Elizabeth Clarke and the Rise of the Witchfinder General
A mass trial at Chelmsford in July 1645 began with the torture of a women named Elizabeth Clarke from Manningtree. Elizabeth was the daughter of a women who had also hung for witchcraft. So she was seen as an easy target. Through torture techniques Elizabeth implicated five other women, they in turn implicated more women, until there were 32 women brought to trial.
Matthew Hopkins, known later as the Witchfinder General, started his campaign against Witches with this trial. He had allegedly overheard women discussing their meetings with the Devil at an Inn in Mistley. He believed that there were many witches living in his home town of Manningtree that were meeting regularly at night to give their sacrifices to the Devil.
Hopkins began to investigate Elizabeth Clarke first, after he had been told that a wife of a local Tailor had been cursed by two witches. Hopkins himself claimed to have seen Elizabeth Clarkes familiars materialise in the form of cats, rabbits and dogs.
Many of those brought to trial had confessed to a number of crimes. These were extracted from the women through torture techniques on Hopkins instruction. Torture was illegal in England, but Hopkins used bloodless techniques to get around this. These techniques included swimming and sleep deprivation. Suspected witches were forced to sit cross legged on stools, or walk backwards and forwards for hours until they were exhausted and confessed to their crimes.
Elizabeth Clarke is said to have been kept without food or sleep for 3 nights. On the 4th night she confessed to being a Witch and implicated Anne West, Rebecca West, Anne Leech, Helen Clarke and Elizabeth Gooding. One of the suspects Rebecca West is said to have admitted to marrying the Devil under these methods also, and implicated her own mother.
Hopkins had a detailed knowledge of the witchcrafts laws, and what confessions he needed to obtain from the women to see them found guilty. They were trialled under Robert Rich the Earl of Warwick and Sir Harbottle Grimston – both were highly susceptible to Hopkins suggestions.
Only one women out of the 32 were acquitted. The rest were found guilty. 19 were then sentenced to death by hanging, including Elizabeth Clarke.
After the success of this trial Hopkins became a sought after expert and could charge huge fees for his services. It is thought that between the years of 1644 and 1646 Hopkins was responsible for the deaths of nearly three hundred women.