Speak of the Devil


At a time when many people in Europe and North America believe themselves to be under threat from a hidden enemy bent on their annihilation, it is worth reflecting on the existence of similar fears four hundred years ago. Like the United States today, seventeenth-century England was an intellectually stratified society whose inhabitants lived at very different levels of mental sophistication. It witnessed the superlative achievements of William Shakespeare and Isaac Newton, but it also saw Roman Catholics persecuted as agents of Antichrist and old women put to death as malevolent witches.

There was, of course, some justification for fearing both Catholics and witches. In 1605, Catholic plotters nearly succeeded in their attempt to blow up the King and Queen, their two sons, Henry and Charles, and the assembled Lords and Commons, including the King’s chief ministers, the heads of the judiciary, and the bishops of the established church. Modern experts on explosives estimate that the thirty-six barrels of gunpowder concealed in the vaults of the Palace of Westminster were sufficient to create devastation within a radius of five hundred yards, obliterating the Palace, the Abbey, Westminster Hall, and the surrounding streets. Had one of the conspirators not warned a friend to stay away from the opening of Parliament, thereby alerting the authorities, Guy Fawkes, who was arrested just as he was preparing the long fuses with which to ignite the gunpowder, would have created the Jacobean equivalent of Ground Zero.

Witches were never accused of causing damage on this scale. But they were suspected of killing and injuring others, as well as harming their livestock and frustrating such domestic activities as making butter and cheese. Theologians maintained that all magical operations, whether helpful or harmful, involved a compact, tacit or explicit, with the devil; and that black witches were members of an infernal conspiracy to subvert the whole of Christian society. These suspicions seem fantastic to us today, and it is true that many people, perhaps most, suspected witches were wholly innocent, in thought as well as deed. But some of them were undoubtedly alienated from their communities and from conventional religion; it is likely that they felt deep hatred for their neighbors and would have destroyed them if they could.

The position of Roman Catholics after the Reformation was not dissimilar. Many conformed outwardly to the Anglican Church, but others continued to practice their own religion and to pray for the day when Catholicism would return. Some young men went abroad to be trained in seminaries as missionary priests or to fight in the armies of Catholic rulers, while their sisters were packed off to nunneries in France or Flanders. Only a tiny, intransigent minority plotted and intrigued with foreign powers in the hope of restoring the old religion. Most English Catholics were law-abiding citizens. Yet all were oppressively persecuted. Catholic laity were fined for staying away from church and excluded from public office. Missionary priests were arrested and put to death as subversives.

The analogy between seventeenth-century attitudes toward Catholics and witches and modern Western fears of Islam is not exact. But it is close enough to be suggestive. English Protestants regarded the Pope in Rome as the spider in a web of international conspiracy, not unlike Osama bin Laden in his mountain fastness. Law-abiding Catholics were seen as a potential fifth column whose loyalty could not be relied upon, rather like peaceful Muslim communities in the West. Secrecy accompanied the supposed machinations of witches, just as it does the preparations of terrorist suicide bombers. Some zealous Protestants saw witches and Catholics as linked together in an axis of evil.

Two recent studies by British historians illuminate some of the consequences which flowed from this pervasive fear of half-invisible enemies. Malcolm Gaskill has produced an absorbing account of a critical phase in the history of witchcraft persecution, while James Sharpe has written an engaging essay on the changing meaning over the centuries of Guy Fawkes Day, the commemoration on November 5 of England’s deliverance from the Gunpowder Plot.1 Neither book is intended as a tract for the times, but few readers will miss their contemporary relevance.

No episode in the history of English witchcraft prosecution was more painful or bizarre than the witch-hunt conducted in the eastern counties between 1645 and 1647. As a result of the efforts of Matthew Hopkins, an obscure semi-gentleman in his mid-twenties, with no known qualifications, legal or otherwise, and his slightly older but equally obscure associate, John Stearne, who was probably a scrivener, some three hundred persons in Essex, Suffolk, Norfolk, Cambridgeshire, Northamptonshire, Huntingdonshire, and the Isle of Ely were accused of having made pacts with the devil; over a hundred were hanged, and others died in jail.

Hopkins and Stearne rode from town to town, supervising the process of interrogation and preparing the evidence which would secure a conviction. In most cases, the key element in that evidence was the accused’s own confession. The suspected witches (nearly all poor and most of them women) provided vivid accounts of their meetings with the devil, their agreement to become his followers, their sexual intercourse with him, and their suckling of his “imps,” or “familiars,” the evil spirits in animal form through whom they maintained their communion with Satan.

These events have long perplexed historians, partly because they came at a time when witch trials in England seemed to be on the verge of dying out, and partly because they were so different in character from earlier prosecutions. In the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, accusations of witchcraft had usually arisen in the course of quarrels between villagers. Learned demonologists maintained that all witches were in league with the devil, but at the village level there was little talk about diabolical covenants. Typically, the supposed witch was accused of having done physical harm to her neighbors or to their property, “maleficium,” as the lawyers called it. Prosecutions were small-scale, sporadic, and local in their origins. Before 1645, England had no real witch-hunts or professional witch-hunters. Hopkins’s victims resembled their predecessors in that the original suspicions had often arisen in the usual way—quarrels with neighbors had been followed by their suffering illness and other misfortunes for which the alleged witches were blamed. But the crime for which the witches were executed was not primarily maleficium, as in the past; it was that of having allegedly made a pact with the devil.

Uniquely virulent in its consequences, the deadly campaign led by Hopkins and Stearne has had its fair share of scholarly attention. Nearly a hundred years ago, the Yale historian Wallace Notestein gave a good account of it in his doctoral dissertation, later a standard book, on the history of witchcraft in England. Such records of the trials as survive were combed by C. L’Estrange Ewen in two standard works published in 1929 and 1933. Alan Macfarlane’s pioneering anthropological study of witchcraft in Essex (1970) included an illuminating analysis of the background to the activities of Hopkins and Stearne in that county, while penetrating observations on the East Anglian witch-hunt have been made more recently by Robin Briggs and James Sharpe in their excellent surveys of (respectively) European and English witchcraft.2

Now Malcolm Gaskill, a Cambridge historian, has written an entire book on the subject. It is a fine achievement. He has scoured local and national archives for every scrap of surviving evidence and presented his findings in an intelligent, meticulously documented, and highly readable way. The East Anglian landscape, the hardships of rural life, and the hideous drama of trials and executions are all evoked vividly, perhaps too vividly. In his apparent eagerness to make his book beguiling to the general reader, Gaskill sometimes ascribes thoughts and feelings to the participants for which there is no real evidence. He also punctuates his narrative with imaginative descriptions of the weather and the physical environment. Travelers entering Cambridge, he tells us, were assailed by “the stench of urban life: heaps of dung and straw in the narrow streets, the fug of greasy steam from the college kitchens, and the bodies of the unwashed hawkers and beggars and the rows of cloth-wrapped corpses awaiting disposal”; and when Hopkins rode into Suffolk, “the firs hung heavy with jewels of ice and puddles cracked under hoof.”

Unfortunately, the gaps in the extant evidence make it impossible for Gaskill (or anyone else) to offer a wholly satisfying account of what actually happened during these years. Hopkins and Stearne are shadowy figures. The judicial records are seriously incomplete and historians are heavily dependent on contemporary pamphlet accounts of the trials. Gaskill does his best, but he reveals the limitations of what can be known by his repeated use of such telltale expressions as “perhaps,” “possibly,” “very likely,” “probably,” “doubtless,” “surely,” and “almost certainly.” “It is easy to imagine,” he writes, or “it is fair to assume,” or, more desperately, “it is tempting to imagine.” Worst of all, “legend has it.” The tension between the scrupulous scholar, anxious never to exceed the evidence, and the would-be popular historian seems painfully apparent. Nevertheless, this is as persuasive an account of the whole grisly episode as we are ever likely to get.3

The most obvious question to be asked about Hopkins and his victims is that of how it was possible for some people to confess to what we would today regard as wholly impossible crimes, and for others to condemn them to a shameful and agonizing death by slow strangulation (or, in one case, burning alive). It was one thing to believe, as most contemporaries did, in the existence of spirits and diabolical intervention in the world. It was another to conclude that harmless and ignorant men and women were guilty of the extraordinary feats of which Hopkins accused them. Yet in the light of modern experience of methods used in interrogation, the confessions are perhaps the easiest part of the story to understand. They were usually extracted in response to a long series of leading questions. Physical torture was not supposed to be employed, but Hopkins and his associates deprived their suspects of both sleep and food for days in conditions of extreme discomfort, trussing them up on a stool, or making them walk up and down until their feet blistered. Starved, hallucinating, and half-crazed, the “witches” would eventually confess to anything.

The interrogation of suspects was also accompanied by the physical examination (“searching”) of every crevice of the accused person’s body, particularly in the genital area, with a view to finding an extra nipple which could be identified as the “witch’s mark” to which the “familiar” spirit in animal form would attach itself in order to suckle. Usually some mole, wart, hemorrhoid, or piece of loose skin could be discovered without undue difficulty. If the suspect felt no pain when the spot was pricked, that was certain proof.

The next step was “watching”—holding the suspect under constant surveillance until a familiar made its appearance. The arrival in the room of a dog or a bird or even a fly would clinch her guilt. At one time or another, the confessions mention ferrets, toads, hares, mice, frogs, snakes, hornets, birds, moles, snails, spiders, beetles, wasps, moths, rats, flies, crows, blackbirds, crayfish, and crickets. When Hopkins and Stearne were watching their first victim, Elizabeth Clarke, a poverty-stricken and disabled widow in Manningtree, there allegedly appeared in rapid succession a whole menagerie, including a white dog, a greyhound, a polecat, a toad, and a rabbit. As Gaskill remarks in another context, “exactly what was going on remains a mystery.”

Witchcraft could be proved in other ways. The witch could be “swum,” to see if she floated, the theory being that water would reject those who had renounced their Christian baptism. This method was outlawed by the courts at an early stage in the campaign. Alternatively, the suspect might be “scratched,” to find out whether drawing her blood would lead to the recovery of the victim she had supposedly injured. But “searching,” “watching,” and interrogation were Hopkins’s most common methods.

Time and again, the accused witches told the same story. At some moment of desperate frustration in their lives, caused by poverty, bereavement, loneliness, or anger with other people, the devil had appeared to them. In return for their agreeing to renounce God and to make a pact with him, he promised relief from their sufferings: they would never want; they would be avenged on their enemies; they would even be saved from the torments of hellfire. Sometimes, the devil had sexual intercourse with the witch, though he was said to be so cold and heavy that his lovemaking was usually unpleasant. One woman, however, told Hopkins that the devil came to her “like a tall, proper blackhaired gentleman, a properer man than yourself.” Asked which of the two she would rather lie with, she replied, “The Devil.”

Some victims were reluctant to admit their guilt, or, like the elderly clergyman John Lowes, who was Hopkins’s socially most prominent victim, retracted their confession when brought into court. But others pathetically came forward of their own accord, asking to be searched or swum, presumably in the hope of disproving the suspicions which had gathered around them. Most of the accused appear to have provided Hopkins and Stearne with the confessions they wanted.

It would be wrong to see these admissions of guilt as merely the response given to leading questions by victims enfeebled by torture. They also reflected the fears, anxieties, temptations, hatreds, and self-loathing which beset the poor and the aged in early modern times. They suggest that by the 1640s, the idea of a diabolical compact had become as familiar to humble folk as it was to learned theologians. As Gaskill puts it,

However hard the witchfinders laboured to cut uniform confessions around their template, in the end the damnable stories that piled up owed as much to the lives of the agrarian poor as to anything to be found in the pages of the learned demonologies.4

Not that Hopkins and Stearne had read many of the demonologists. They were both acquainted with King James I’s Daemonologie (1597); and when in 1648 Stearne came to write his apologia, A Confirmation and Discovery of Witchcraft, he relied heavily on A Guide to Grand-Jurymen(1627) by the Puritan minister Richard Bernard, as well as citing other works, including published accounts of earlier witchcraft trials. But his preface makes it clear that it was only after his witch-hunting activities that he turned to reading these books. It is likely that both witch-hunters and victims were the product not of book learning but of a shared popular mythology about witches and what they could do. The distinctively English belief in animal familiars, for example, was not generated by learned demonologists, but seems to have been rooted in popular folklore. The misogynist assumption that witches were likely to be women was also a generally accepted stereotype.

Moreover, as Alan Macfarlane argued, and Gaskill now confirms, Hopkins and Stearne would have achieved nothing without the active collaboration of the local communities in which they staged trials. They claimed that they went only where they were invited. Yarmouth, Aldeburgh, Stowmarket, King’s Lynn, Ely, and other towns called them in and paid all the expenses. The witch-hunters’ task was not to discover suspects but to ascertain the guilt of persons already suspected, by establishing their relationship with the devil.

From the initial suspicion to the final scene at the gallows, Hopkins and Stearne were actively assisted by many others in the process of accusation, interrogation, watching, searching, trial, and conviction. Some of the searchers were professionals, like Mary Phillips and Priscilla Briggs, from Hopkins’s home village of Manningtree, Essex, who accompanied him as itinerant specialists in the examination of female bodies. Others were local volunteers. The trials involved the willing participation of hundreds of witnesses, along with jurors and judges. One woman even testified against her own mother. The trials also needed the support, or at least the acquiescence, of the local gentry. Responsibility for the deaths of the supposed witches cannot therefore be laid solely at the door of the two witch-hunters. It involved the complicity of entire communities. As Gaskill puts it, “Hopkins and Stearne were not commanders-in-chief of the witch-hunt: they were catalysts who gave accusers confidence by confirming their suspicions and beliefs.”

Only when the towns found the cost of the trials and executions too cripplingly heavy did the momentum of prosecution slacken. A blistering attack on the methods employed by the witch-hunters was composed by a local minister, John Gaule, whose book, Select Cases of Conscience (June 1646), attracted the attention of some Norfolk gentry. They, in turn, publicly expressed their suspicion of the whole process at the Norfolk assizes in the spring of 1647. Significantly, Gaule did not attack the idea of witchcraft as such. On the contrary, he strongly endorsed it. But he maintained that a conviction for so grave an offense required much stricter standards of proof than those observed by Hopkins and Stearne. Hopkins, known by now as the “Witch Finder General,” composed a brief and not very convincing reply to his critics, but died of consumption in August of the same year, leaving Stearne to confront an increasingly hostile public. In other parts of England, however, the witch-hunters’ influence proved contagious. There was a glut of trials which lasted well into the 1650s, while in faraway Massachusetts in 1648 a court ordered the adoption of “the course w[hi]ch hath bene taken in England for discov[e]ry of witches, by watching them a certeine time,” it being “the best & surest way.”

The witch-hunters’ motives remain uncertain. Although they were paid substantial expenses, it seems doubtful that they did it for the money. Stearne claimed that he and Hopkins worked not for private profit but for “the good of the commonwealth,” protesting that his earnings from hunting witches were less than his previous income from his “calling and practice.”5 Gaskill believes that the two were Puritan zealots, determined to root out Antichrist, in a campaign which followed in the wake of the New Model Army’s defeat of Charles I at Marston Moor in 1644 and Naseby in 1645. Many supporters of Parliament thought of the Civil War as a holy war against ungodliness in all its forms; and those who believed they had a covenant with God were easily inclined to think that witches had entered into a similar compact with the devil.

Hopkins was the younger son of a Puritan minister who once contemplated emigrating to join John Winthrop in Massachusetts. Gaskill surmises that he, “no doubt,” remembered his father’s outrage at the innovations in worship and church doctrine under Charles I and his archbishop, William Laud, that some observers in the 1630s thought were intended to return the Anglican Church to Rome. “If there was one aspect of his childhood more likely than any other to have initiated and inspired Matthew’s career as a witchfinder, this was it.” Hopkins, he suggests, was a charismatic figure, with a Manichaean view of the world as divided into the forces of good and evil and a “messianic desire to purify.”6 Gaskill links his campaign against witches to the parallel drive to expel “malignant” (i.e., Royalist) clergy, and points to the similarity between the route he followed and that taken two years earlier by the iconoclast William Dowsing, who came from Stratford St. Mary, just across the river Stour from Hopkins’s home at Manningtree, and who toured East Anglia, pulling down images, obliterating Catholic inscriptions on tombstones, and smashing medieval stained glass. “Where iconoclasts and sequestrators went,” writes Gaskill, “witchfinders were bound to follow.” Witch-cleansing, as another historian puts it, was “a final act in the moral redemption of the godly commonwealth.”7

This is plausible enough as a general comment on the millenarian atmosphere of the years in which Hopkins was active; and some of the witnesses in his cases were undoubtedly supporters of godly reform. It may also fit the case of John Stearne, who, in his A Confirmation and Discovery of Witchcraft, denounced witchcraft as the worst form of apostasy from the Christian faith and claimed that it was only the “enemies to the church of God” who opposed their prosecution. He linked witch-hunting with the propagation of the gospel and the millennial rule of Christ prophesied in Revelation. But Hopkins is a more puzzling figure, since virtually no direct evidence of his religious beliefs survives. His apologia, The Discovery of Witches, has very little theological content. He may have been moved by Puritan zeal, but it is impossible to prove it.

What is more certain is that Hopkins and Stearne would never have been allowed to get away with their allegations had not the ordinary mechanisms of justice been interrupted by the outbreak of the Civil War in 1642. Almost all the witch trials in which they were involved were irregular in some way or other. Instead of being tried exclusively by the professional assize judges who usually heard such cases, their victims found themselves before Puritan clergymen, local magistrates, or laymen like the parliamentarian leader Robert Rich, Earl of Warwick, whose steward, Arthur Wilson, has left us an account of his own disgust at the proceedings. The relative weakness of the central government meant that the active support of local magnates like the Puritan Sir Harbottle Grimston could enable witch-hunting to get underway. The entire episode is a striking example of what can happen when popular prejudices are unrestrained by the strict rule of law.


It might have been thought that the Gunpowder Plot would have resulted in a nationwide pogrom against Catholics, comparable in reverse to the massacre of French Protestants on St. Bartholomew’s Day, 1572. Instead, the English government’s reaction was extremely restrained. Unlike President Bush in 2001, James I treated the planned act of terrorism as a crime, not as an act of war. The conspirators were brutally executed in the manner legally prescribed for traitors; and Catholics were required to take a new oath of allegiance. But their persecution was not stepped up; and, although the government intensified its campaign against the Jesuits, it was careful to exculpate loyal English Catholics and foreign powers from any responsibility for the plot. As James Sharpe comments, “In this, James and his ministers showed more restraint than many modern regimes faced with similar problems.”

Sharpe’s enjoyable book traces the different ways in which the date has been celebrated between the seventeenth century and modern times.8 Bonfires and fireworks became a feature early on; and so did the ritual burning of an effigy representing the Pope. Curiously, Guy Fawkes, alias “the guy,” did not become the key figure until the nineteenth century. By that time the event had become an annual night of misrule, marked by hooliganism of all kinds. (When I was an undergraduate in the 1950s, Oxford on Guy Fawkes Night was a battlefield: shopkeepers boarded up their windows, cars were overturned in the High Street, and fire engines were commandeered by the crowd, who directed their hoses against the local symbol of privilege, the Randolph Hotel.)

In modern times, the anti-Catholic associations of November 5 have been largely forgotten. Most of the children who set off today’s fireworks would be hard put to say who Guy Fawkes was. But in its heyday the celebrations were unambiguously directed against Catholics and the Pope. That is why the papist James II tried to ban them in 1685. Ironically, it was on November 5 three years later that the future William III landed in England to launch the Glorious Revolution, thus making the date a double occasion of Protestant deliverance.

In the seventeenth century, the memory of the Gunpowder Plot was only one ingredient in the popular mythology which fueled anti-Catholicism. Fantasies about Catholic plotters and arsonists, every bit as lurid as the myths about witches, were generated by John Foxe’s deeply influential account of the Protestant martyrdoms under Mary I, the attempted deposition of Elizabeth I by the Pope, the coming of the Spanish Armada, the assassinations of three European rulers, the Ulster rebellion of 1641, the Fire of London in 1666 (which was erroneously attributed to Catholics), and the Popish Plot of 1678–1679, along with an almost unbroken series of lesser alarms and panics. It was widely rumored that the Levellers, the Quakers, and other sectarians were Jesuits in disguise, that Charles I’s executioner had been a Jesuit, and that armies of Irish Catholics, equipped with hooks, knives, gridirons, and other instruments of torture, were about to invade the country. After the 1688 Revolution, the Whig agent provocateur Hugh Speke claimed to have accelerated James II’s departure by posting letters to all the towns in England, warning them of the imminent arrival of an army of armed papists bent on the massacre of all Protestants. If so, he was to Catholics what Matthew Hopkins was to witches.

Today we can see that if witches and Catholics had not existed, seventeenth-century England might have had to invent them. For, then as now, people defined their values by elaborating on their polar opposites. There could be no God without the devil, no Christ without Antichrist, no Protestant nation without a Catholic enemy, and no good neighbors without diabolical witches. Fantasies about evil helped to strengthen commitment to the good. But they also created unjustified fears and suspicions, which in turn led to the cruel persecution of the innocent. Early modern England offers a salutary warning of the tragic consequences which follow when the world is envisaged as a cosmic battleground on which opposing forces of good and evil contend for supremacy.

  1. 1

    See the review by Eamon Duffy, The New York Review, February 9, 2006.

  2. 2

    Wallace Notestein, A History of Witchcraft in England from 1558 to 1718 (American Historical Association, 1911; reissued by Russell and Russell, 1965), Chapter 8; C. L’Estrange Ewen, Witch Hunting and Witch Trials (Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner, 1929; reissued by Frederick Muller, 1971) and Witchcraft and Demonianism (London: Heath Cranton, 1933); Alan Macfarlane, Witchcraft in Tudor and Stuart England: A Regional and Comparative Study (Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1970); Robin Briggs, Witches and Neighbors: The Social and Cultural Context of European Witchcraft (HarperCollins, 1996); James Sharpe, Instruments of Darkness: Witchcraft in England 1550–1750(London: Hamish Hamilton, 1996).

  3. 3

    Gaskill provides a more austere, and in some ways more valuable, account of the episode in the introduction and notes to his edition of The Matthew Hopkins Trials, Volume 3 of the six-volume English Witchcraft 1560–1736, edited by James Sharpe (Pickering and Chatto, 2003).

  4. 4

    In recognizing an element of spontaneity in these forced confessions, Gaskill acknowledges the stimulus he has derived from Lyndal Roper’s fine study of witchcraft prosecution in southern Germany, Witch Craze: Terror and Fantasy in Baroque Germany (Yale University Press, 2004).

  5. 5

    John Stearne, A Confirmation and Discovery of Witchcraft (1648), sig. A2v and p. 60.

  6. 6

    The phrase is taken from Stuart Clark, Thinking with Demons: The Idea of Witchcraft in Early Modern Europe (Clarendon Press/Oxford University Press, 1997), p. 377.

  7. 7

    Peter Elmer, “Towards a Politics of Witchcraft in Early Modern England,” in Languages of Witchcraft: Narrative, Ideology and Meaning in Early Modern Culture, edited by Stuart Clark (St. Martin’s, 2001), p. 109.

  8. 8

    Another interesting work on the same subject is Gunpowder Plots by Brenda Buchanan and others (London: Allen Lane, 2005).