By James Tozer
29th October 2010
It is one of the grimmest chapters of our history.
Dramatised in the horror film The Witchfinder General, the execution of scores of innocent village women for consorting with the Devil is chilling.
But now a 350-year-old diary made public for the first time details the terror that faced the victims of Matthew Hopkins’ witch-hunts during the Civil War.
It tells how one of those accused admitted to ‘carnal copulation with the Devil’ after he appeared in her bedroom in the shape of a handsome young man.
The confession, by a young Essex maid, Rebecca West, implicated her mother, Anne, in witchcraft – saving her own life but condemning her mother to the gallows.
It is the account of Puritan writer, Nehemiah Wallington, who tells how a supposed coven of witches was found in the village of Manningtree in the 1640s.
Hopkins achieved notoriety long before he was immortalised in the 1968 Vincent Price film. Between 1645 and 1647, historians believe the self-styled Witchfinder General’s bloody crusade across East Anglia resulted in more than 100 women being put to death.
The trials in Manningtree – his home village – are among the most notorious of his brutal campaign.
Suspicion had fallen on villager Elizabeth Clarke and Hopkins was appointed to question her in March 1645. She was examined for ‘devil’s marks’ like warts or moles.
Under torture she broke down and named several other women including Anne West and her daughter Rebecca. They were already being blamed for the deaths of two children.
Tortured at Colchester Castle, Rebecca confessed and implicated her mother and other local women, thus saving herself.
It was at their trial in Chelmsford in July 1645 where Rebecca’s dramatic account was given.
Explaining how she knew her mother was in league with the Devil, Wallington writes: ‘When she looked upon the ground she saw herself encompassed in flames of fire and as soon as she was separated from her mother the tortures and the flames began to cease.
‘As soon as her confession was fully ended she found her contience so satisfied and disburdened of all tortures she thought herself the happiest creature in the world.’
With no legal representation, all but Rebecca were found guilty, and a total of 19 women – including Clarke – were hanged.
Wallington is thought to have based his account on contemporary pamphlets. He died in 1658. The notebook is kept at Tatton Hall, Cheshire. It is being made public by a team from Manchester University’s John Rylands Library who are ‘digitising’ the diary.