A history of Halesworth, Suffolk, UK, through the ages.


Volume 3


Halesworth and Witchcraft

During the Elizabethan period and the Civil War (about 1550 - 1650), superstitious practices were dealt with severely, and in Suffolk, Matthew Hopkins was earnestly searching for witches. He is said to have been a lawyer at Ipswich and Manningtree (in Essex) before he travelled widely in East Anglia on this mission. He charged each town he visited 20 shillings (1) and posters were put up inviting people to report any suspicious circumstances or strange neighbours, and they would be paid 2 for each witch reported.

Most of these were women and great numbers of them were innocent, falsely accused and then tortured until they confessed. The ordeals which they were subjected to left little chance for freedom. Some were bound hand and foot and thrown into a river. If they sank below the surface it meant they were innocent, but usually by then had drowned. But if they floated, it was considered that the Devil had saved them from drowning, and after a show trial, the victims were either hanged or burnt at the stake.

Matthew Hopkins was very successful in obtaining 'confessions' from his victims. 'Watching and Waking' was particularly good, as the accused were kept awake, often for days, and few could stand more than 72 hours of this. Others were walked up and down or were made to sit on a wooden stool without meat or drink until they freely confessed. Strange tests included being able to recite the Lord's Prayer in one breath, or the fact of having marks on their body which did not bleed when pricked. The legislation which allowed these tests and trial to take place was introduced in 1563, but in 1604 this was repealed and much harsher penalties imposed.

'If any person, or persons, shall use, practise, or exercise any invocation or conjuration of any evil and wicked spirit, or shall consult, covenant with, entertain, employ, find, or reward any evil and wicked spirit, to or for any intent or purpose, or to take up any dead man, woman, or child out of his, her, or their grave, or any other place where the dead body resteth, or the skin, bone, or any part of any dead person to be employed or used in any manner of witchcraft, sorcery, charm, or enchantment, or shall use, practise, or exercise any witchcraft, enchantment, charm, or sorcery whereby any person shall be killed, destroyed, wasted, consumed, pined, or lamed in his or her body, or any part thereof, every such offender is a felon without benefit of clergy.'

There doesn't seem to be a single clear explanation why so many people in East Anglia were tried and then hanged as witches in the 17th century. There was of course much anti-witch hysteria which was further stirred up when Matthew Hopkins, styling himself Witchfinder General, obtained a special commission in 1645 to visit these counties. From this followed death penalties on sixty women in Essex in one year, while nearly forty were sentenced to death at Bury St. Edmunds, and many others at Norwich and in Huntingdonshire.


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