Everything (Historically) Wrong with Witchfinder General
words by Tristan Shaw
(This article contains spoilers for a classic you should hopefully have seen by now.)
With all due respect to Theatre of Blood (and The 13 Ghosts of Scooby Doo), Michael Reeves’s Witchfinder General gave Vincent Price his greatest role.
Dressed in Puritan costume, and sporting long, curled hair, Price starred as Matthew Hopkins, the infamous witch hunter of 17th century England. In Reeves’s excellent film, the stately Hopkins and his rowdy sidekick John Stearne (played by Robert Russell) roam the English countryside in search of money, women, and witches. The Witchfinder General, as he titles himself, is motivated by greed and sadism. He smears innocent people as witches, tortures them, and in the case of the women, sleeps with them before shoving them off to the gallows. At the end of the film, the audience can’t help but be relieved when Hopkins is wonderfully hacked to bits and shot.
Price’s part as Hopkins is chilling, totally lacking in the camp the actor is known for. Since its release, Witchfinder General has shocked many viewers with its scenes of cruelty and violence, but it’s all the more frightening when you consider that its monster was once a flesh-and-blood person. The beginning of the movie emphasizes its historical nature with a documentary-like voice-over. It informs the viewer that we’re in the middle of the English Civil War, where Hopkins is committing his atrocities “with the full blessing of what law there is.” In reality, Witchfinder General is a lot more fictional than the movie suggests, not the least with the way it handles its main characters.
Judging from a handsome portrait in his own book, The Discovery of Witches, the movie did nail Hopkins’s appearance down. Its only mistake in this regard would be Price’s age, which was 56 at the time of filming. The real Hopkins was only in his twenties during his witch-hunting, and it’s believed that he wasn’t more ancient than 28 when he died in 1647. Robert Russell was 32, close in age with Stearne. Initially, the older Stearne was the one who hired Hopkins as his assistant, before the younger man began to lead the charge. By background, Hopkins was the son of a vicar. After inheriting some money, he set himself up as a gentleman. (Not literally, of course, but in the sense of a lowly-ranked nobleman.)
The gruesome duo started their quest to save England in March 1645, when Hopkins lived in the town of Manningtree. The concerned citizens began their hunt in the same town where Hopkins claimed that witches would plot and loiter outside his house (1). Hysterical neighbours blamed witches for everything from the death of their cows to the sight of imps frolicking through town. Heroically, Hopkins and Stearne led the battle against these magical ne’er-do-wells, rounding up a number of suspects in Manningtree and the surrounding area. In July of that year, nineteen women were executed, and another nine died in prison as a result of the witchfinders’ accusations (2).
As in the film, Hopkins and Stearne mostly operated in East Anglia, stalking counties like Suffolk and Essex. They were always joined by assistants, both male and female (3). Russell’s Stearne took great delight in pricking his victims, but this task would mostly have been done by the female companions. Just like the witchfinders, these women were probably motivated by the money they earned. In the three years that their hunt lasted, historian Wallace Notestein estimated that Hopkins’s operations brought in £300 between £1,000 (4). By my rough math, this gross would roughly be equivalent today to bringing in £70,028 at the lowest end, to £233,428 at the highest!
In terms of the movie’s plot, there are very few incidents that are authentic here. Its hero Richard Marshall never existed, and ditto for his fiancee Sarah Lowes. While Sarah might have been a writer’s invention, her uncle John was not. The genuine John Lowes was indeed a vicar from Brandeston who was executed (5). For one reason or another, Lowes had enemies, and they pounced on him as a witch. Hopkins, ever the skilful witchfinder, gathered evidence that Lowes sank a ship, killed a child, and did various other unsavoury things.
Another historical victim, Elizabeth Clarke, is depicted in the film as a young woman who’s burned to death while her grieving husband watches. It’s one of the most haunting scenes in the entire movie. Who could forget the innocent lady’s screams as she’s tortured and ultimately incinerated? It’s good, spine-tingling drama, but it gets several key details wrong about Clarke. The real woman was eighty-years-old, and instead of being the witchfinder’s last victim, was his very first. Hopkins charged that Clarke had a horde of familiars, including “Vinegar Tom,” a long-legged greyhound that could transform itself into a headless little boy (6). For associating with such creatures, Clarke was unfortunately hanged.
The depictions of torture in Witchfinder General might be the most accurate part of the movie, although it still leaves a lot to be desired. Technically, torture was illegal in England, so you probably would not have seen witches horrifically beaten and mutilated. Instead, Hopkins innovated by keeping the victim awake for a long period of time, breaking down their psyche. Other common methods of torment made their way into the film, and are well-known in pop culture today. Dunking an accused witch into water to see if they would float, for example, was an accurate practice. At the time, Englishmen would even toss non-witches into rivers as a punishment. One (disturbingly) amused French traveller reported that “scolding women” were subjected to dunking on a stool or mechanism until their “immoderate heat” cooled off (7).
Since witches were evidently not subtle criminals, they really were thought to have the Devil’s mark. A townsperson in Witchfinder General sums up the logic perfectly: “When the Devil buys a soul, he marks the person’s flesh, so we will know him. If such a mark is pricked, no blood will flow, no pain be felt.” This occurs when John Lowes is tortured in his home, and the same scene features another torment favoured by Hopkins when he forces Lowes to repeatedly run around the room. Victims like Lowes were made to run for hours, which along with their sleep deprivation, pushed them into confessing out of exhaustion.
At the opposite end, Witchfinder General’s biggest error is how it handles the witches’ trials and executions. Take its iconic opening scene. A witch is dragged by rope across the ground, taken to the gallows without a trial. There are other similar scenes throughout the movie, but historically-speaking, it’s inaccurate. Despite the chaotic English Civil War taking place around them, Hopkins’s victims were still granted trials, as farcical as they were. Witch trials in England included judges, witnesses, and pieces of evidence (8). Execution was also a rare punishment for witches in the country. In the event that one was executed, they would normally have been hanged. Unlike Elizabeth Clarke’s fictional alter-ego, nobody would have been burned alive.
Finally, Hopkins had way more critics than just a vengeful Roundhead. The allies who allowed his atrocities were municipal officials, not members of Parliament. Contrary to the movie’s opening narration, Hopkins was hounded by clergymen, judges, and other strong authority figures who questioned his right to hunt and torture alleged witches, not to mention his god-given right to line his pocket with fees. The criticism was so harsh that Hopkins and Stearne retired by 1647, their spree having lasted only a few years. All in all, the witchfinder general – a title of his own making – was probably responsible for the execution of a hundred “witches”(9). Sadly, in comparison to the fillm Witchfinder General, real-life did not offer such a sensational ending for the pair. Hopkins died at his home from illness, while Stearne passed away in 1670, with both his eyes intact.
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