Witch-finders go on the record to defend their diabolical practices

As part of the research for my novels, Widdershins and Sunwise I read the diaries of two of the better known witchfinders in England.

In perhaps an early attempt at PR, or damage-limitation at the very least, the notorious witchfinder, Matthew Hopkins (more commonly known as the Witchfinder General) and a witch pricker, John Stearne, published their diaries. The decision to publish may have been in response to one vicar who’d had enough. John Gaule, vicar of Great Staughton published his own book, Select Cases of Conscience Touching Witches and Witchcrafts, in which Gaule criticised the work of the witch-finders and led to them being questioned by the judiciary.

These diaries are filled with fascinating (if troubling) insights into what might go through the mind of a man determining whether someone should live or die. In his short book, Hopkins sets out fourteen questions and replies to them. These questions range from whether he is a witch himself, through to whether witchfinders are simply fleecing people. In fairness to Hopkins, he appears to be rather cheaper than the Newcastle witchfinder. Hopkins states he charged only twenty shillings per town. This appears to be excellent value compared with the Newcastle witchfinder’s fee of twenty shillings per witch, and John Kincaid’s eyewatering fee of six pounds for one witch in Scotland.

Some of Hopkins’ justifications for finding people guilty of witchcraft are a little on the thin side. For example, he provides the names of some of the familiars of an accused witch. On her fourth night of being kept awake, the accused woman confessed to having several familiars and imps. Hopkins lists the imps’ names given by the woman as ‘Elemanzer, Pyewacket, Peckin the Crown, Grizzel, Greedigut &c. which no mortall could invent…’ So, this woman’s fate has been sealed by her having a vivid imagination and a knack for making up names.

Picture from Matthew Hopkins’ Diary

While Hopkins’ book is short, to the point and easy to read, Stearne’s book overflows with so many biblical quotations, it’s quite hard to get to the point of his defence. But he also refers to waking and mentions Elizabeth Manningtree from Essex, who was kept awake for three days and three nights and who then confessed ‘many things’.

Sleep deprivation has been used as a form of torture by many regimes. Menachem Begin, the Israeli prime minister from 1977-83, talks about being tortured by the KGB by being kept awake for three days and three nights. He says that ‘In the head of the interrogated prisoner, a haze begins to form. His spirit is wearied to death, his legs are unsteady, and he has one sole desire: to sleep…’

Despite using a range of terrible torture techniques to send dozens of (mainly) women to untimely and dreadful deaths, Stearne uses the Bible as his defence and ends his book by reminding readers that he was doing God’s work: ‘And so I leave myself to the censure of the world, yet desire it might be left to the Almighty, who knoweth the secrets of all hearts: For, blessed are they that do his commandments, Revel. 22.14.’


Menachem Begin (1978) White Nights: The Story of a Prisoner in Russia. London: Futura Publications

John Gaule [1646] Select Cases of Conscience Touching Witches and Witchcrafts. London: Richard Clutterbuck. Accessed at: https://archive.org/stream/JohnGauleSermonOnWitches/John%20Gaule-Sermon-on-Witches#page/n5/mode/2up.

Matthew Hopkins (2010) [1647] The Discovery of Witches in Answer to Severall Queries, Lately: Delivered to the Judges of Assize for the County of Norfolk and Now Published by Matthew Hopkins, Witch-finder, for the Benefit of the Whole Kingdome. Qontro Classics

John Stearne (1973) [1648] A Confirmation and Discovery of Witch Craft. The Rota.

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