From around 1485 to 1750 people in Europe were convinced that witches were real and using their evil magical powers in their everyday lives. At this time most people were religious, but in England and the rest of Europe there was a lot of conflict between Catholics and Protestants. The Catholic Pope Innocent VIII made an official announcement in December 1484 to warn people of the dangers of witches:
“Many persons have abandoned themselves to devils and by their incantations, spells, charms and crafts have blasted the produce of the Earth; these wretches torment men and women to the deadly peril of their own souls!”
In the 17th century this part of the world was believed to be home to many witches. The Fenlands were an isolated part of the country and this meant that people stuck to ancient traditions, like language and religion. Because of the unusual environment, people were also at risk of more rare diseases – like malaria – than people in the rest of the country. In the 1640s, the Fenlands became the main hunting ground for a man called Sir Matthew Hopkins, known as the Witch Finder General. These witch-hunts usually targeted older, unmarried women who supported and cared for themselves using traditional methods and didn’t rely on men as others did. In the Fenlands, women were more than 3 times as likely to be tried for witchcraft and magic.
Matthew Hopkins’ methods for finding witches were extremely brutal: one of his favourite methods was to tie up a suspected witch in the middle of a room, and wait for any animal to enter. This animal would be the witch’s familiar. This could take place over as many nights as it took for an animal to enter, meaning that Matthew Hopkins’ methods almost always found suspected witches guilty as they were tortured into confessing. In 1646, Hopkins was found guilty of using torture to force confessions and less than a year later died from tuberculosis. Some historians say that he was accused of and trialled for being a witch himself because he was so deeply superstitious.
After learning about how victims of witch-hunts were treated in the 17th century, use your new historical knowledge to create a trial against Matthew Hopkins.
Though, as you have learned, the justice system in England at the time was very unfair, today we must stick to very strict ethical standards. This means that you must be sure of all the facts before you start a trial, and you must have very clear evidence!
Clue: the callout boxes through the text will help you to decide what can be used as real evidence and which parts of the tale have been twisted over time…
Suggestion: if you enjoy learning through drama and role-play, you can do this activity in a group with each person taking the role of a different character. Some key ‘characters’ would be Matthew Hopkins, a judge, witness(es), and a prosecution lawyer.
If you enjoy learning through visual methods, you could create a comic strip of the trial with drawings of the same ‘characters’.