Monday, September 8, 2008
Matthew Hopkins, self-appointed Witch Finder General, was the model for Obediah Wilson. Hopkins operated in the Essex/East Anglia area between 1645-47 and during this period up to 200 women were hanged by him and his associates. Hopkins was paid 20 shillings for ridding a town of witches. Not an inconsiderable sum of money in those days. His career stopped abruptly in 1647, when he himself was ‘discovered as a sorcerer’ – and hanged.
Where could Mary go if she was orphaned by persecutions such as those inflicted by Matthew Hopkins? Who could she turn to? She would need a protector. A noble woman, perhaps, rich and powerful, but doomed by her husband’s deeds and actions. I took as my model Lucy Hutchinson, wife of Colonel John Hutchinson who was a Parlimentarian and commander in the New Model Army. He was also one of the signatories of Charles I's death warrant. Lucy Hutchinson was brave, strong, and resourceful, ‘above the pitch of ordinary women’. She accompanied her husband on his campaigns, withstood sieges with him, and ultimately saved him from execution. But Witch Child is a work of fiction and as such deals with what could have happened, not what did. I used Lucy Hutchinson as a template only. There is, of course, absolutely no evidence that she had an illegitimate daughter, or that she practised the Craft.
Despite the activities of Matthew Hopkins, and others like him, England got off lightly. It is estimated that only 1000 people (most of them women) were hanged as witches between 1550 and 1685. Their Scottish sisters were not so lucky. In Scotland it is estimated that as many as 4000 people, (again most of them women) were convicted of witchcraft and burned alive. In Europe the persecution was even worse. In the period from 1560 to 1632, it is estimated that between 30,000 and 100,000 were burned for witchcraft. Again, most of these would have been women. In the small German state of Quedinburg, 133 women were burned in just one day and in some towns and villages there were no adult women left alive.
The persecutions did not stop when settlers went to America. They took their fears, superstitions and prejudices with them, along with their goods and chattels. The first hanging was in 1647 in Connecticut. A steady trickle of trials ensued, mostly in New England, culminating in the infamous Salem witch trials in 1692. This marked the last great witch persecution on either side of the Atlantic. The outbreak lasted less than a year but by the time the hysteria there had subsided, 160 people had been accused of witchcraft, 27 had been found guilty and 19 had been hung.
Mary keeps a journal of everything that happens to her. She is not unusual in this, many of her contemporaries kept such diaries, but hers is different, dangerous and subversive. She has to hide it so she stitches it into a quilt. The quilt survives to the present day, preserving her story for modern readers.