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Page last updated at 12:55 GMT, Wednesday, 15 September 2010 13:55 UK
The horrors of the 17th Century witch hunts
17th century woodcut of witches
A 17th Century woodcut showing three witches and their familiars

For two years in the mid-1640s, terrifying witch hunts were unleashed on a population already reeling from the first English Civil War.

This story is told in an exhibition at the Cromwell Museum in Huntingdon.

"The whole witchcraft scare in the 1640s started in Stour Valley and ended up coming across to Huntingdonshire," explained curator John Goldsmith.

By the time the hysteria had died down, a number of people had been convicted, and were executed in Huntingdon.


Yet no one really knows the causes of the witchcraft scare.

"The suggestion is that because of the massive period of disruption, people were looking for a scapegoat," said John Goldsmith.

"People who were different in any way, through age, or physical disability, or mental disability, were picked out by those who wanted to believe there was some specific reason why things had gone wrong."

The witch hunts lasted from 1645, just after the Battle of Naseby, to 1647.

Death by bewitchment

Witch on Halloween lantern
Traditional image of a witch in pointed hat with cat at her feet

Of course, the belief in witchcraft was not something new to the 1640s.

People accused of witchcraft were persecuted throughout the medieval and Tudor periods. Priests and ministers used biblical warnings about witches to back up the allegations.

The exhibition illustrates this by including the story of an earlier witch trial, which had a connection to the family of the Huntingdonshire Parliamentarian leader, Oliver Cromwell.

Some years before he was born, in the 1590s, three people from Warboys were executed as witches. They were convicted of causing the death by bewitchment of Cromwell's aunt, Lady Susan Cromwell.

Nor was this persecution something unique to England. Across Europe, 50,000 men and women were executed for witchcraft between 1500 and 1800.

In African countries like the Gambia and the Congo, witch hunts continue to this day, with children singled out for persecution in some cases.

John Hopkins

The hysteria of the mid-1640s was due to two men from Manningtree in the Stour Valley, John Stearne and Matthew Hopkins.

They set up trials, resulting in executions, and then exported their methods across East Anglia.

Villages to the west of Huntingdon seem to have been particularly targeted in the witch hunts, with Keyston, Molesworth and Little Catworth all featured in a pamphlet published in around 1646 to 1647 called The Witches of Huntingdon.

Matthew Hopkins has gone down in history as the Witchfinder General.

'Making money'

After a period of intense activity, the witch hunts were brought to an end by the Reverend John Gaule, the vicar of Great Staughton.

Mr Gaule did not doubt that witches existed.

"He did believe witches were a reality," explained John Goldsmith.

"But he saw that unfortunate people were being persecuted unreasonably and that Matthew Hopkins was potentially driving this forward because it was a way of making money.

"He charged people for identifying witches."

So John Gaule published a pamphlet exposing Hopkins' methods.

Oliver Cromwell

The Witches of Huntingdon
This book from the 1640s is on currently display at the Cromwell Museum

Did Huntingdon's most famous son, Oliver Cromwell, know about it all?

Well, the Parliamentarian leader was in the West Country throughout this period.

"He must have been aware of what going on in witchcraft trials," believes John Goldsmith. "But there is no evidence he expressed any opinion on the issue at all."

Witch Hunt

Witch Hunt: The East Anglian Witch Hunt 1645-47 is on display at the Cromwell Museum until the end of October.

It is a free, travelling exhibition produced by Epping Forest Museum and Renaissance in the Regions.

In addition to the display, visitors to the Cromwell Museum can enjoy the best collection of artefacts connected to Oliver Cromwell in the world.

The museum is Huntingdon's former grammar school, where both Oliver Cromwell and Samuel Pepys received their education.

For more details on opening times and how to find the museum, log onto the website.

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