Matthew Hopkins & the Essex Witch Craze

While the Inquisition had been prosecuting and executing witches for centuries, the witch craze never really took off in England until the reign of James I. If anything, magic had an everyday place in English lives during the Tudor dynasty. This is not to say that witchcraft (then differentiated from magic) was free from scrutiny. But from the court-sanctioned experimentations of Dr. John Dee and other Christological magicians, the coastal witches who warded off the Spanish Armada with the help of Sir Francis Drake, to the rustic cures and spells offered by the cunning men and women, as well as the fantasy magical elements featured in popular culture such as Marlowe’s Faustus or Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream or The Tempest—magic was everywhere!

John Dee & Edward Kelley employing a magic circle to invoke a spirit. The Astrologer of the 19th Century, 1825

During the height of witch persecution on the Continent, there were no large-scale witch trials in England for a number of reasons. The ecclesial separation from other areas of Christian Europe meant that the English church had its own priorities, e.g. the persecution and removal of the treacherous papists! There was also a lack of any desire from authorities to conduct a witch hunt in the first place. The final decline of witch trials came at the latter half of the 17th century as a result of the rise of new scientific thought and the works of natural philosophers like Isaac Newton who were now able to explain the universe in mechanical ways, causing a decline in the belief in the possibility of magic to influence the world.
In English witchcraft trials, it is odd to see any reference to making a pact with the Devil. There are no witches’ sabbats, no sex with devils, nor did English witches fly. They did however have imps and familiars. Ursula Kemp was alleged to have four familiars: two cats, a toad called Piggen, and a lamb named Tiffin. Witches were usually only condemned for maleficium. These trials were rarely issued from above. English court records feature a lot of individual prosecutions from below by the alleged victims of witchcraft seeking redress in the courts. Trials against witchcraft were generally few and far between, except in the counties surrounding London.

Woodcut of witches flying. Mather’s Wonders of the Invisible World, 1689

Cases of witchcraft were coming predominantly from Essex. During the reign of Elizabeth I, for example, Hertfordshire only produced 24 cases, Sussex only 14, yet Essex produced 172 cases! Between 1560 and 1580, 270 individuals were prosecuted for witchcraft in Essex alone. Most of these trials took place in the last quarter of the 16th century, and became very rare everywhere after 1620. This decline can be explained by the fact that by the 1580’s judges were becoming very worried about the difficulties of proving witchcraft. This doesn’t mean necessarily that they were skeptical—many likely still believed that witchcraft was possible. But how could you prove witchcraft unless they confessed? In English law, torture was not used except in state trials when authorized by the Privy Council. It was routinely used in Scotland and the Continent. How could prosecutors root out natural causes of these alleged injuries? And if it were actually witchcraft, who did it? In cases of witchcraft, the normal rules of evidence could not apply.

Elizabeth I, after the Darnley pattern, c. 1585

With an increasing level of methodical jurisprudence, why they was there also a rise in the concerns against witchcraft in the 17th century? The dominant explanations offered by Thomas[1] and Macfarlane[2] show that witches were frequently elderly women who were accused of bewitching neighbors, not strangers, and who were often poorer than their victims. This suggests that accusations were rising as a result of tensions between poorer women and their competitive neighbors. While it is possible that some of those accused did practice magic and believe they had the power to harm, or that they responded to these accusations by playing the part of the witch given to them by reputation, there must have been some incident serious enough to start an honest investigation into witchcraft. In Essex, there was an average of four witnesses per accused witch. Witchcraft accusations could arise as a result of personal rivalries in local politics, used to discredit others and so on.
Thomas suggests that this peak period of witchcraft anxiety came with the rising concern in the loss of belief in the power of ecclesial protection and counter-magic, and secondly because that period was one of unusual tensions within village societies. Economic distress caused a declining position for the poor and widows. Poor Laws had not yet been put into effect for this population. The decline in charity among neighbors meant that accusing one of witchcraft could become a means to severing responsibility for the poor, and transferring this guilt to an accused witch.
Why were the Witchcraft Acts passed in the first place, and why did so many cases arise in Essex? Why were other counties similar to Essex not so affected? It’s worth considering that these laws were passed when they were for two reasons. Both were passed at the beginning of two monarchical regimes (Elizabeth I, then James I). This suggests that elements of symbolism or propaganda were being set up to confirm the legitimacy and uprightness of the monarch, who would be seen opposing certain subversive (yet harmless) acts. Another element was the perceived threats against the monarch. In 1561, two years before the 1563 act passed, a plot was discovered where sorcery was being used against Elizabeth. William Cecil discovered then that there were no acts preventing these crimes. The 1604 Act followed the succession of James I to the throne. He was a man with profound interest in witchcraft, having written his treatise Daemonologie after a group of witches were uncovered attempting to kill him in a shipwreck. The witchcraft acts of England and Scotland were then overhauled and combined.

James I & VI of England & Scotland, after John de Critz, 1606

As a result of these acts, the political and ecclesiastical elite had a bigger role in managing cases of witchcraft. It is possible then that Essex was peculiarly conscious of threats of witchcraft. The use of criminal law against witches had terrible publicity there. Three group trials took place in 1566, 1582 and 1589. In each case, an initial accusation was vigorously pursued by justices who had a particular concern against witchcraft. These trials were then publicized in pamphlets, which may have had the effect of heightening the sense of threat people felt, or even a moral panic. This paved the way then in 1644 for Matthew Hopkins, the self-appointed Witchfinder General.

Woodcut of Matthew Hopkins from his book, The Discovery of Witches…, 1647

Between 1644 and 1647, Matthew Hopkins traveled throughout East Anglia and hired himself out as a consultant for the discovery of witches. He came to have gained his experience by accidentally encountering a meeting of witches in Manningtree, Essex. The witches met and offered sacrifices to the Devil, and gave commands to their familiars to do harm. English prosecutions until then had been sporadic, except in Anglia where they then came in great waves. With the Witchcraft Acts of Elizabeth and James now making witchcraft a felony, Hopkins was free to pursue witches as state criminals and so use extreme acts to gain his confessions. Though torture was still illegal, one method he employed was in keeping the accused witch awake for days at a time until they would confess[3]. Another means of torture which he employed was the infamous trial by dunking in water. The aim of Hopkins was not to prove a witch guilty of committing maleficium, rather of having consorted with Satan, and thus being a heretic. During this time, Hopkins is suspected of executing 300 alleged witches, or 60% of all cases in a period of 300 years of English history. His 1647 account of witch-finding, The Discovery of Witches would later influence the witch craze in New England, including the madness that was the Salem witch hysteria of 1692-1693.

Ducking stool. 18th century drawing reproduced in Chap-books of the 18th Century by John Ashton, 1834

[1] Thomas, K. (1971). Religion and the decline of magic: Studies in popular beliefs in sixteenth-century England.
[2] Macfarlane, A. (1970). Witchcraft in Tudor and Stuart England: A regional and comparative study.
[3] Hopkins, M. (1647). The discovery of witches: in answer to severall queries, lately delivered to the judges of assize for the county of Norfolk. And now published by Matthew Hopkins Witch-finder, for the benefit of the whole kingdome.

Comet Observations – The Augsburger Book of Miracles, 1552

The Augsburger Wunderzeichenbuch (1552 ?) was a compendium of famous meteorological and astronomical phenomena  as well as selected illustrations from the Bible. The more interesting part here is that the writer associates the various comet appearances with specific disasters (disaster literally meaning an ill-starred event) in world history. In this work, the author does not make the distinction between comets and meteors which we do today. The segment on miraculous signs appears between the Old and New Testament portions and depicts several freak weather incidents and celestial apparitions from antiquity up to the year 1552.

“In 1401 A.D., a big comet with a tail… appeared in the sky in Germany. That was followed by a great, terrible plague in Swabia.”
The great comet of 1456 was actually excommunicated by Pope Callixtus III. Today we know this as Halley’s Comet. I’m not entirely sure what the smaller object is but it cannot be a comet since comet tails always face away from the sun. This must be a shooting star.
“In 1007 a wondrous comet appeared. It gave off fire and flames in every direction. It was seen in Germany and Welschland and it fell onto the earth.” This was then not a true comet but an impressive meteor.
“In 1546, in the month of August, the fire from the sky struck a tower in which were more than four hundred tons of powder, in Mechel in Niederland. And exactly half of the city burned down, which is also a special sign from God.”
The comet of 1300/1, most likely Halley’s comet again.

 

Roman Gods, Livre des échecs amoureux moralisés (1496)

Le Livre des échecs amoureux moralisés. Commissioned by Louise of Savoy. Transferred between 1515-1518 to the royal library of Blois. “The games of Love”, masterfully composed and filled with moral stories against foolish love, whose end (the book claims) is to show the error and deception that is fatuous love and its innumerable dangers.
Currently located at La Bibliothèque nationale de France. See it in full detail here.

Pluto and Proserpina among the Kingdom of Hades


Vulcan and Venus, her children


Pan


Jupiter


Saturn eating his young

Magical kolossos – 2nd or 3rd c. CE

Clay figure with 13 bronze pins, discovered with a lead tablet engraved with a binding spell. A Roman “love magic doll”, showing a nude female bound and stabbed with 13 pins. Found in Antinoopolis with a lead curse tablet, this artifact is likely dated to the 2nd or 3rd century C.E.
1. brain: only think about me;
2. eyes: only have eyes for me;
2. ears: only have ears for me;
1. mouth: only speak about me;
1. heart: only have feelings for me;
1. vagina: only have desire for me;
1. anus: only have desire for me;
2. hands: only work for me;
2. feet: never walk away from me…

Antinoopolis was the pageant ground for a lavish and outrageous new mystery religion to rise up at the dawn of the new celestial epoch, the Age of Pisces. The priests of Antinous were supported and funded well by the state, and worshiped in great luxury and delight. Here, the Pax Deorum thrived as the cult of Antinous strived to commingle all the cultures and religions of the Empire. They were Greco-Roman Pagans trying to uphold Olympus in the middle of the Egyptian desert, surrounded by wild Gnostics, austere Catholics, genius Mathematicians and natural philosophers, the Roman garrison and every assortment of conjurer, and prophet of debauchery that could make his way up the Nile.
The Priests of Antinous venerated the beauty of young men, as living examples of Antinous, one superb manifestation of which was held to be the Divine Ephebe in living flesh, a boy of about nineteen years of age, perhaps the winner of the Antinoean Games, who was worshiped as the carnal and spiritual habitation of Antinous the God. We can be certain that the elegant priests were of the doctrine of the Libertines, placed as they were on the very edge of the world, surrounded by unknown Africa, clinging to the edge of the fertile Nile, with endless desert all around. The citizens of Antinoopolis must have felt as though they were not part of the world, that they were special, not subject to the normal rules and customs, and that they were the champions of civilization in the very extreme of barbarity.

After his deification, the constellation of Antinuous was regarded in the West until the re-classification of common constellations by the scientific authorities of the 20th century

The priests of Antinous kept the fire of the name of Antinous burning by reciting his ceremonies and oracles with a combination of Greek Chant and Egyptian bells. Flutes and harps accompanied the gestures of their ritual. The Christian Fathers tell us that all inflamed with drink, the priests fell upon each other in unholy lust. The Ancient Priests were also well-known for their magical spells, and a papyrus fragment bearing an Antinous Love Spell survives to this day. Thousands upon thousands of pilgrims came to Antinoopolis over five centuries to worship the beautiful god, and to hear the sayings of the oracle. Toward the end, as the Empire disintegrated, Antinoopolis became a place of magic and superstition, and the evidence from this period is that Antinoopolis had become a market for charlatans.

Osiris-Antinous, the Egyptianized form of the Roman God. Found in the villa of emperor Hadrian, now at the Vatican Museum

The Black House – In Virtual Reality

In 1966 Anton LaVey founded the Church of Satan, with his infamous house at 6114 California Street in San Francisco as the headquarters. From there, he conducted public rituals, seminars and lectures on magic. He also kept his pet lion Togare there until its relocation to a zoo. After LaVey’s death, the property was demolished in 2001.
For those of us who never got to visit the House, there is still hope. Warlock Enki is currently working on a VR recreation of the Black House and the ritual chamber within. If you have never had a VR experience before, the technology is finally coming out of its infancy and is now quite good. Check out this preview below. Then go check out his Indiegogo campaign and donate today!

Black Mass of Desecration Revisited – Walpurgisnacht MMXIX, A.S. LIII

As mentioned the other day, the annual celebration of Walpurgisnacht culminated in a celebration of the Black Mass of Desecration. It is always fascinating when I attempt any historical religious reconstruction, to put myself into the worldview and mindset of the people whose rites we are attempting to revive. Much of the lore around the Black Mass comes from Inquisitors, priests, and witch hunters, but at its core there is an element of historic truth. It is certain that there were midnight feasts and revels which flipped the “natural” order of the Christian world, and that these feasts were a means of social release for both the clergy/aristocracy and for rural peasants. We hold similar feasts in the 21st century, some ancient and some new. While our 16th century Satanic liturgy was performed in the grandest fashion, and with all the pomp, ceremony and sacrilege prescribed in the ritus missae nigrae, something was missing–my fear.
This time, as I left the church with the consecrated host in my care, I did not panic. When I looked at the wafer of lifeless bread, I did not sense the presence of Christ. When I pierced it I felt no remorse, and when I urinated on it I felt no guilt. Last year, the fear was what made this ceremony the most worthwhile. It seems its original intent, which was to undo my religious brainwashing at the hands of the Catholic church, was effective! I have always believed that magic exists primarily in the mind, and the Black Mass of Desecration has shown how ceremony can change the mind of a believer into one of unbelief.  May I remain unshackled by hierophantic chains!
Because of this realization, I see no further need to repeat this ritual again, except if others may benefit the same way I have.