Thursday, September 30, 2004

Ashcroft & Hopkins: Witch-Finder Generals

What does John Ashcroft have in common with Matthew Hopkins, the original Witch-finder General? The similarities are actually quite spooky. Here is a list which includes some quotes from this bio of Hopkins:

History Heads gives a brief history of Hopkins, and how the inclination to witch hunt was exported to America along with the very villagers that participated in the English witch hunts:

The East Anglian witch hunt
In the spring of 1645, during the agony and anxiety of the English Civil Wars, fears about the malevolence of witches boiled over in Essex and soon spread into Suffolk. Mass trials in these two counties the same year resulted in nearly 40 executions, and there were more to come in Norfolk and in other counties further to the west. In all, perhaps 250 women and men were accused, imprisoned and interrogated, of whom it is safe to say over 100 were hanged – five times as many as would perish at Salem.

Like Salem in the American experience, the East Anglian witch hunt of 1645-7 was a unique event in English history. There had been regular witch trials after the passing of the Witchcraft Acts of 1563 and 1604, many of them in Essex. But in the first half of the 17th century, several well-publicised frauds, growing legal scepticism and the changing policies of crown and Church had all contributed to a general decline.

That the East Anglian trials happened at all was due mostly to the self-appointed minor gentlemen Matthew Hopkins and John Stearne, who travelled around the eastern counties, exploiting pre-existing tensions and suspicions among villagers by initiating interrogations and setting the wheels of justice in motion.

Disquiet about Hopkins' and Stearne's methods (they used torture, contrary to common law) numbered their days as witchfinders even before Hopkins' death in 1647. And yet the godly zeal of the next 12 years – with the execution of the king and the establishment of the Puritan Commonwealth – meant that trials continued to occur, albeit conducted in a more regulated manner.

After 1660, with the fall of the English republic, witch-beliefs and village conflicts continued to find expression through the Witchcraft Act, although 'religious enthusiasm' was scorned as politically dangerous. Impassioned theocracy continued to thrive in Massachusetts, however, as did a legal system according to which witchcraft was formally tried as an offence against the peace of the English crown.

Transatlantic connections
Many of the men and women who began new lives in America hailed from Essex and Suffolk where the English witch hunt was most intense in the 1640s – indeed, Salem was situated in a region christened 'Essex County' by its settlers. There were other geographical echoes, principally in the town of Lynn. Home to seven of the suspects at Salem, its name was taken from King's Lynn, the Norfolk port where, in 1646, the witchfinder Hopkins had been drummed into town as a liberating hero. Another Salem suspect came from Chelmsford, its English namesake having been the town where the first of Hopkins' executions had taken place in the summer of 1645.

Transatlantic connections can be traced even more precisely. Hopkins' father, a clergyman, knew John Winthrop, later governor of Massachusetts, as their families lived just a few miles apart. Similarly, village feuds that had simmered for years in England were exported and took root as witchcraft accusations.

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