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Hidden Histories: Witchfinder’s links to Essex town

Matthew Hopkins Photo:
Matthew Hopkins the Witchfinder General

Many myths surround Matthew Hopkins, the self proclaimed Witchfinder General but his actions in 1645 in a small corner of Essex are well documented.

Historians say he moved to Manningtree from Great Wenham in Suffolk after his mother remarried.

The English Civil war was underway, people were anxious and suspicious of their neighbours.

The Witchfinder General points at a victim

"People in the 17th century generally believe in magic. It can be good magic for good reasons, or bad magic for evil or harmful reasons so if you think one of your neighbours could potentially kill you or your child, perhaps by giving your child an apple to eat we can perhaps understand more easily why people were willing to make accusations of witchcraft."

– Dr Alison Rowland, Historian
Hopping Bridge, Mistley

John Stearne, who had links to the area, was approached by local townsfolk and initiated the witch hunts. Some say Matthew Hopkins volunteered to help and so began their crusade to rid the area of witchcraft.

Elizabeth Clarke, a widow living in Manningtree was the first to be accused. Suspects were forced to give names of other alleged witches in neighbouring villages.

Historians claim more than 100 people across East Anglia were executed for witchcraft between 1645 and 47, a fifth of the total for all of England throughout time.

By the summer of 1645 it's thought there were 34 women on remand in the cells at Colchester Castle. Four are believed to have died from the plague due to the terrible conditions there.

Stories of this dark chapter have been passed through generations in Manningtree. Hopping bridge, along the walls in neighbouring Mistley has always been central to them. It''s been said that this was the scene of some of the tests Hopkins carried out on his victims.

"Swimming involved tying their thumbs to their toes, then a rope was tied around their waist and they were thrown in the water and then pulled across the water. If they sank and were drowned that would mean heaven had accepted them and they were good women but if they survived which they all did they were deemed heaven had rejected them and they must be a witch."

Kerry King, Manningtree resident

"An old lady that had cats and dogs and animals and she was deemed you know this devil woman or somebody that was a witch because she had pet. Modern day it would just be a lady who lived on her own and loved animals but it was things like that and very much hearsay and gossip and what the ladies around here were trying to do was take the emphasis away from them so they'd say they heard this person talking in a local public house or this person talking at a market."

Jenine Collier, Manningtree resident

While some like to think Matthew Hopkins met a gruesome end, historians say it is likely he died from consumption. An entry in the Parish register records his burial on 12th August 1647 somewhere in the grounds of Mistley’s first church.

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