Matthew Hopkins Hopkins became notorious in the 17th century as England’s most prolific witch-hunter. He grew up in Suffolk, where his father was a vicar, but by his mid-20s he had settled in Manningtree, Essex. He came to public attention there in 1645 when he gave evidence against a group of women he claimed had bewitched him. A persecution followed, with nine women dying in prison and 19 sent to the gallows.
The mania then spread, with Hopkins styling himself a “witchfinder” – an entirely new profession. He travelled around eastern England interrogating supposed witches, resulting in around 100 convictions and executions. Although one tradition maintains that Hopkins himself was eventually executed as a witch, the records show he died naturally in 1647 of consumption. His sinister reputation has entered folklore, and was memorably captured in the 1968 film Witchfinder General starring Vincent Price.
James I James Stuart, son of Mary Queen of Scots, was born in Edinburgh. He was crowned king of Scotland in 1567 at the age of 13 months, and king of England in 1603. Public fear of witches increased throughout the late 1500s, but James did not appear much interested until his ship was engulfed by a storm in 1590, after which he came to believe the Earl of Bothwell had plotted with witches to kill him. He traced the guilty coven to North Berwick, and presided over the accused women’s trials and torture. Now a fervent believer in witchcraft, James wrote the book Dæmonologie in 1597 to convince his subjects of the reality of witches and their evil.
Shakespeare Shakespeare wrote Macbeth in 1606–7, soon after James had been crowned king of England. The Gunpowder Plot of 1605 was still fresh in people’s minds, and James was wary of clandestine political and diabolical threats to the peace of his realm. Shakespeare drew heavily on this, taking the central elements of the North Berwick Trials – a Scottish king, witches, foul plots and regicide – and using them as the basis of Macbeth. Despite the ongoing witch trials at the time, the three witches – or Weird Sisters – in Macbeth grew immensely popular. A few decades later, Samuel Pepys confessed to being very fond of the play, especially with all its music, dancing and spectacular special effects featuring “flyings for the Witches”.
Thomas Potts Potts was the court clerk during the Pendle Witch Trials. It was thanks to his published account of the testimonies — reconstructed and idealised rather than accurately recorded — that the Pendle trial became a sensation. Potts was encouraged to write this account of the trial by the two presiding judges: Sir Edward Bromley and Sir James Altham. He took to the task with flair, and moved to Chancery Lane in London to complete the book before Bromley edited and corrected it. The account was finally published in 1613 as The Wonderfvll Discoverie of Witches in the Covntie of Lancaster, and it became a bestseller in Britain and abroad.
Blessed John Nutter and Blessed Robert Nutter John and Robert were brothers, born in Burnley. John went to Cambridge and Robert went to Oxford. Both then studied at the English College in Rheims before being ordained on the Continent. They returned to England to minister to recusant communities, but were soon captured and sent to the Tower. Robert spent 47 days in irons, and was twice crushed with the Scavenger’s Daughter before being forced to watch John being hanged, drawn and quartered. Robert was eventually released and transported to France, but recaptured when he returned to England with more priests. This time he was sent to Newgate, the Marshalsea and then Wisbech Castle, and during this incarceration he professed as a Dominican. After escape and recapture, he was martyred at Lancaster in July 1600. John was beatified by Pius XI in 1929 as one of the Martyrs of Douai. Robert was beatified by John Paul II in 1987 as one of the Eight-five Martyrs of England and Wales.