristotle answered, 
'As much as the living are to the dead.' 
~Diogenes Laetius

1647--Lady Mary Fairfax,
with her tutor.  Her father was Thomas Fairfax,
third Baron Fairfax of Cameron,
a general in Cromwell’s New Model Army.

Stunning statements about education have come to light in the American political process. One presidential candidate said that America needs “a leader, not a reader.” Another said that the desire to educate more Americans is snobbery and “There are good, decent men and women … that aren't taught by some liberal college professor, trying to indoctrinate them. Oh I understand why he wants [you] to go to college. He wants to remake you in his image.” A radio commentator who flunked out of college after two semesters said that a female “authorette” with a recent BA degree and a journalism award for her first book was “over-educated.” 

In the 1600s, higher education was prized, and boys and young men were trained in science, literature, history, religion, and liberal arts. After the home-schooled Anne Hutchinson defended herself so eloquently and bested the magistrates in debates at trial in November 1637 and March 1638, Massachusetts established Harvard College to train its teen boys to the ministry.

New England women guided the household, but remained subject to their fathers’ or husbands’ authority. Men believed women had the mental capacity to manage large households, many children and servants, and often a cottage industry like brewing beer, tending a shop, seamstressing, or cooking, but apparently not to be formally-educated women who discussed theology, as did Anne Hutchinson and later, Mary Dyer. Both of those women were logical thinkers who could read and write—a dangerous combination which could lead to unorthodoxy and heresy.  

1630--Old Woman Reading a Bible,
Gerrit DouNetherlands
A few women were well-educated from their early years in England, as a result of tutors or fathers guiding their learning. They were the exception, not the rule. Most Puritan women could read well enough to get through their Bibles, but that was all. In the first decades of colonial New England, schools were only for boys.

Ann Yale Hopkins, the wife of Governor Edward Hopkins of Connecticut in the 1640s and ‘50s, was believed to have gone insane not because she inherited madness or was driven to it by illness, injury, fear, or unbearable hardships of first-generation settlers (understandable contributing factors), but because of her scholarship and the resulting mental exhaustion.

Massachusetts Bay colonial Gov. John Winthrop, whose beloved wife Margaret wrote letters and conducted her husband’s business in England while he started the colony in Boston, wrote of Ann Hopkins: 
“Mr. Hopkins, the governor of Hartford upon Connecticut, came to Boston, and brought his wife with him, (a godly young woman, and of special parts,) who was fallen into a sad infirmity, the loss of her understanding and reason, which had been growing upon her divers years, by occasion of her giving herself wholly to reading and writing, and had written many books. Her husband, being very loving and tender of her, was loath to grieve her [about spending too much time in reading and writing]; but he saw his error, when it was too late. For if she had attended her household affairs, and such things as belong to women, and not gone out of her way and calling to meddle in such things as are proper for men, whose minds are stronger, etc., she had kept her wits, and might have improved them usefully and honorably in the place God had set her.” ~John Winthrop's Journal

The Hopkins' house,
Hartford, Connecticut
Edward Hopkins (born 1600) and Ann Yale Hopkins (born 1615) were among the co-founders of New Haven, Connecticut in 1637, but after only two months, moved to Hartford and set up a 120-acre farm and merchant trade with Turkey. Edward was elected governor or deputy governor for many one-year terms, even after he returned to England. The house they lived in from 1640 still exists on Popieluszko Court in Hartford.

It was sometimes seen as a judgment from God that a woman was barren. Ann had no children, which was a huge disappointment to Puritans. As Winthrop wrote, “such things as belong to women,” and “the place God had set her.” Coming from an education-minded family, reading and writing may have been a consolation to her, just as people in our day sometimes bury themselves in creative pursuits or work. Ann exhibited signs of insanity beginning at about age 32 in 1647. Because men disapproved of women exhausting their brains, it is highly probable that her books and writing materials were removed from her at that time.

Interestingly, her husband survived an Indian assassination attempt in 1646, the year before Ann’s illness was observed. It’s possible that fear helped push Ann past the threshold of reason.

Edward and Ann returned to England permanently in 1652, perhaps because of Ann’s condition. He was engaged by Parliament as a naval commissioner, but died in 1657. Ann was cared for until her death by her Yale relatives in north Wales.

Edward's large bequests helped fund a New Haven, Connecticut school named in his honor. ‘Hopkins is the third oldest independent school in the country. The School has been operating since 1660, and has retained as its historic mission, ‘the breeding up of hopeful youths...for the publique service of the country in future tymes.’ Congressmen, doctors, lawyers, Yale Presidents, and civil activists all had their start at Hopkins and are the embodiment of Hopkins' mission,” says a fundraising site. Another generous bequest by Edward Hopkins benefited Harvard College in Boston.

In the next generation, Elihu Yale, born in Boston in 1649, was one of the major benefactors of Yale University. Elihu is entombed at Wrexham, Wales, where there’s a Yale College, founded in 1950. Both the Welsh college and Connecticut university are named after Elihu Yale, Ann’s nephew.

A French asylum

Other New England women suffered mental illness, which was sometimes charged as witchcraft or being possessed by Satan. Several women killed or attempted murder on their children, and were hanged. One woman flung her child into a pond, and when the toddler crawled out and returned to its mother, the mother threw her child back in the water. A witness saved the child and reported the mother, who said that she wanted to spare her child from “further misery.” Yet another delusional mother wanted to save her baby from going to hell, so she killed it.

There were no asylums, but family members or hired help became caretakers of the insane. The magistrates granted latitude to people who were known to be seriously disturbed when committing lesser crimes, but when it came to murder, the insane were executed for that crime.

That Ann Yale Hopkins was the wife and then widow of a wealthy man who was a governor probably lent to her long life in the care of family members instead of an insane asylum. Anne lived until 1698, and died at age 83 near Wrexham, Wales. Knowing the love of learning in the Yale family, perhaps Ann was permitted to read during times of lucidity, or be read to.

We can thank our 17th-century forefathers and foremothers for their deep commitment and personal sacrifices to improving their own minds and the minds of their children, and setting a tradition of pursuit of first-class education. They knew that with education comes prosperity in virtually every aspect of human life.

The foundation of every state is the education of its youth
~Diogenes Laetius

Christy K Robinson is a freelance copy editor of books, magazines, and websites. She recently published the first of two biographical novels on Mary Dyer, an Englishwoman who committed civil disobedience in the cause of liberty of conscience and separation of church and state. Mary Dyer was hanged in Boston in 1660, and her death brought Charles II’s order for tolerance and cessation of death penalty that was echoed in a colonial charter the next year *breathe here* which became a model for America’s constitutional rights to free speech and religious expression. (That sentence is nearly as long as the time it took to bring Mary’s sacrifice to codification!). Mary Dyer Illuminated is available in paperback and Kindle editions, worldwide. Christy’s website is .

Sunday, 13 October 2013

What Lies on the Other Side - Death in the 17th Century

People have always been curious about where they go to after they die, and beliefs about the fate of the body and the ultimate destination of the soul, or essence of the person, carry profound religious significance, whatever century you live in.

Ay, but to die, and go we know not where;
To lie in cold obstruction and to rot;
This sensible warm motion to become
A kneaded clod; and the delighted spirit
To bathe in fiery floods, or to reside
In thrilling region of thick-ribbed ice;
To be imprison’d in the viewless winds,
And blown with restless violence round about
The pendent world.
Shakespeare, Measure for Measure 1604

In the seventeenth century evidence of mortality was present everywhere and often the causes of death were little understood. London preacher Sampson Price wrote, 'Some we see come to their graves by apoplexies, lethargies,dead palsies, some by sudden blows, some as a wasted candle goes out naturally.'  Death was altogether mysterious. In the 17th century the death rate was 25-35 per 1000 of the population (currently in the modern west it is at 8 per 1000), and as many as a quarter of women who died, died in childbirth. (Source - David Cressy)

The prevailing view at this time was that death was a consequence of man's sin 'begot of the devil' (James Cole) and so death was personified as an adversary or tyrant, whose sole aim was to destroy unwary sinners. Often death was drawn as a walking skeleton with a scythe, arrow, or spade in hand to dig the grave.
Fall of the Rebel Angels Rubens 1620
Catholics and Protestants had two different views of the afterlife. Protestants had rejected the idea of purgatory in 1574, believing it to have no scriptural foundation.
'the soul after death...does not wander up and down from place to place, nor yet remaineth in a third place, as papists and pagans have dreamed'  Clergyman Robert Pricke 1608

So now there were only two possibilities - salvation or damnation. 

This was a change which was enormously significant as it affected the entire view of the relationship with deceased family members. Suddenly there was no point to to masses, dirges or prayers for the dead, and the removal of this comfort had a profound effect on mourning and funeral custom. The deceased was no longer affected by any sort of intercession, so immediately conduct here on earth became crucial, and as everyone trasgresses as least in some way, the fear of hell became even more pronounced. 
'For truth I may this sentence tell, No man dies ill that liveth well.' Poet Robert Herrick 
Soul in hell
From a Broadside Ballad - St Bernard's Vision of Hell (1640)
Most wretched Flesh, which in thy time of life
Wast foolish, idle, vain, and full of strife;
Though of my substance thou didst speak to me,
I do confess I should have bridled thee.

But thou through love of pleasure foul and ill,
Still me resisted and would have thy will:
When I would thee (O Body) have control’d,
Straight the worlds vanities did thee with-hold.

So thou of me didst get the upper hand,
Enthralling me in worldly pleasures band,
That thou and I eternal shall be drown’d
In Hell, when glorious Saints in Heaven are crown’d.

So though the bodies of protestant souls remained in the churchyard, their souls were now beyond help and had either gone immediately to their reward, or were already in eternal torment in the gates of hell. Although the removal of purgatory from the view of the population was supposed to be the law - for example Bishop Richard Barnes of Durham instructed his parish that, 'no communions or comemmorations be said for the dead...nor any superfluous ringing at burials' -  in practice very few were willing to give up their familiar practices. 'Prayers for the dead' was such an ingrained social custom that it took almost a century for it to draw to a close.

Those who chose to maintain the Catholic faith - recusants - held their funerals at unlikely hours, or performed them quietly at home. But it was not only recusants who fell foul of the law: At Ribchester in 1639 one Robert Abbott was charged with an offence in which 'there was a cross towel laid over her corpse upon the bier, and she was set down at stone and wooden crosses by the way; and you did at the same cross in a superstitious manner take off your hat and kneeled down and prayed.'

In Stuart times these offences were as likely to be committed by protestants who felt unable to let go of the idea of purgatory. Unsurprisingly most people held a 'belt and braces' attitude. If there was even a faint possibility that prayers could do their dead relative good, then they would use them, and traditions such as praying  for the soul on the route to burial, or putting a penny in the mouth of the deceased for him to pay St Peter, still lingered right up to the end of the 17th century.

Both Catholics and Protestants continued to believe that there would be a general resurrection for the just, at the time of Christ's second coming, so the separation caused by death was only temporary. Whether this 'resurrection' was bodily and material, or metaphorical, was a matter for debate - just as it is today.

Resurrection of the Flesh by Luca Signorelli