Fiction

The Prick of Death


Enough physick, leech! Get thee hence…

Nay, stay, Doctor Samways… my apologies. Thou dost do thy best for this pitiful soul. Before thou depart, hast thou this wondrous elixir laudanum we heareth so much of? I need to be relieved of the pain of this wretched congestion, this white plague, yet still retain my faculties as near as possible. I am in great fear that I die before I establish my bona fides and correct some intolerance.

Thou hast not laudanum? Alas, then I must bear the pain and speak apace.

Pray raise me up on my pillows that I may see the good River Stour once more, and bring closer the spittoon.

In yonder strongbox lies the manuscript of a Book, my testimony. I wish it to be published; there is coin aplenty. I have titled it The Discovery of Witches and it chronicles the methods I have employed these three years past. Methinks I do not flatter myself in saying it will become the authority on the subject.

On this twelfth day of August, the year of Our Lord sixteen hundred and forty-seven, at Manningtree in the County of Essex, I, Matthew Hopkins, gentleman, innkeeper and latterly Witchfinder, do make my peace before my Maker in the presence of Doctor Samways. Doctor Temperance Samways… thank you, Doctor… a goodly Puritan name, may God preserve the Lord Protector.

I have been consistently grateful to my father James, Vicar of St John’s at Great Wenham, for his inculcation of that Puritan truth in his six children, this truth being my rock in this my short but much-fulfilled life.

My father’s zeal was reflected three years since in the findings of the respected and feared iconoclast Master William Dowsing. Commissioned by the noble Earl of Manchester to seek out and destroy idolatry and superstition, Master Dowsing could find nothing in need of reform in my father’s parish, though he be dead ten years at that time.

In the same year, under Warrant of Parliament, did I and the good John Stearne, from St Edmundsbury, begin God’s work. It behoves me to correct the notion that Parliament did bestow upon me the Title of Witchfinder General. There was and is no such post.

It is not unreasonable, however, that the seed of this opinion may have been sewn in the populace by self-serving pamphleteers.

Accompanied by our three pricking women – Mistress Jane Marriage, her sister Rosalind and cousin Nell, a valued ambidexter – Master Stearne and I commenced our Work in this fair County, not knowing the appalling extent to which our service would be called upon.

It is no secret that our success was unprecedented. To my knowledge no official accounting has been made; however, Dean Carman, a respected chronicler and actuary of St. John’s College at the University at Cambridge posits that in these three years we did expose in excess of three hundred witches, a number exceeding that officially recorded in the previous one hundred and sixty years. Puritan humility forbids me to confirm or deny.

Dear Lord, the pain! It is such torment… yet I must continue. I beseech thee, preserve this frail frame a moment longer…

There is a popular misconception I must refute: I am obliged to remark that we were not warranted to expose malicious acts of witchcraft; rather to expose those who had made covenant with the Devil, and hence had forsaken Our Lord.

Our Methods have been described as torture, but I cite the Daemonology of King James as our inspiration – which association is made plain in my Book – torture being illegal in the realm. It is true we deprived Suspects of sleep to extract confessions, and have made to cut flesh with a dull knife to make appearance of non-bleeding. Both these Methods were solely employed to quicken the exposure of the covenant; in truth, hardly torture.

As evidence of our sensitivity I cite the abandonment, by the end of the year forty-five, under popular pressure, of my restrained Swimming Test wherein the Suspect had not given her permission, this Method having been described as ‘not legal’.

We sought the Devil’s mark by use of pricking, and this Method has also been vilely misreported. It is alleged we employed needles ranging in size from small daggers to broadswords, pressing them deep; my instruments were more akin to a fine bodkin of the best Swedish steel, and my ladies were always gentle in their application.

Come, Doctor! The pain… it pricks so deep, I cannot breathe… a relieving nostrum, for all love! I am in dread that I will not complete this, my testament. Minutes, nay, seconds more, I beg.

In conclusion, with my Maker beckoning, I cannot ignore prosaic juridical matters. I refer to the questioning of John Stearne and myself by the Justices of the Assize in the last twelve-month at Norwich regarding alleged torture and malfeasance in the matter of the fees charged in the execution of our Crusade. I go to my grave grievously disadvantaged by the court’s discontinuation – Stearne and myself having retired from our labours – which thus curtailed our formal exoneration.

Enough… I am done.

Come, blessed quietus; I meet thee, Lord, with conscience clear as spring rainwater.

Picture source: Peter Binsfeld