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Witchfinders: A Seventeenth-century English Tragedy [Hardcover]

Malcolm Gaskill
3.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (15 customer reviews)

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Book Description

25 April 2005

In the spring of 1645, at the height of the English Civil War, a minor gentleman from Essex named Matthew Hopkins initiated the most savage witch-hunt in English history. By the autumn of 1647 at least 250 East Anglian innocents - most of them women - had been captured, interrogated and hauled before the courts. More than a hundred were convicted, condemned and hanged. Their alleged crimes ranged from destroying property and inflicting fatal illnesses, to feeding animal familiars with blood and having sexual intercourse with the devil.

Accompanied by John Stearne, a godly neighbour from his parish, the twenty-two-year-old Hopkins toured the eastern counties on horseback, meticulously extracting evidence of satanic pacts and dispatching suspects for trial. Hopkins fashioned himself into the 'Witch Finder General' although the torture techniques used had no justification in religion or law, nor was his campaign officially sanctioned. The witch-hunt was an extraordinary event, and would long be remembered as the poisonous fruit of religious extremism, grown wild in a political vacuum, never to be repeated.

Witchfinders tells the true and terrible story of Matthew Hopkins and his horrifying crusade as witch-hunting fever gripped the country. Malcolm Gaskill uses his great story-telling talents to bring mid-seventeenth century alive.

Product details

  • Hardcover: 384 pages
  • Publisher: John Murray; 1st edition edition (25 April 2005)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0719561205
  • ISBN-13: 978-0719561207
  • Product Dimensions: 23.6 x 15.4 x 3.8 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 3.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (15 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 426,590 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Malcolm Gaskill is Professor of Early Modern History at the University of East Anglia, Norwich, UK. He is an expert in witch-beliefs and witchcraft trials of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. He has written extensively on this subject, also about crime in general, mentalities and emotions, and twentieth-century Spiritualism. His latest project is a book entitled Out of this World: English Adventures in Seventeenth-Century America (forthcoming, 2013). This is a study of Anglo-American mentality and culture in the first century of permanent colonization - not a history of early America, but a history of English people in America. Gaskill is a Fellow of the Royal Historical Society, and a frequent contributor to TV and radio programmes. He lives in Cambridge with his partner and three young children.

Product Description


Gaskill has become an expert on the Great British witch-hunt ... a completely readable non-fiction book on a gripping subject.' (Suffolk Journal, Norfolk Journal, The Essex Magazi)

A very lucid and humane writer (Hilary Mantel)

Very highly recommended (The Couldron)

He writes with sympathy, respect and deep human understanding (John Guy, Sunday Times)

It is a riveting subject, engagingly told, and worth a read. (Catholic Herald)

A must ... a lucid companion piece to the classic horror movie Witchfinder General. (Guardian)

Gaskill presents a compassionate, measured view dispelling several myths along the way. (Independent on Sunday)

This is a terrible tale marvellously told ... This is how history should be known. (the oldie)

A wonderfully detailed, well-written and judicious account of a tragic yet fascinating episode in our social and religious history (Saul David, Daily Telegraph)

A brilliant new study ... In the vivid three-dimensionality of its dramatis personae, the eloquence of its writing, and the richness of its evocations of vanished worlds of landscape and belief ... Gaskill displays a masterly wizardry all his own (John Adamson, Sunday Telegraph)

He's a very lucid and human writer, very good at setting the social context, helping you understand how the phenomenon of witchfinders came out of the dislocation of the civil war. (Independent on Sunday)

Gives the ordinary reader a visceral sense of mid-seventeenth-century England ... satisfyingly complex (Selina O'Grady, Literary Review)

The incessant peculiarity of the accusations could easily make the stories told in this book seem quaint rather than horrific. But Gaskill avoids this trap by describing each case in a vivid manner, making one aware at all times of the human tragedy. His description of a hanging, for instance could leave no reader unmoved (Craig Brown, Book of the Week, Mail on Sunday)

Gaskill tells the story of the witch-hunt in full and accurate detail, for the first time, and with uncommon skill ... His book is both a solid contribution to knowledge and a splendid example of history as gripping literature (Ronald Hutton, Independent)

Gaskill vivdly shows how the barbarity and fanaticism of civil war could spill over into the administration of justice ... He writes with sympathy, respect and deep human understanding. (Sunday Times)

Malcolm Gaskill patiently untangles the history of East Anglian witchcraft (Guardian)

an 'evocative travelogue...setpieces of rich desription' (TLS)

The book is a timely warning for those who think that witch trials are a matter of history. (The Times)

'A chilling history of the witch-trials' (History Today)

'A fascinating history of the infamous witch-hunts and their main protagonist, Mathew Hopkins. This book is easily labelled as essential for anyone with an interest in the macabre... less obviously, it's also a good expose (and timely reminder) of how large-scale tragedies can occur once the right mix of circumstances are present' (Irish Times)

'[Gaskill's] meticulously researched book paints a vivid picture of a horrific period in English history and its causes' (Lucy Land, Essex Life & Countryside)

Book Description

A chilling history of the witch-trials that gripped mid-Seventeenth century England, embodied by the crusading Matthew Hopkins, self-elected scourge of witches.

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews
51 of 54 people found the following review helpful
Having a large interest in the local history of East Anglia I immediately became absorbed into this book. The writing style is a perfect balance of facts, quotes, political background information in relation to the Civil War, religious views of the times and objective research by the author, making this a joy to read. The pages turned a lot faster than normal for a book set in this era!
The book follows the rise AND fall of the famous Witchfinders, Matthew Hopkins and John Stearne from their large scale witch hunts in the 1640's. Starting in their local area of Manningtree in Essex and spreading, like the contempory and proverbial plague, through into Suffolk, Norfolk, Huntinghdonshire and Cambridgeshire and further, with ultimate influence on the witch hunts in America.
The personal details of the witchfinders characters and views along with their methods of finding witches is just compelling reading. Most of the time the reader will feel many emotions, from suprise and incredulity at the so-called confessions of witches to utter disbelief and revulsion at how people such as judges and jurors sentenced these confused and often poor women AND men for execution from such peculiar methods of proof from the witchfinders.
The book concludes, telling of how the two main witchfinders ended their days, and what legacy they left behind in society. With a neat little conclusion on how far humanity has come and that some countries still use witch hunts.
An excellent read! 5 Stars!
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Very good 26 Dec 2012
Format:Kindle Edition|Verified Purchase
If you like non fiction history this book is excellent
Very well researched,and includes lots of reference from original documents
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5 of 6 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars 16th century witch finding 27 Aug 2011
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
The book starts of with a broad history of 16th century England covering mainly political & religious issues. The narrative throughout the book is largely following the so called savage witch hunt of 1645 - 1647 instigated by the 2 famous protagonists Matthew Hopkins & John Stearne.
The author & his research know more about Hopkins' father & other siblings than about the man himself. Throughout the book the information on Hopkins in very sketchy to put it mildly, which will come as a major disappointment to many readers, the fact is no one actually knows hard facts about the witch finder and unfortunately never will. The research on John Stearne is even worse. Giving the author credit, he manages to follow Stearne's witch hunt & journey from 1645+, but information regarding his past is non existent.
The author takes great liberties, constantly suggesting that Hopkins 'may have' done this this or been there, that 'it bears the hallmarks of' Hopkins 'probably' visited such & such etc.
The author waxes lyrical about religious issues from the 1st chapter & this theme continues throughout the entire book. I found this extremely tedious, mr Gaskill I get the message loud & clear, there's no need to consantly remind the reader that England was a very godly society in the grip of civil war, imo this is just lazy filler.
After labouring through the entire book I would suggest that that the 'mass murderer' Hopkins was in truth responsible for perhaps under 100 executions. After 1645 many so called witches were aquitted during trial despite the best efforts of the well paid witch finders to have them liquidated. The whole book concludes with Hopkins death & Stearne's disappearance into historical obscurity. Apparently witch hunts continued after 1647 but on a reduced scale.
Overall an informative but very dry boring read. Only for the hardcore Hopkins buff.
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2.0 out of 5 stars Nothing to fire up the imagination... 6 July 2014
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
I thought this was a well written and well researched book. Its content adheres closely to the primary sources paying attention to the details. Unfortunately, for me that’s its drawback. There’s very little attempt to explain or contextualise the strange practices that are referred to. And there is a lot of repetition - one witches’ confession is very like any other and here they are reeled off interminably. There’s little sense of time and place just a chronological re-writing of the sources. The English Civil War and the religious conflicts of the time serve as a backdrop to the ‘action’ and there’s presumed knowledge of these topics on the part of the author.

A fascinating subject that twenty-first century historians can say so much about. Sadly there’s none of that here.
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5.0 out of 5 stars Five Stars 2 July 2014
By Roy1952
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
Very interesting book
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Many excellent reviews of this book have already been posted, but it was such a pleasure reading this book that I wanted to add my opinion. This is an outstanding book. The writing style made the reading almost effortless. I almost regretted finishing. I would recommend the book to anyone of any interest level, even students of writing who want to see how such a book should be written. To call it outstanding would not be enough.
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5.0 out of 5 stars An eye-opening, soul-wringing history 23 Jan 2014
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
I felt stunned and in a state of shock that this could have happened in my own, civilised, supposedly law-abiding country. Of course there were circumstances around that influenced events (the English Civil War, poor weather, poor harvests, starvation, etc.) but it really IS an English tragedy.

If your only brush with this subject is the Vincent Price film, read this. The truth is just so much more horrible. Very well-written, entertaining and informative. I have also bought this book for friends.
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Most Recent Customer Reviews
1.0 out of 5 stars Unreadable
In the first paragraph we find rain 'funnelling' down. Have you ever seen rain funnelling? Nor have I, nor even did Noah. Read more
Published 3 months ago by J. Frawley
4.0 out of 5 stars "To labour in to the depths of this Mistery of Iniquity, we must dive...
Gaskill sourced my headline quote from a contemporary newspaper, and the self-appointed Witchfinders he writes about certainly plumbed some infernal depths! Read more
Published 9 months ago by Sebastian Palmer
5.0 out of 5 stars Bought for a relative
I knew this book and thought it was brilliant but the friend found the first few chapters hard to get through though the book got better, for her, as it went along. Read more
Published 12 months ago by Tricia King
4.0 out of 5 stars A Thought Provoker!
Gaskill presents an approachable account of seventeenth century self-appointed witchfinders Matthew Hopkins and John Stearne. Read more
Published 14 months ago by Onora
5.0 out of 5 stars Does what it says on the cover
I was researching a lecture on witches and witchcraft in East Anglia and this is an excellent source book, packed with information
Published 15 months ago by Mr. M. W. Wabe
2.0 out of 5 stars More info please
Perhaps I was expecting too much from this book, but I found it very disappointing. By focussing almost exclusively on the activities of Hopkins and Stearne and their unfortunate... Read more
Published on 10 April 2012 by A. C. Dickens
4.0 out of 5 stars one to read and to make your own mind up about
This is a book that I began to read at least three times but gave up halfway through. Either I or the book has something lacking. Read more
Published on 5 Jun 2011 by Hambletta-Maud
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