Matthew Hopkins was a real person. His work, hunting out witches in East Anglia, is well documented. He said that the Puritan Parliament gave the title "Witch-finder General" to him.
It is thought Hopkins was born in Little Wenham, in Suffolk, in the 1620's, but very little is known of his early life. He wrote a pamphlet (leaflet), 'The Discovery of Witches', in which he says he turned to witch-finding after he overheard a group of women discussing their meetings with the Devil in March of 1644, in Manningtree near Colchester. However it is more likely that he was interested in money.
At this time, the country was very troubled. Civil war, religious differences, superstition and fear all helped Hopkins to carry out his witch hunts with very little opposition. People needed someone or something to blame for how bad they were feeling and witchcraft was an easy answer.
What impact did he have?
Women at the trials
By the spring of 1645, 36 women had been accused of witchcraft and, by 17th July 1645, 19 of them had been tried and executed by hanging at Chelmsford. Over 200 more were to fall into the hands of the wicked witch-finder.
Records also show that Hopkins took payment from the towns and villages he visited, for his work. His total earnings may have been as much as 1000 pounds, a very large sum in those days. He also sold "witch boxes" that were supposed to protect the owners from the witches spells. He was a witch-finder until 1646.
Is there any truth in the legend of his death?
The witch-finders wrote pamphlets
Although there are plenty of records about Hopkins' work as Witch-finder, there is a mystery about his death. There is no proof that he was accused of witchcraft and no record of a trial. However, William Andrews, a 19th Century writer on Essex folklore, tells how Hopkins was made to do a "swimming" test and then hanged for witchcraft when he floated (and so did not pass the test). There is also a short mention of the legend in a poem written by Samuel Butler (1612-80), an English poet who served in Cromwell's army and became a critic of Cromwell's Government.
However, many historians believe it is more likely that Hopkins died of illness, possibly tuberculosis, in his own home. The parish records of Manningtree in Essex show his burial in August of 1647. Therefore, we have no way of proving whether the legend is true or just wishful thinking by the relatives of the people who suffered.
Why did the persecution stop?
Just some of the victims
After the civil war, when order returned to everyday life, witch hunts mostly stopped. The last execution for witchcraft was in Exeter, when Alicia Molland died in March 1684.
In the age of the early Enlightenment (the time in the late 17th century when there was a greater belief in reason and science) witchcraft became too difficult for many people to believe in and people began to laugh and call it nonsense.