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What caused terror in Suffolk villages? New play highlights the innocent women accused of witchcraft

PUBLISHED: 13:58 21 February 2020

The reign of terror conducted by Matthew Hopkins, the Witchfinder General, is explored in The World Turned Upside Down, a new play staged by The Chainers, youth theatre.  Photo: Bill Jackson

The reign of terror conducted by Matthew Hopkins, the Witchfinder General, is explored in The World Turned Upside Down, a new play staged by The Chainers, youth theatre. Photo: Bill Jackson

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The name of Matthew Hopkins, the self-proclaimed Witchfinder General, casts a long, infamous shadow over the East Anglian landscape.

The reign of terror conducted by Matthew Hopkins, the Witchfinder General, is explored in The World Turned Upside Down, a new play staged by The Chainers, youth theatre.  Photo: Bill JacksonThe reign of terror conducted by Matthew Hopkins, the Witchfinder General, is explored in The World Turned Upside Down, a new play staged by The Chainers, youth theatre. Photo: Bill Jackson

Genuine believer, misguided zealot or callous, opportunistic fraud, the jury is still out on the motivations of this 17th century witch-hunter who, it is claimed, put about 300 alleged witches to death between the years 1644 and 1646. More than that, he was handsomely paid for his troubles.

To put his zealous campaign into perspective, between the early 15th and late 18th centuries resulted in fewer than 500 executions for witchcraft across the UK. Thanks to Hopkins, 300 of those deaths came from East Anglia in just three, short years.

Portrayed by Vincent Price on film and subject to endless research by historians, the Manningtree-born crusader has become the personification of puritanism and intolerance. Now, local playwright and theatre-maker Joanna Carrick has researched not only Hopkins life but has examined the effects of his reign of terror on the local populations during those dark days.

"It was a time considerable unrest, it was the time of the Civil War and everyone was really jumpy anyway but, the people lived in a very superstitious age. They really did believe in witches and that the devil was out to capture their soul. As a result they were suspicious of old women who lived on their own or people who were different and when the harvest failed or their cow died, it was natural to look for someone to blame. It was much easier to blame their misfortunes on the work of the devil, which was being channelled through these poor, isolated individuals, than it was to put it down to forces of nature that they didn't understand."

Mathew Hopkins, the self proclaimed Witchfinder General, who terrorised the East Anglian countryside in the mid-17th centuryMathew Hopkins, the self proclaimed Witchfinder General, who terrorised the East Anglian countryside in the mid-17th century

The ultra-religious, some say opportunistic, Matthew Hopkins, son of a Puritan clergyman from outside Framlingham, was on hand to lend credence to their fears.

Joanna's latest historical play, The World Turned Upside Down, is modelled on her previous dramas which place national dramas and historical events against a local backdrop. As with her previous work - Fallen in Love about Anne Boleyn, Progress about Elizabeth I and the Ipswich martyrs and last year's Put Out The Lights, the story of Tudor martyr Alice Driver from Grundisburgh - Joanna's latest play has been meticulously researched.

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She says that the local connections were easy to make this time around because this was a national story that had its roots in our region. "Matthew Hopkins was based in Manningtree and the majority of his witch-hunts were carried out in Essex, Suffolk, Norfolk and Cambridgeshire. "Considering how important these events were and how important they are with regard to the history of our nation, I am always surprised how little we make of it locally. These trials and investigations happened right on our doorsteps and had far reaching consequences. These trials happened in our communities and the same criteria that Hopkins developed and used to 'uncover' witches was then taken and used in the infamous Salem Witch trials in the US. It all started here."

The reign of terror conducted by Matthew Hopkins, the Witchfinder General, is explored in The World Turned Upside Down, a new play staged by The Chainers, youth theatre.  Photo: Bill JacksonThe reign of terror conducted by Matthew Hopkins, the Witchfinder General, is explored in The World Turned Upside Down, a new play staged by The Chainers, youth theatre. Photo: Bill Jackson

Joanna says that the crusade by The Witchfinder General - a title which Hopkins gave himself - was largely ignored. "We don't reflect on it that much and its a really important part of world history."

As a result Joanna has started a far-reaching research project exploring the effects of the witch-hunts on local communities. This has resulted in The World Turned Upside Down, a play for Red Rose Chain's youth theatre group The Chainers, as well as future projects for other community groups and a professional play which will be staged at The Avenue Theatre later in the year.

As part of their preparations for The World Turned Upside Down, the young actors have been exploring how Suffolk people lived during the mid-17th century, coping with the turbulence caused by The Civil War.

Joanna said: "They are really passionate about delving into history, developing characters, because it makes history come alive.

"Suffolk was a very puritan place. It was one of the most extreme areas of the country and it was a very joyless, cold place to live. They even banned Christmas and there were riots. I have discovered that there was a man called Christmas living in Ipswich at the time, who was killed in riots on Christmas day in 1647, protesting over the puritan ban on the celebration of his name. This man has become part of our show. So this is the background to a world which allowed the fear of witches to grow. But, interestingly what finally brought Hopkins reign of terror to an end was something much more worldly, cost.

"The trials, the imprisonment and the executions were expensive and Hopkins fee for carrying out the investigations was huge. All this had to be borne by the parish and, of course, after a while it became clear that while the old witch at the edge of the village had been put to death, the cows still died and the crops still failed, so they were forced to look for other answers - and, of course, people were starting to see Hopkins for what he was."

The World Turned Upside Down, by Joanna Carrick, performed by The Chainers, Red Rose Chain's young company, is at The Avenue Theatre, Ipswich, until February 29. Tickets can be bought here


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