Mistley and the Witchfinder


I knew I would come across the burial of Matthew Hopkins, “witchfinder general”, when I came to transcribe Mistley‘s earliest parish register. It was still a strange feeling, to add his name to the database along with all the other residents. But along with Matthew, there was one other Hopkins in the register, and his burial seems to explain just what Hopkins was doing in Mistley in the first place, and perhaps how his campaign took hold.

As I’ve mentioned many times before, perhaps the best book on Hopkins is Malcolm Gaskill’s Witchfinders: A Seventeenth-century English Tragedy. He brings to life the period, and explains how the exertions of Hopkins, along with John Sterne, lead to the execution of many people for the crime of witchcraft. Whether they were witches or not, whether they were believed by locals or themselves to be witches, is something for another time. But what impressed me was how I could look through my transcriptions and find the names of people who appear in the book.

For instance, Gaskill mentions two women from Wivenhoe who were employed by Hopkins for the task of performing intimate body searches on suspected female witches (it was believed that the teats used for suckling familiars could sometimes be found around the genitals). These women were Helen Mayor and Elizabeth Hunt, and, yes you can find them in the parish register. Elizabeth is perhaps the wife of Richard Hunt, by whom she had two children – George (about 1648) and Elizabeth (about 1652), or she was his mother and was also called Elizabeth. Helen Mayor was born Helen Harvey or Hardy, the wife of John Mayor (or Mayre). Between 1619 and 1622, they had three daughters: Helen, Agnes and Jane (and perhaps a son, Edward, in 1613). But when Jane was buried in 1628, Helen was a widow. So it perhaps isn’t surprising that Helen willingly worked for Hopkins – she probably needed the money.

But to return to Mistley. It’s long been known that Matthew Hopkins’ burial appears in the register:

Image reproduced by courtesy of the Essex Record Office.
Image reproduced by courtesy of the Essex Record Office. D/P 343/1/1

No mention is made of his claim to fame – he’s recorded as the son of Mr James Hopkins, Minister of Wenham, buried 12th August 1647.

And the other Hopkins in the register?

Image courtesy of the Essex Record Office. D/P 343/1/1
Image courtesy of the Essex Record Office. D/P 343/1/1

“John Hopkins sonne to Marie Hopkins (wiffe to Mr. Tho. Witham parson) was buried on December 24th” in 1641.

This one burial entry solves a mystery that has long hovered over Matthew Hopkins – why was he in Mistley? Well, he was in Mistley because his mother (widowed by the death of James Hopkins in about 1634) had married Mistley’s rector, Thomas Witham.

The Withams

Thomas Witham and his delightfully neat handwriting first appear in the parish register for Mistley in 1610 (he followed the previous parson, John Linton, who was buried 2nd July 1610). Thomas has several children baptised who appear in the register. It’s only from 1619 that his wife’s name appears with these, so it’s not immediately obvious if the first children were also those of Freegift (yes, really, that’s her name).[1]Bearing in mind Thomas has two daughters baptised before he names the third Freegift, I do wonder if he in fact married Freegift between 1617 and 1619. I haven’t yet found the marriage of … Continue reading

  • Frances, baptised 1613 (died 1616)
  • Dorcas, baptised 1615 (married George Ward in 1636)
  • Mary, baptised 1617 (died 1638, having married John Haies in 1637)
  • Thomas, baptised 1619
  • John, baptised 1622
  • Freegift, baptised 1625 (died 1632)
  • James, baptised 1629

Freegift, Thomas’ wife, was buried in the chancel of Mistley church in 1633, “by some of hir children there lyeing.” Great Wenham in Suffolk, where James Hopkins was rector, is only about 8 miles from Mistley – it wouldn’t be surprising if Mary Hopkins married Thomas Witham not long after she was widowed around 1634. Certainly they were married by 1641, when her son was buried in Mistley.

James Hopkins’ will

We don’t know much about Matthew Hopkins’ family, as Great Wenham’s registers don’t start until 1642, after the Hopkinses had left. A resident of Great Wenham, Daniel Wyles, mentions three Hopkins boys in his 1619 will – James, Thomas and John. They are described as the children of James Hopkins and his wife, which suggests that Matthew was yet to be born. James Hopkins’ will, written on 25th December 1634, says that he has six children, only two of whom he names – Thomas and James. As each child reached the age of 21, they were to receive an inheritance of 100 marks. Thomas was to be sent to “our friends” in New England, to stay there until he was 22, when he would be able to claim his inheritance – and if he didn’t stay until he 22, he was to inherit nothing (one wonders if James thought Thomas rather wild and was sending him away from local bad influence).[2]Transcriptions of the wills of Daniel Wyles and James Hopkins can be at witchtrials.co.uk.

So it seems that between 1619 and 1634, three more Hopkins children were born. Matthew would have been 16 at the most when his father died, and not much older than that when his family decamped to Mistley.

A woman’s hand

I was rather excited by what I’d worked out – that Matthew was in Mistley because his stepfather was the incumbent. I emailed Malcolm Gaskill to let him know, as this fact wasn’t in his book. He graciously replied and said that, indeed, he hadn’t spotted this either when researching Witchfinders, but another academic had: Frances Timbers, in the journal Women’s History Review had spotted it, and she also noted the other appearances of Withams in the register.[3]Women’s History Review, vol. 17, 2008, pp.21-37 Although their baptisms don’t appear in the Mistley register, there are other Witham girls, besides Dorcas and Mary, who were married at Mistley:

  • Anne Witham, married Bezaleel Angier in 1630
  • Susan Witham, married Richard Edwards in 1639

We don’t know for certain that Anne and Susan were Thomas Witham’s daughters, but there are no other Withams in the Mistley register besides his family. There are scraps of circumstantial evidence which suggest they were Thomas’ daughters. His mother, Anne Eve, was buried in Mistley in 1625 and although Anne is not an unusual name, it could be that Anne, wife of Bezaleel Angier, was Thomas’ daughter as she was named after her grandmother. Frances Timbers further points out that as Susan Edwards’ named her second daughter Freegift, she had named her daughter after her mother. I would add that Thomas Witham has a habit of writing entries concerning his family in slightly larger handwriting than he does everyone else (this practice is not unusual – sometimes vicars add elaborate curlicues or take up most of the page to record the baptism of their own child). So below you can see what are the baptisms of his two granddaughters, Dorcas Ward and Freegift Edwards, standing out from the entries around them:

Image courtesy of the Essex Record Office. D/P 343/1/1
Image courtesy of the Essex Record Office. D/P 343/1/1

Malcolm points out in Witchfinders that Thomas Witham left Mistley in 1643. The parish register grinds to a halt – the last baptism he writes down was on 23rd September 1643 (not long after the baptisms in the above image). The last burial he records was also on the 23rd – the mother of Dorothy Vale, whom he baptised the same day. The last marriage was on the 24th May 1643. The will of William Jaye of Mistley, written on 20th October 1643,[4]ERO ref D/ACW 14/282 bequeaths Thomas Witham 20 shillings for him to preach at William’s funeral. Now, we know that Thomas left for London, to preach, and given the last date in the parish register – 23rd September 1643 – we must suppose that he left at the end of September/early October. But then, was he still in the parish a month later, when William Jaye wrote his will? Or did William hope Thomas would come back especially? As it is, Thomas Witham was buried at St. Mary Woolnoth in London on 3rd May 1644.

Not that it was unusual for Thomas to appear in his parishioners’ wills. Regarding wills at the Essex Record Office, he crops up in the 1623 will of Thomas Francis (Frauncys), bequeathed 20 shillings (the going rate?), described as “my pastor and teacher”. Witham witnessed this will, including his clover-leaf design that appears in the parish register too. John Witham, Thomas’ son, appears in the 1625 will of William Linn – John was Linn’s godson, and Sir Harbottle Grimstone was the executor of Linn’s will, and also that of Lettice Lynn, William’s wife. Grimstone would later be one of the Justices of the Peace who Matthew Hopkins would turn to with the Mistley witchcraft accusations. One of the others was Sir Thomas Bowes, a gt-several-times uncle of yours truly.

Sir Thomas Bowes, by (after) Daniel Mytens. From Wikipedia
Sir Thomas Bowes, by (after) Daniel Mytens. From Wikipedia

Malcolm writes that following Thomas Witham’s trip to London, there was a power vacuum in Mistley, which Hopkins took advantage of. As the son of a vicar, and – as now seems certain – the stepson of the last incumbent of Mistley, Matthew Hopkins was a figure of authority who could fill the void. Susan Edwards, his stepsister, was married to a wealthy local man, which would have added to Matthew’s perceived authority, and Malcolm points out that Susan endorses most of the indictments against the local “witches”. Matthew’s involvement began when his stepsister accused a local woman of killing her child with witchcraft – so Matthew Hopkins’ reign of terror seems to have begun as a personal vendetta. What has seemed to be a crusade against witches which sprang from Matthew Hopkins being “evil” or a witch himself (there is an idea afoot that Hopkins was ‘swum’ and burnt as a witch) in fact is a product of the social milieu in which he lived. The viciousness of Civil War, the zeal of Puritans against Catholicism and witchcraft, and a parish without any clear leader except Hopkins and his stepsister.

After the witch-hunts

I won’t reiterate Malcolm’s book or Frances’ article – please do get hold of them and read them because they are very enlightening. Feel free to check the people who come up against the transcriptions I’ve done. What might interest you too is what happens afterwards.

According to the Clergy Database, John Witham became Mistley’s rector in 1647, and the first burial he performs is that of his stepbrother, Matthew Hopkins. One wonders where John was following his father leaving for London. We know that John went to Cambridge in 1639, so perhaps he was studying there for several years, or in the confusion of Civil War, he didn’t immediately make his way back to Mistley. He seems to have had an aversion to using the parish register which his father had kept so neatly throughout his incumbency. He records six baptisms in 1647 (the first in May of that year), and records one in 1646, which presumably was not performed by him, although we don’t necessarily know. That said, the 1646 baptism was of Mary, daughter of Richard and Susan Edwards, so he might have travelled to Mistley to perform the rite for his niece. He records three in 1648 – one of which is his own son, John. In 1649 and 1650, he appears to have got into the swing of recording baptisms, but records only five in 1651, and there after its peters out almost entirely. Of course, Puritans weren’t really fans of baptism, and often during the Commonwealth, under the Directory of Worship which temporarily replaced the Book of Common Prayer, births are recorded instead of baptisms. The Directory did allow for baptisms, and certainly John was baptising his own children – the side of one leaf of the Mistley register shows a list of six of his own children.

There is also a gap in the register with regards to burials and marriages during John Witham’s incumbency. Were they happening at all in Mistley, or did John Witham just not record them? Or were they being recorded by someone else (the ‘Register’ under the Commonwealth was a person, often the rector, although not necessarily) and they were never copied up into the original parish register?

After John’s death in 1688, there appears to be an attempt in the register to retrospectively add births and baptisms of children who hadn’t been recorded before, but this is by no means complete for the whole parish.

To London

And then the Essex Record Office’s catalogue throws up an intriguing document from 1657. So, ten years after Matthew Hopkins’ death, and John Witham’s incumbency at Mistley began, one James Witham of St. George, Southwark, a surgeon (or “chirurgeon” as the original document would have it) was in trouble for begetting a bastard child on Mary, of Manningtree. Mary’s surname doesn’t appear in the catalogue entry but perhaps it might actually on the document, but without many baptisms surviving from this period, we can’t identify Mary or her child. The document is a recognizance, a bond, which tied in James Witham with Peter Hopkins, victualler, and Richard Edwards, gent, both of St. Saviour Southwark. It’s a form of bastardy order, which means Hopkins and Edwards were signing up to ensure Witham answered to the child he had had.

Now, it goes without saying that this document is very likely to refer to people already mentioned here. James Witham, surgeon, is quite likely the son of Thomas Witham and Freegift, baptised in 1629 – he would have been about 28 at the time of the recognizance. Peter Hopkins might well be one of the six children of James and Mary Hopkins (one of the three born after 1619). And Richard Edwards is possibly Susan Witham’s husband. The last appearance of Richard and Susan in Mistley’s register is a baptism of a son in 1649, so they could have gone to London after that. And because Thomas Witham had gone to London, it’s likely he took his son James with him – he would have been 14 when Thomas left Mistley.

Added to the recognizance is a further one that Estell was to prosecute Witham. There’s several people called Estell alias Till in Mistley in the early 1600s, so the mother of James Witham’s illegitimate child might have been an Estell or one of the churchwardens who was dealing with parish relief was prosecuting Witham for the cost of the child.

What remains opaque is what happened to Mary, first James Hopkins’ wife and later Thomas Witham’s. It appears that she didn’t leave a will, and neither did Thomas. Her husband’s will left nearly all his property to her, from which she was to derive the payment of 600 marks amongst their children. If she died before Thomas Witham, what would have happened to this property, as a married woman’s property automatically became that of her husband? The will stipulates it is to go to Mary “and her heirs”, which doesn’t rule out it falling to Thomas. But if Mary survived Thomas, then with her property she may well not have married again. If Peter Hopkins is her son and James Witham her stepson, then perhaps we need to look for her in Southwark, where these men were living in 1657.  Perhaps significantly, Southwark is exactly on the opposite side of the Thames from the location of St. Mary Woolnoth, where Thomas Witham was buried.


NB: there are some leads which I plan to follow up, which are not mentioned here. But perhaps will be…. mwahahahahahaha……


1 Bearing in mind Thomas has two daughters baptised before he names the third Freegift, I do wonder if he in fact married Freegift between 1617 and 1619. I haven’t yet found the marriage of Thomas and Freegift, however, the note beside Freegift’s burial suggests that these were, in fact, her daughters.
2 Transcriptions of the wills of Daniel Wyles and James Hopkins can be at witchtrials.co.uk.
3 Women’s History Review, vol. 17, 2008, pp.21-37
4 ERO ref D/ACW 14/282