There was now approaching a time when the law against witchcraft, sufficiently bloody in itself, was to be pushed to more violent extremities than the quiet scepticism of the Church of England clergy gave way to. The great Civil War had been preceded and anticipated by the fierce disputes of the ecclesiastical parties. The rash and ill-judged attempt to enforce upon the Scots a compliance with the government and ceremonies of the High Church divines, and the severe prosecutions in the Star Chamber and Prerogative Courts, had given the Presbyterian system for a season a great degree of popularity in England ; and as the king's party declined during the Civil War, and the state of church-government was altered, the influence of the Calvinistical divines increased. With much strict morality and pure practice of religion, it is to be regretted these were still marked by unhesitating belief in the existence of sorcery, and a keen desire to extend and enforce the legal penalties against it. Wier has considered the clergy of every sect as being too eager in this species of persecution : Ad gravem banc impieta-tem connivent theologi plerique omnes. But it is not to be denied that the Presbyterian ecclesiastics, who, in Scotland, were often appointed by the Privy Council commissioners for the trial of witchcraft, evinced a very extraordinary degree of credulity in such cases, and that the temporary superiority of the same sect in England was marked by enormous cruelties of this kind. * Webster on Witchcraft, edition 1677, p. 278.
To this general error we must impute the misfortune that good men, such as Calamy and Baxter, should have countenanced or defended such proceedings as those of the impudent and cruel wretch called Matthew Hopkins, who, in those unsettled times, when men did what seemed good in their own eyes, assumed the tide of Witchfinder General, and, travelling through the counties of Essex, Sussex, Norfolk, and Huntingdon, pretended to discover witches, superintending their examination by the most unheard-of tortures, and compelling forlorn and miserable wretches to admit and confess matters equally absurd and impossible; the issue of which was the forfeiture of their lives. Before examining these cases more minutely, I will quote Baxter's own words ; for no one can have less desire to wrong a devout and conscientious man, such as that divine most unquestionably was, though borne aside on this occasion by prejudice and credulity.
" The hanging of a great number of witches in 1645 and 1646 is famously known. Mr. Calamy went along with the judges on the circuit to hear their confessions and see there was no fraud or wrong done them. I spoke with many understanding, pious, learned, and credible persons that lived in the counties, and some that went to them in the prisons and heard their sad confessions. Among the rest, an old reading parson, named Lowis, not far from Framlingham, was one that was hanged, who confessed that he had two imps, and that one of them was always putting him upon doing mischief; and he being near the sea, as he saw a ship under sail, it moved him to send it to sink the ship ; and he consented, and saw the ship sink before them." Mr. Baxter passes on to another story of a mother who gave her child an imp like a mole, and told her to keep it in a can near the fire, and she would never want; and more such stuff as nursery maids tell froward children to keep them quiet.
It is remarkable that, in this passage, Baxter names the Witchfinder General rather slightingly as " one Hopkins," and without doing him the justice due to one who had discovered more than one hundred witches, and brought them to confessions which that good man received as indubitable. Perhaps the learned divine was one of those who believed that the Witchfinder General had cheated the devil out of a certain memorandum-book, in which Satan, for the benefit of his memory certainly, had entered all the witches' names in England, and that Hopkins availed himself of this record.*
It may be noticed that times of misrule and violence seem to create individuals fitted to take advantage from them, and having a character suited to the seasons which raise them into notice and action ; just as a blight on any tree or vegetable calls to life a peculiar insect to feed upon and enjoy the decay which it has produced. A monster like Hopkins could only have existed during the confusion of civil dissension. He was, perhaps, a native of Manningtree, in Essex ; at any rate, he resided there in the year 1644, when an epidemic outcry of witchcraft arose in that town. Upon this occasion he had made himself busy, and, affecting more zeal and knowledge than other men, learned his trade of a witchfinder, as he pretends, from experiment. He was afterwards permitted to perform it as a legal profession, and moved from one place to another, with an assistant named Sterne, and a female. In his defence against an accusation of fleecing the country, he declares his regular charge was twenty shillings a-town, including charges of living, and journeying thither and back again with his assistants. He also affirms that he went nowhere unless called and invited. His principal mode of discovery was, to strip the accused persons naked, and thrust pins into various parts of their body, to discover the witch's mark, which was supposed to be inflicted by the devil, as a sign of his sovereignty, and at which she was also said to suckle her imps. He also practised and stoutly defended the trial by swimming, when the suspected person was wrapt in a sheet, having the great toes and thumbs tied together, and so dragged through a pond or river. If she sank it was received in favour of the accused ; but if the body floated (which must have occurred ten times for once if it was placed with care on the surface of the water,) the accused was condemned, on the principle of King James, who, in treating of this mode of trial, lays down, that as witches have renounced their baptism, so it is just that the element through which the holy rite is enforced, should reject them ; which is a figure of speech, and no argument. It was Hopkins's custom to keep the poor wretches waking, in order to prevent them from having encouragement from the devil, and, doubtless, to put infirm, terrified, overwatched persons in the next state to absolute madness ; and, for the same purpose, they were dragged about by their keepers till extreme weariness, and the pain of blistered feet, might form additional inducements to confession. Hopkins confesses these last practices of keeping the accused persons waking, and forcing them to walk, for the same purpose, had been originally used by him. But as his tract is a professed answer to charges of cruelty and oppression, he affirms that both practices were then disused, and that they had not of late been resorted to.