A pictorial visit to the Suffolk locations used in Witchfinder General and a look at Matthew Hopkins himself.
Witchfinder General. The 1968 folk horror film by the young director Michael Reeves was renamed the Conqueror Worm in the USA in a mercenary attempt to cash in on the Vincent Price / Edgar Allan Poe series of 1960s films. Conqueror Worm was a poem about death by Poe and, although the title made no sense and had absolutely no bearing on the film whatsoever, this is what they decided upon. The Conqueror Worm - who pays these people and how much?
Matthew Hopkins, East Anglia’s most notorious serial killer, was born around 1620 in Great Wenham, Suffolk. In the name of his benevolent God (and for a substantial amount of cash), he hung over 300 innocent women and some men during the turmoil of the English Civil War. This was far more than all the other witch killers combined of the past century. Although his torturing and killing was never officially endorsed by the church, noticeably little was ever done to stop or hinder him.
In the early 1640s, Hopkins used inheritance money to buy the Thorn Inn in the village of Mistley, where many of his witch trials were held. The present inn was built in 1723 on the foundations and cellars of this.
A plaque on the wall tells of the atrocities carried out there, and they do a selection of very nice bar meals and local ales.
Whenever people think of Hopkins, they usually picture Vincent Price, star of the 1968 film. This is understandable as, apart from a few ancient woodcut prints (see above), which may as well have been drawn by a six-year-old, this mature, grey-haired look is the only image we have to go on. The ludicrous title Hopkins gave himself also fools us into thinking of an older man; General is a high rank and the holders, such as Eisenhower and Patton, are inevitably getting on a bit.
Brilliant and memorable as he was in the part, however, Vincent Price looked nothing like Matthew Hopkins. Neither do I (see above). Price was 57 when he played the role and, surprisingly, most of the "Witchfinder General’s" killings took place before he was 25. Like Jim Morrison and many other music stars, Hopkins died at the young age of 27, probably of tuberculosis. No one is certain.
One of his most infamous killings took place in 1645. John Lowes was the Reverend at All Saints Church in Brandeston for fifty years, until Hopkins convicted him of witchcraft, tortured him and hung him. The ornate village sign even shows the vicar's corpse dangling from a gibbet with (for some peculiar reason) a bat fluttering above it in the foliage. A rather weird way to greet visitors to the village.
The plaque above was erected in his church sixty-seven years later by a gentleman who appears to have a firmer grip on reality and common sense than his predecessors. John Lowes is memorably played by Rupert Davies in the film.
Hopkins is buried in Mistley churchyard in Essex, but I wasted thirty minutes searching before a clergyman helped me out. He lies there in an unmarked grave and no one knows where.
The filming locations are one aspect of the movie that were very realistic indeed, all of them being shot in the actual villages and countryside where Hopkins carried out his cash-for-murders business.
Many killings took place in Lavenham, west of Ipswich, and little has changed in this exquisite little town. The witch burning was filmed in the square there on the very spot where women were executed for real. The Suffolk council no longer allow burning, as the heat and flames would damage vehicle paintwork. These days, health and safety rules ruin everything for religious zealots.
Kentwell Hall is a beautiful old manor house of the Tudor period on the outskirts of Long Melford, Suffolk. The moat and its bridge were used for the witch 'swimming' scenes and the execution of Reverend Lowes. This house is also walking distance from the tiny hamlet of Borley, site of the famous Borley Rectory hauntings.
St. John's church at Rushford, just outside Thetford, stood in for the Brandeston church of John Lowes in the film. His rectory home next door is a college, closed for holidays when I took the shots
The finale was flmed inside and outside Orford Castle, again in Suffolk. This is a wonderfully complete medieval keep near Woodbridge on the edge of Rendlesham Forest, famous for its 1980 'British Roswell' UFO activity. The forest, that is, not the castle.
Inevitably they’re talking about remaking Witchfinder General, just as they remake all films. It was announced at Cannes in 2016 that Nicolas Winding Refn and Rupert Preston would be starting on this in the near future. I live in hope that this new version of Witchfinder General will break the remake curse and turn out to be a really good film, unlike Psycho, Total Recall, Robocop, Get Carter, Poltergeist and the countless others.
Leaving aside the lack of imagination in endlessly churning out remakes, perhaps this new version will address the age error in the original and cast a twenty-seven year old. Let's pray they don't cast Nicolas Cage as Hopkins in an attempt to relive the glories of the Wicker Man remake.