Witches: By the pricking of my thumbs.

Halloween may be over for another year however I thought I would wrap up my spooky and folklore themed posts with some witch related information that I found interesting.

Matthew Hopkins

During a period referred to as the “English Civil War” one man was driving the search for, and execution of witches in England. During two years he was personally responsible for the execution of more “witches” than had been executed in the previous hundred years. He claimed to be England’s Witchfinder General a title he gave himself as it was not a role that existed before or after him and it was not approved or ratified by any authority. It should be noted that half of England was incredibly puritanical at the time, this was one of the factors in the civil war. Hopkins capitalised on the increase in religious fervour and fear masterfully.

Side Note: I struggle with the term “The English Civil War” as England had divided itself in conflict several times prior to this. The Anarchy that saw King Stephen and Empress Maud contending for the English throne not only divided the country but also households. Although arguably there was some foreign influence in that war. The Wars of the Roses also split the country.

Side Note: Hopkins actually just gave himself the title of Witchfinder General and managed to draw pay from the government. I would love to know how that conversation went and how it ended so successfully for him.

Hopkins ended up writing a book The Discovery of Witches in which he outlined tricks and tips for identifying and protecting yourself from Malefactors such as witches. Signs included women dancing, singing, drinking and eating too much. Which sounds an awful lot like Cardiff after an England – Wales game at the Millennium Stadium. Once suspected Hopkins would work on extracting a confession. Torture was technically unlawful in England at the time. However the line between torture and interrogation appears to be extremely subjective as Hopkins routinely used sleep deprivation, needles and what is now called “water boarding” to extract confessions from his prisoners.

Eventually the people of East Anglia got bored of Hopkins pageantry and he was called to answer for his methods at the Norfolk Assizes, however before the end of the enquiry Hopkins decided to retire so no further action was taken. He died some years later, still wealthy from his witch hunting.

Christian Caldwell / John Dickson

Shortly after Hopkins attempt to depopulate East Anglia a promising young Witch Pricker emerged in Scotland. Witch Pricking was a highly lucrative endeavour in Scotland. A village would provide housing and six shillings per day in exchange for the Pricker finding witches in the village.

Side Note: Just for comparison, a very good Master Thatcher in a wealthy town would earn about four shillings per day and our of that he would have to pay a thatchers mate and any apprentice or journeymen thatchers.

Witch Pricking was only an occupation for men at the time but Christian really wanted to prick some witches. So she donned the garb of a chap and adopted the name John Dickson.

Side Note: No one seemed to require references or a DBS check in late medieval Scotland. I choose to imaging she got the job with the effective use of a particularly aggressive looking codpiece.

Witch Prickers performed their task by taking a suspected witch, shaving her head to toe and sticking pins in her. The idea being witches are reputed to have areas of skin that can feel no pain. If the woman was found to have such an area she was condemned to die.

Side Note: I am all for a good kink but I draw the line at ending the night with an execution.

To be fair Cauldwell did condemn men for witchcraft as well. Which it turns out was her undoing. She ended up accusing an influential court employee who had just happened to piss her off the day before. He demanded her arrest and whilst under interrogation for torture, eliciting false confession and causing the death of innocent people, her gender was identified. In true judicial fashion of “this is going to be more trouble than its worth”, Cauldwell was banished to Barbados.

Granny Boswell

Ann Boswell lived in Cornwall from about 1820 having moved from Ireland with her husband Ephraim. Both Ann and Ephraim were from a Romani culture and Ephraim was known as the “King of the Gypsies”. Given attitudes towards to traveller communities in Cornwall at the time I do not know if this was intended as an slur, a compliment or simply a fact.

Ann made a living by providing very basic first aid, ranging from ointments for aches and pains, to support as an informal midwife to pregnant women. In particular she was believed to have an almost miraculous ability to cure sick cows and sheep of almost any ailment. Later after the death of her husband and the imprisonment of at least one of her sons, Granny Boswell became a hawker. I had to look this up –

Deinition: A hawker is someone who sells goods informally in the street.

At the time you needed a license from any particular parish to Hawk in their area. Granny was picked up by the police a huge amount between 1880 and 1890 for being drunk and disorderly and hawking with a license for another parish. Ultimately she went to a workhouse due to unpaid debts and had a request for a new pair of boots declined at the age of 92. She died a pauper at the age of 94 having saved lives and incomes through her support and advice.

Side Note: This really reminds me of a character described in Wee Free Men by Terry Pratchett. It may even have been one of his inspirations. An old lady who was just a bit weird was described with a inferences that she had either mental health or cognitive problems and as a result was branded a witch and shunned by her society. I think she may even have been killed by her community. This will not be the last time I recommend a book by Sir Terry.


Its little to draw much else from these stories beyond – if you are a witch hunter you are likely to die rich. If you try to help people you are likely to die young and at a gallows or old and penniless.

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