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Witchfinding: what drove the hunters’ cruel crusade and what methods did they use?

They tortured, tricked and terrorised suspects into confessions, often with undisguised relish. So, asks Marion Gibson, should the witchfinders of 16th and 17th-century Europe be dismissed as sadists and charlatans, or did they genuinely believe they were doing the right thing?

Suspected witch Mary Sutton is “swum” in a Bedfordshire millpond in 1612
Published: March 8, 2022 at 5:55 am
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Once every six weeks during the winter of 1644, a young man from Manningtree in Essex woke up in terror in the night. It was always on a Friday, and his terror quickly turned to irritation. Somewhere outside, he could hear people talking. He began to listen carefully, and one night he heard a female voice speaking about her familiar spirits – devils in animal form.

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Clearly a “horrible sect of witches” was active in Manningtree. This must be, the young man thought, “their meeting”, and they must be holding “solemn sacrifices there offered to the devil”.

The man listened as the Friday night reveller told her pet spirits that they must go to the house of Bess Clarke, who lived close by. She was already suspected of witchcraft by several townspeople as well as by the wakeful young man. And in March 1644 she was arrested by the local magistrate after these accusers reported her to him as a witch.

It was decided that the best way to obtain a confession from Clarke was to “keep her from sleep two or three nights” by walking her up and down, and employ a team of people to watch her. On the fourth night, when the young man dropped by the holding cell, Clarke was worn out. She had become suggestible, desperate to get some rest.

She told the young man that if only they could all sit down she would call her spirits. She had “had carnal copulation with the devil”, she announced, and she proceeded to tell her watchers that her demonic spirits were entering the room: a kitten, a spaniel, a greyhound, a rabbit and a polecat.


Listen | John Callow discusses the tragic case of the Bideford witches, the last women in England to be executed for the crime of witchcraft, in an episode of the HistoryExtra podcast:


Later, the young man, Matthew Hopkins, would write about that strange night and explain how cleverly he had induced Clarke to reveal her crimes (for which she was tried at Chelmsford assizes, and hanged).

With this success behind him, Hopkins began a two-year career as a witchfinder that saw more than 200 people hanged across seven English counties. By the end of this tour of terror, he would be known as the “Witchfinder General”.

The word “witchfinder” sounds like a formal job title, particularly when it’s capitalised – as it often is in stories of Matthew Hopkins. But although he did bear that memorable nickname, it was just that: a nickname, a handle.

Amateur sleuths

Hopkins was a self-appointed witchfinder – an amateur sleuth rather than a professional law enforcer, churchman or a military appointee. He was a private citizen who had become concerned that there were witches operating in his town. He decided to take action and reported their crimes to the authorities.

Unusually, however, he was then permitted to get involved in watching and questioning the accused and he built his reputation on the confession he extracted from Bess Clarke. Later, Hopkins went on to use the persuasive interrogation techniques of walking and watching on many other suspects, free of any official oversight.

This kind of amateur, free-ranging detective work – obsessive, bullying and with a whiff of dishonesty and delusion about it – is what people usually think of when they hear the word “witchfinder”.

However, the idea of witchfinding has more professional roots. These reach back into the Inquisition of medieval Europe. In the 15th century, men like the German monk Heinrich Kramer were formally tasked by their employer, the Catholic church, with questioning suspected heretics. These suspects included both other clerics and ordinary villagers who were accused of holding unusual religious views.

And among the heretics who were summoned before them, some Inquisitors identified people whom they thought were witches. These were people who seemed to have some knowledge of magic and demonic spirits, and who also appeared to belong to communities of like-minded individuals.

The suspicion grew among Inquisitors that there was an organised conspiracy of witches meeting in secret to undermine true religion. Kramer and other Inquisitors extracted confessions from them, and documented the witches’ supposed activities in books known as demonologies. These were essentially manuals for official witchfinding.

Kramer was especially interested in links between witchcraft and women’s sex lives. He moved from discussions “regarding her way of life” to sharp, embarrassing demands for information “about her virginity and other secret matters”

Kramer was especially interested in links between witchcraft and women’s sex lives. He would ask each female suspect gently “where she was born and raised”, and then proceeded to get more personal. He moved from discussions “regarding her way of life” – a good life, would she say, or bad? – to sharp, embarrassing demands for information “about her virginity and other secret matters”.

The women he questioned across Germany and Austria in the 1480s reacted with disgust, and when they were rendered thoroughly vulnerable by shame, Kramer had them stripped and tortured on the rack until they admitted they were satanic conspirators.

He became obsessed with searching female bodies for charms thought to keep witches from confessing, and with identifying witchcraft aimed against powerful men – knights, archdukes and even Inquisitors.

However, his activities caused concern. People began to say that he “preached nothing except against witches” and “seems to me to be crazy”. Inquisitors like Kramer had turned an official role, one that was meant to be investigating all kinds of heresy, into a perverted personal crusade: the Inquisitor had become a witchfinder.

During the 15th century, witchfinding spread across Europe and reached Britain and Ireland. There were witchcraft trials in medieval Ireland, England and Scotland in church and royal courts. In the mid-16th century, it was decided that local government officers’ roles in Britain should include an element of witchfinding.

Witchcraft was defined as a felony, a serious crime, under parliamentary acts of 1542, 1563 and 1604, which moved it from the jurisdiction of churchmen into the
secular, criminal courts. This meant that local magistrates (justices of the peace or, in Scotland, baillies) were expected to investigate alleged witches and send them for trial by jury.

They were officials of the Tudor and Stuart state. But their witchfinding was part of a range of other crime-fighting activities. They were also involved in investigating theft, murder, reports of vagrants and con-artists travelling through their districts.

These witchfinders are less famous than their amateur colleagues like Matthew Hopkins, because instead of being obsessive specialists, they were general law-enforcers who had to deal with all types of reported crime. Witchcraft was only one aspect of their work – just like it was supposed to be for continental European Inquisitors.

Six tactics used by witchfinders to secure a conviction 

Sleep deprivation 

Some witchfinders kept suspects pacing up and down during their interrogations, refusing them rest and sleep. It was rightly believed that this fatiguing technique was a way to break down mental coherence, and wrongly believed that it would access the truth. While Matthew Hopkins is often credited with inventing this technique for his interrogation of Bess Clarke, he stated that it was approved and perhaps suggested by local magistrates. 

Today sleep deprivation is categorised as either “inhumane and degrading treatment” or as a form of torture. It reliably produces exhaustion, confusion and compliance. 

The strip search 

Suspected witches would be stripped naked so that witchfinders could examine their bodies forensically. Nothing could be concealed by clothing, and no jewellery was allowed to remain: it might mask a witch mark or teat or contain a charm to stop the suspect from confessing. Male witchfinders would examine male suspects (in England, around 1 in 10 suspects were men), but women were employed to search women.

They would pay particular attention to suspects’ genitalia, where a mark might easily be concealed. Sometimes suspects were shaved to allow closer inspection. Female searchers were respected wives and mothers, the kind of women who assisted at births. They might be paid for their work, but perhaps more importantly they were convinced that they knew what was medically normal about the female body. 

Instruments of torture 

The torture of witchcraft suspects was not officially permitted in British law codes. But where suspected witchcraft overlapped with accusations of treason or heresy, witches were tortured with impunity. During the interrogation of supposedly traitorous suspects in 1591, the Scottish king James VI (the future James I of England) oversaw their torture by several methods. The accused witch Agnes Sampson had her head bound with a rope that was then tightened progressively. Her supposed co-conspirator John Fian had his legs crushed by a contraption consisting of metal sheaths and wedges hammered in with mallets.

Also available to official European witchfinders such as Inquisitors were specially built torture instruments such as the rack, designed to extract the truth from suspects by straining and dislocating their joints. 

Acts of deception 

Physical torture was not necessary to get witchcraft suspects to confess. Some demonologists prescribed pressurising forms of questioning instead. A specialist questioner, they argued, would be able to get to the truth by leading and tricking the suspect. Questioning underage children helped loosen their parents’ tongues. Some witchfinders lulled suspects into a false sense of security by telling them outright lies.

The magistrate Brian Darcy recorded proudly how he had hoodwinked two suspects, Ursula Kemp and Elizabeth Bennett, in 1582. He told Bennett that “they which do confess the truth of their doings, they shall have much favour: but the other they shall be burnt and hanged”. Both women fell for his lies and were executed. 

Pricking the skin 

Witches were thought to have insensible spots on their bodies where the devil had marked them, a belief that was strong in Scotland. Satan was believed to make pacts with his witch servants, promising them power in return for their soul and also guaranteeing immunity from confession. If witchfinders could locate a numbed mark that was apparently insensible to pain, it was a sign the suspect was a witch and was hoping to resist torture. 

Less sensitive and/or bloodless spots are actually quite common on the body, because of unequal distribution of nerves. But witch-prickers could also potentially cheat with retractable needles or sleight of hand. They were paid for their work – which was potentially a motivation for securing a conviction through deceit – but some no doubt believed in their own skill. 

Swimming the suspects 

Some theologians believed that, because Christians were baptised in water, anti-Christian witches would float. To test suspects’ guilt, witchfinders put them through the “water test”. Drowning was not the intended outcome – however, it was an obvious risk, which is why some suspects were roped to their persecutors on the shore. 

Among those swum was the Bedfordshire woman Mary Sutton in 1612. That same year, Northamptonshire residents Arthur Bill and his (unnamed) mother and father endured a similar fate. “The justices,” we’re told, “caused them all to be bound, and their thumbs and great toes to be tied across, and so threw the father, mother and son, and none of them sunk, but all floated.” 

Like some Inquisitors, a few magistrates did go beyond their brief: they pursued witches avidly.

In the early 1580s, English magistrate Brian Darcy read a demonology written by the French lawyer Jean Bodin, and tried out some of its recommendations on suspects. Bodin suggested that magistrates start their investigations by questioning child witnesses. “Arrest the witches’ young daughters,” he advised.

So, during a witch-hunt in 1582, Darcy questioned at least five children aged between six and 10 about their parents’ supposed crimes. Eight-year-old Phoebe Hunt said her mother Alice had “two little things like horses” which she fed “out of a black treening [wooden] dish”. Darcy searched the Hunt family’s home for such an item: wooden dishes were common homewares.

Then he asked Alice Hunt whether she had fed spirits out of “a little treening dish”. When she said “no”, he whipped out the dish in a dramatic reveal, as if it proved her a liar. It was a classic witchfinder move. In this case, torture wasn’t permitted, but it wasn’t needed: desolated by her daughter’s unwitting betrayal, Alice confessed.

Witchfinding was one of the few authoritative roles available to women in early modern Britain. They took on the role of searchers, inspecting the bodies of female suspects for physical evidence of witchcraft

Darcy may have been no gentleman, but not all witchfinders were male and not all were wealthy, powerful people either. Witchfinding was one of the few authoritative roles available to women in early modern Britain. They took on the role of searchers, inspecting the bodies of female suspects for physical evidence of witchcraft. In Britain, it was thought improper for men to do this job.

Hopkins worked with two such female searchers – Frances Mills and Mary Phillips – both of whom travelled with him and gave evidence against women they had searched. In one episode, Mills was employed to search a suspected witch called Margaret Moone, upon whom “she found three long teats... in her secret parts”.

These were thought to be nipples where animal familiars had sucked blood from witches, rewarding the familiars for the harm they did. Mills and Phillips concurred that, during their investigations, Moone had tried to attack them magically and verbally.

Phillips had fallen into a ditch as she entered Moone’s village, and she said that when she and Mills arrived, Moone called them “rogues”, shouting “who the devil sent for you?” Female witchfinders faced accusations of unsisterly betrayal, but working with male witchfinders brought them uncommon power.

Loathsome behaviour?

If no one else was available to search female suspects, random women would be invited to do it: in this way, anyone who happened to be called in – as if for jury service – could become a witchfinder.

In 1621 at the Old Bailey trial of the accused witch Elizabeth Sawyer, the searchers employed were two “grave matrons, brought in by the Officer out of the street, passing by there by chance” and a woman named Margaret Weaver who was the housekeeper of the Old Bailey judicial complex.

The suspected witch was appalled when she found she was to be strip-searched and “behaved herself most sluttishly and loathsomely towards them, intending thereby to prevent their search of her”.

However, the three searchers were determined: “According to the request of the court, and to that trust reposed in them by the bench, they all three severally searched her.” All gave evidence that she had a teat on her body, just above her anus. The indignity of this examination helped to break down the suspect, who confessed.

In Scotland, both men and women worked as witchfinding “prickers”. This method of detecting witches involved stabbing them with a pin to check whether any areas of their body were insensible to pain. Like the teats found by Frances Mills, these numb areas were thought to be demonic marks.

At least 10 prickers operated in Scotland across the 17th century, the most notorious of whom was a woman, Christian Caddell. She dressed as a man and was employed by the local baillie to prick suspects in Elgin in 1662. Six people were executed on her evidence, although she herself was eventually accused of fraud.

Other methods of sorting the innocent from the guilty were used across Britain. The “swimming test” saw suspects thrown into water. Their left big toe was bound to their right thumb, and their right big toe to their left thumb. Ropes were attached to their waist to drag them out of the water when the test was complete. If suspects sank, they were innocent and were hauled out, gasping, cold and terrified. (A few people drowned during the test.)

And, famously, if a suspect floated, she or he was thought to be guilty because water, associated with Christian baptism, had miraculously rejected them. They were then sent for formal trial – but their terrible experiences had softened them up for confession.

Learn more about the Salem Witch Trials:

The fact that professional and amateur witchfinders sought what they saw as reliable tests for witchcraft shows that, contrary to popular belief, they were not always charlatans, sadists or wholly delusional.

Many worked rationally and in good faith, believing themselves to be godly detectives or medical examiners, ridding their communities of criminals by attempting scientific proof of guilt.

While witchfinding did certainly attract cruel obsessives, it was also seen as public service. But despite the variety of their approaches and techniques, all witchfinders posed a terrifying threat to those people who were unlucky enough to be suspected of witchcraft.

Where to watch The Witchfinder?

This new BBC sitcome follows a 17th-century witchfinder and a suspect who won’t shut up on a hellish road trip through drunken cavaliers, religious fanatics, conmen and beekeepers.

The first episode of The Witchfinder will be broadcast on Tuesday 8 March on BBC Two at 10pm and will be available on BBC iPlayer.

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Marion Gibson is professor of Renaissance and magical literatures at the University of Exeter. She appeared on our recent podcast series on the Salem witch trials and will be back on the podcast soon to discuss witchfinders: historyextra.com/podcast

This article first appeared in the March 2022 issue of BBC History Magazine

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