The Alleged Witches Of Lynn

Are You A Witch?

Let me ask you some personal questions. Do you live in East Anglia? Do you have any moles on your skin or other marks? If you were thrown into some deep water, would you float? If your answer to the above questions is, “Yes,” and if you are female, the chances are that you might have been found to be a witch in the seventeenth century.

Of course, if I were being paid a considerable sum to clear the town of witches, and if there was any doubt about whether or not the accused was a witch, the use of torture could always extract a confession and resolve the issue.

Matthew Hopkins

On 11th May 1646, Alderman Thomas Revitt asked Matthew Hopkins to clear King’s Lynn of witches. The town leaders agree to pay £15, though that was later upped to £20. (He had previously been paid £23 for clearing Chelmsford.) The average worker was only earning 2.5p a day.

Hopkins was born in Suffolk at the beginning of the seventeenth century. Some people think he was trained as a lawyer because of the way he presented his evidence in court. He called himself the “Witchfinder General” (although that title was never given to him by parliament – and he was not a man to let truth get in the way of good PR). He operated mainly in Suffolk, Essex, Norfolk, Cambridgeshire and Huntingdonshire, with a few visits in the counties of Northamptonshire and Bedfordshire.

Hopkins began his career in March 1644 when he allegedly first discovers six witches in Manningtree, claiming they tried to kill him. He soon goes about East Anglia getting people to hire him to hunt out witches, force their confessions, and have them hanged by the authorities.

Hopkins is believed to have been responsible for the executions of over 100 alleged witches between the years 1644 and 1646. He and his colleague (John Stearne) sent more accused people to the gallows than all the other witch-hunters in England of the previous 160 years.

Hopkins died in 1647 of tuberculosis and was buried on 12 August in Manningtree. However, before his death he published his book, The Discovery of Witches. This led to witchhunting in the New England Colonies which lasted until 1663, and some of his methods were used in the Salem Witch Trials of 1692-93.

The Methods

Initially people had to be identified as possible witches, and once that had been achieved, there were at least three common methods designed to prove that the person was a witch. The criteria for identifying possible witches are plentiful and arbitrary (though the person was usually female). The people identified could be old, or insane, or suffering some from physical or mental health difference. They could be perfectly “normal” but could have uttered an unfortunate curse, or been in close proximity to some death or tragedy. They could simply be a difficult neighbour or just someone that none of the immediate community liked.

The tests to find out if (or prove) a person was a witch were:

  • Having a mole of skin deformity which could serve as an extra teat for suckling imps. If insensible when pricked, this proved the person was guilty.
  • Forcing the accused to walk about until they collapsed. As witches can apparently only summon evil spirits when still and resting, the act of sitting down to rest would prove guilt.
  • Binding, and flinging the accused into water. Witches apparently deny their baptism and so are repelled by the water and float rather than sink.

In Norfolk, just before Hopkins retired, he was questioned by some justices of the assizes about whether the methods used were torture, and whether the witchfinders themselves were witches because of the secret knowledge they seemed to have.

The Alleged Witches of Lynn

You can see from the dates below that witches were being found in the town before and after the arrival of Hopkins. Despite his fee, Hopkins appears not to have been too successful (thankfully), although it is possible that some records may have been lost. The last execution in England for witchcraft was 1685.

  • 1590 Margaret Reed, burned
  • 1598 Elizabeth Housegoe, burned or hanged
  • 1616 Mary Smith, hanged
  • 1646 Dororthy Lee, hanged
  • 1646 Grace Wright, hanged
  • 1650 Dorothy Floyd, hanged

© James Rye 2023

See also Executions in King’s Lynn

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