CATS AND WITCHCRAFT (Part 7- The Witchfinder-Matthew Hopkins)


Some years after Topsell’s book was published, (see last week’s post) the witch trials were still quite common.  The trial of Joan Flower and her two daughters Margaret and Phillipa Flower, also known as the witches of Belvoir, took place in 1618.  Joan and Margaret worked for the Earl and Countess of Rutland at Belvoir Castle until Margaret was eventually let go for stealing. Seeking revenge, they set about a plan to kill the Earl’s son.  Rightly suspecting some sort of retribution, the Earl had them all imprisoned.  Shortly after their incarceration their mother died, and the two sisters confessed that their mother had taken the glove of Lord Henry Roos, the Earl of Rutland’s eldest son, and had rubbed it on the back of Rutterkin, her cat familiar. After that she boiled the glove and stabbed it with a sharp knife and buried it in a dung heap while reciting certain curses over it with the intent to do him harm. Not long afterward, the Lord fell ill and died.  The two sisters were convicted and hanged. 



The young infamous Puritan Witch finder General, Matthew Hopkins, and his partner John Stearne found plenty to keep them busy in the districts of Essex, Suffolk and Norfolk. Through torture, the finding of so called witches’ marks, and the dreaded swimming test Hopkins managed to make a fine living for himself receiving 20 shillings for each conviction (Ross, 1868, 169). It is often written that Hopkins was in the end convicted of being a witch just like his victims after having failed the swimming test; however, this is just a myth, and he died quietly of consumption in 1647 (Hopkins, Stearne, Davies, 2007).


Matthew Hopkins Witchfinder

Matthew Hopkins Witchfinder




Anne Randall and Anne Goodfellow both interrogated by Hopkins claimed to have had cat familiars.  Anne Randall stated that she had two familiars who came to her in the form of a blue cat and kitten.  Their names were Hangman and Jacob, and they had regularly sucked her blood for thirty years evidenced by marks found on her body.  Randall, intent upon using the powers of darkness, sought revenge from her neighbor, William Baldwin, by asking her familiars to kill his horse after he had refused to give her wood. She also confessed to asking Hangman to kill a hog of Stephen Humfries simply because he said something to her she did not like. Goodfellow confessed that after her aunt’s death, the aunt’s spirit, which had been taken over by the Devil, came to her in the form of a white cat.  The cat asked her to deny her faith in the covenant and even renounce her own baptism.  This she did, and the cat bit her on her second finger and sucked her blood to seal the pact.



Even though a law instituted in 1653 in Scotland stated that all those who used witchcraft, or even pretended to, would be punished by death, the most virulent use of the law came about during the Scottish witch hunts of 1661 and 1662 incited by the influence of John Kincaid and John Dick.  Isobel Gowdie, one of 660 accused of witchcraft, (Burton & Grandy, 2004) was tortured and confessed and then convicted for claiming that her sisters regularly turned into cats to run wildly through the night.  However, she told the court that she herself preferred to turn into a hare.  Having denounced Christianity, she had become one of 13 members of a coven.  The court realized that she was mentally infirm and was perhaps lenient in her sentence, as there are no records of her execution. 



Alice Duke of Somerset in 1664 was convicted of witchcraft for confessing that her cat would regularly suck her right breast at around 7 p.m. every night, and she would thus fall into a trance (Van Vechten, 1921).  Likewise, in 1665 Abre Grinset, an old homeless woman, confessed that a grey black cat came to her at night and sucked blood from a mark on her body.



Jane Wenham was convicted and sentenced to death on the testimony of James Burville and Ann Thorn, who both claimed to have seen a cat with Jane’s face.  However, Jane confessed to having heard cats speaking to her and was also convicted for speaking to the Devil.  Neighbors noticed that cats surrounded her house, and those inside the house could hear scratching and screaming that resembled children’s cries coming from outside (Bragge, 1712).


Hexen Hans Baldung Grien Wood cut 1508

Hans Baldung Grien
Wood cut



In Cornwall in 1671 a witch, accused of crimes against the state, was blamed for causing the English fleet some problems during a campaign against the Dutch. She was said to have also caused a bull to kill a member of Parliament, and to top it off was even accused of causing the barrenness of the queen.  Ridiculous as it seems, all these accusations stemmed from the fact that a cat had been seen playing near her house (Notestein, 1911).

The craze of witchcraft affected all of Europe.  In a small Swedish village in 1699, over 300 children from the ages of 6-16 were believed to have been taken over by the devil, who gave them each a cat whose job it was to steal cheese, milk and bacon as offerings to their demon king.  The children willingly confessed and fifteen of them were executed. Thirty-six were beaten every Sunday in front of the church doors, and the others were given varying punishments (Repplier, 1901 p.46).


 A test initially used by James I to discern whether or not a person was a witch.  The accused was lowered into a body of water and if she floated that meant she had not been baptized and was a witch. If she sank, she was cleared of witchcraft and of course ironically died from drowning.

 Note that the life span of a cat is about 18 years.

† It’s interesting to note here that both hares and cats were called ‘puss’ until the 18th century.



Want to know more about the cat in history, art and literature? Then Revered and Reviled is the book for you. Now available on Amazon in both paperback and Kindle formats. 



Revered and Reviled: A Complete History of the Domestic Cat, cat history, cats



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