History at the Movies: The Early Modern Years

Film Review by Malin Engdahl

The Witchfinder General

The Witchfinder General, given the mystifying alternative title of The Conqueror Worm in the US, was made by the 23 year old Michael Reeves in 1968. It is set in East Anglia in 1645, during the Civil War, and the central premise features Matthew Hopkins and his assistant John Stearne traversing the countryside searching for witches. In the village of Brandiston they are hired to deal with the local priest, John Lowes, who is accused of popery and royalist sentiment, as well as suspected of being a male witch. His niece Sarah is betrothed to a young soldier in Cromwell’s army, but realises she has to sleep with Hopkins in an attempt to save her uncle. While Hopkins is away, Stearne rapes her, and her uncle is tried for witchcraft and hanged despite her efforts. When her fiancée comes back, he marries her and sends her to a nearby town to settle down, while he goes after the witchfinders for revenge. The town where Sarah settles happens to be the next one Hopkins is set for, and she and her husband are accused of witchcraft and tortured to force their confessions. Sarah’s husband breaks free of his bonds when army companions of his come to rescue them, and takes his revenge, but the film ends far from happily.

The mediaeval and early modern definition of a witch was a person of either sex who could injure other people by mysterious means. The damage that could be inflicted was technically called maleficium and could involve causing people physical injury or bringing about their death, killing or harming livestock, ruining the production of butter, cheese or beer, or keeping cows from yielding milk. [1] In the late Middle Ages the notion that the witch (most commonly female, as she was the weaker, more impressionable sex) gained her powers through a covenant with the Devil, was introduced. She was given the ability to wreak supernatural havoc on her enemies through her allegiance with him. [2] This changed the nature of the crime of witchcraft. They were no longer simply felons, similar to murderers or thieves, but heretics and apostates. Witchcraft was a heresy, and witches were therefore seen as evil people who had rejected their Christian faith to serve Satan. [3]

The view of witchcraft as a heresy rather than just a harmful action was not really subscribed to in England. The first two witchcraft statutes, from 1542 and 1563 make no reference to a diabolical compact. Only in 1604 adopted the continental doctrine. It became a felony to ‘consult, covenant with, entertain, employ, feed, or reward any evil and wicked spirit to or for any intent or purpose’. [4]

Matthew Hopkins and John Stearne were both historical figures, and their actions are well documented. From 1645-7 they were in charge of the biggest witch-hunt in English history, starting in March of 1645, near Hopkins’ home village of Manningtree, in Essex. Concerned that a group of women were frequently meeting near his house, Hopkins initiated investigations, leading to the eventual execution of 19 women in July of that year. There is documentation of Hopkins and Stearne investigating and trying between 200 and 300 witches during their hunt, the majority of them being investigated between July and December 1645. [5] While there are copious records from the trials he conducted, Matthew Hopkins himself is an obscure figure, very little is known about him. He was probably the son of a Suffolk clergyman, and still fairly young in 1645 (not middle aged like Vincent Price). He died in 1647, of consumption, [6] but his reputation was such that several rumours about his death circulated. One was that he was subjected to one of his own trials of “swimming”, and that he drowned. [7]

The investigations and trials conducted by Hopkins and Stearne were unusual both because of the unusually high number of them, and for the way they were conducted. The witchfinders to a large part relied on help in the localities, both by men and women, especially in the areas when where the Common Law prevailed, and did little of the actual “testing” themselves. Among the tests for witchcraft they used were Searching, Watching and Swimming. Witches were believed to have a mark on their body, recognisable because it did not bleed when pricked, and insensible to pain. [8] People suspected of witchcraft were therefore stripped and scrutinised in order to find these marks, and as can be seen in the film, often pricked with sharp objects to see if they bled. It was also believed that familiars or imps in the form of animals came to suck blood from the mark as from a nipple. These animal familiars could take the form of any animal, bird or insect, and were thought to be gifts from the devil or another witch. If watched closely, a witch would eventually be sought out by her familiar, coming to suckle from the witches’ mark. [9]

When investigating a suspect, the witchfinders would, have the alleged witch watched, stripped naked and tied cross legged to a stool or table, for a minimum of 24 hours, carefully keeping an eye out for familiars. Neither food nor sleep was allowed. If the accused did not confess, he or she was walked or run up and down in a cell by helpers until exhausted. [10] This could continue for days, and most people confessed to anything after this treatment. Swimming was also used, again illustrated in the film, where the accused had hands and feet tied together and were attached to a pole or ropes and lowered into the water. If they sank and drowned, they were innocent, if they managed to stay afloat they were proven witches and subsequently hanged.

Confessions extracted by Hopkins are the first in England to mention a written pact with the Devil. Before 1612 there were no references to even oral compacts with the Devil in English trials. [11] The notion of witches allying themselves with the Devil, or conducting Witches’ Sabbaths was a Continental one, not at all common in England. But many of the confessed witches tried by Hopkins admitted not only to using magic to inflict harm on others, but to having entered into blood pacts with the Devil for personal gain and/or revenge and receiving familiars to help them, and some even claimed to have had intercourse with the Devil. [12] That many of the recorded confessions are strikingly similar is probably due to the very leading questions asked by the interrogators.

The methods used by Hopkins and his associates in their interrogations would today be seen as torture, but were then certainly within a grey area of definition. In Britain, torture could only be used on command of the Privy Council, and only where matters of state were involved. This was strictly enforced in England, apart from the disruptive period during the Civil War, when Hopkins led his witch-hunt in East Anglia. [13]

“Few who have seen it will forget Witchfinder General of 1968, a film which, apart from inventing a pleasingly robust demise for Matthew Hopkins, did at least get near to historical accuracy.” [14] I wholeheartedly agree with this quote from James Sharpe about the film, which seems to me one of the more accurate films I have seen during the course. It is based on a novel by Roland Bassett, a book I could not find out anything about. Set mostly in small villages, it gives you a good idea how it would actually have been around the time of the Civil War. A man on the beach accused of letting the king get away to France exclaims he had no idea there was a war on until the roundhead soldiers told him so.

The priest prosecuted in the film, John Lowes, was one of the many who fell victim to Matthew Hopkins in real life, though his niece Sarah and her valiant young husband were invented for narrative purposes. It works admirably, and gives the viewer an emotional connection to the film that might otherwise not have been present. Vincent Price delivers an excellent performance as Matthew Hopkins, he is chilling as the emotionless and ruthlessly efficient witchfinder. Setting the film in a beautiful, scenic countryside and using a sweeping, emotive score, the director manages to emphasise the stark contrast of the gruesome dealings in the film by both the witchfinder and the villagers that hire him, really bringing home how terrible these events actually were. Only 25 years old when he died from an overdose of barbiturates, the director, Michael Reeves only made two other films, both in the horror genre. Sorella di Satana or Revenge of the Blood Beast (1965) was made on a very low budget in Italy, and The Sorcerers (1967) was filmed in England with Boris Karloff. Had he lived, he might have been a very talented director within this genre, it is believed.

While the film looks like it was filmed with a hand held video camera and the lighting in many scenes leaves much to be desired, Witchfinder General is a genuinely unpleasant film, as the events depicted within it are based on actual historical events. It has one of the most depressing and disheartening endings I have seen, the credits rolling starting to roll accompanied by the hysterical screams of the poor girl Sarah, yet is a film I feel would be useful to show any history student interested in this topic. The film is now a popular cult classic, but not very well known outside circles of enthusiasts, a shame, as it is a very effective piece of cinema.


Levack, Brian P. The Witch-Hunt in Early Modern Europe. Longman, 1987

Notestein, Wallace. A History of Witchcraft in England from 1558 to 1718. The American Historical Association, 1911

Sharpe, James. Instruments of Darkness: Witchcraft in England 1550-1750. Hamish Hamilton Ltd. 1996

Thomas, Keith. Religion and the Decline of Magic: Studies in Popular Beliefs in Sixteenth- and Seventeenth-Century England. Penguin Books, 1971


[1] K. Thomas, Religion and the Decline of Magic. p. 519

[2] Ibid. p. 521

[3] B. P. Levack, The witch-hunt in early modern Europe. p. 8

[4] K. Thomas, Religion and the Decline of Magic. pp. 525-6

[5] J. Sharpe, Instruments of Darkness: Witchcraft in England 1550-1750. p.129

[6] Ibid. p. 142

[7] W. Notestein, A History of Witchcraft in England from 1558 to 1718. p. 194

[8] K. Thomas, Religion and the Decline of Magic. p. 530

[9] Ibid.

[10] Witchcraft in England, 1558-1618. Ed. B. Rosen. p. 28

[11] K. Thomas, Religion and the Decline of Magic. p. 528

[12] J. Sharpe, Instruments of Darkness. p. 135

[13] B. P. Levack, The witch-hunt in early modern Europe. p. 183

[14] J. Sharpe, Instruments of Darkness. p. 299