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The Witchfinder General of Essex
Matthew Hopkins Witchfinder General
The former solicitor Matthew Hopkins entitled himself the Witchfinder General

An exhibition at Colchester Castle about the Witchfinder General reveals why Essex became the witching county of Britain during the 17th century.

More witches were executed in Essex than in any other county in the UK.

After the English Civil War, with England still in turmoil, Essex saw the hanging of over 200 'suspected' women.

Matthew Hopkins, who proclaimed himself the Witchfinder General, was responsible for the finding and prosecution of these witches.

Colchester Castle was the base Hopkins used to imprison and interrogate many witches.

Thought to be a former solicitor, Matthew Hopkins appointed himself as the Witchfinder General, but was never directly employed by Parliament.

His career flourished during the English Civil war, when suspicion and fear amongst the local communities was intense.

Colchester Castle
Colchester Castle held over 200 women prisioners between 1645-1647

Hopkins' first case was that of Elizabeth Clarke of Manningtree, who he successfully prosecuted as a witch and, as a result, gave evidence that led him to another five women.

Torture was illegal and therefore Hopkins used methods such as sleep deprivation and forced standing.

Some suspects were 'swam'; this entailed women being tied up and being thrown into water - if she sank, the water then cleansed the suspect; if she floated, the water had rejected the suspect and she was guilty.

Many women turned King's evidence, where the accused or convicted were able to implicate other women and provide evidence against those suspects.

Of the suspects Matthew Hopkins managed to convict, 100 witches were from the eastern counties.

Colchester Castle Cells
Many suspects died of Jail fever in the cells of Colchester Castle

The interrogations took place in the dark cells of Colchester Castle, where many women died as a result of their incarceration before ever being brought to court.

It was a very lucrative business, according to Alison Naylor, the Education Officer at Colchester Castle.

"The average daily wage was 6 pence a year, yet Hopkins was offered £23 in Stowmarket in Suffolk to condemn some witches," she said.

Hopkins' witch hunting career came to an end after just a year-and-a-half after coming to prominence in the region.

The reason why Hopkins career came to an end is unknown, though rumour has it he was accused himself of being a witch and was 'swam'.

It is also suggested he died from tuberculosis.

You can find out more about Matthew Hopkins in the ongoing exhibition at Colchester Museum. For more information, head to their Colchester Castle Museum.

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