In James I’s England, the witch became a powerful symbol of those hated forces that opposed the king. During the English Civil War, the “Witchfinder General,” Matthew Hopkins, was responsible for the hanging more than 300 women between 1644 and 1646.
James I, linked religious subversion with political subversion, usurpation, and the attack on monarchical “divine right” authority. I his book Daemonologie, he details the confessions of some Danish witches, suggesting they tried to assassinate him first by poison and then by summoning up a storm to sink the ship in which he was returning to the British Isles from Denmark with his Danish born queen, Anne.
James was also a patron of Shakespeare’s acting company, and in Macbeth the playwright pays due deference to James’s views with the tale of an erstwhile political usurper who dabbles in the black arts to gain his way. That the play was prob¬ably written in the wake of the Witchcraft Act of 1604, which broadened earlier laws to include the penalty of death, as well as around the time of the thwarted Gunpowder Plot of Guy Fawkes to blow up Parliament (1605), suggests that on this occasion (and for the rest of the century) the diabolic forces are to be identified specifically with the Catholic threat to Protestant England.
The pressures of war, along with the paranoia about one’s enemies, created a fertile ground for witch-hunting to flourish. In England, during the civil war, a young man in his twenties named Matthew Hopkins, calling himself the “Witchfinder General,” blazed through the east of England in strongly Puritan areas, accusing supposed witches of a pact with the devil even without evidence. By the time he died of tuberculosis at the age of twenty-seven in 1647 he was responsible for hanging upward of three hundred women, according to some estimates more than the total of the previous century and a half — around 40 percent of all the witches ever executed in England. All were accused of “maleficium“, literally ‘doing evil,’ which often included copulating with the devil, kissing his ass, and other combinations of the diabolic and the sexual that are characteristic of the charge of trafficking with demons. During the sixteenth and the seventeenth centuries, scattered previous references to groups of witches called covens and a conclave of witches called the witches sabbath became much more widespread, with detail upon detail being added to the description of satanic orgies and conspiracy plans that supposedly happened there. When it was objected that otherwise poor old women scattered around the countryside had no way of getting to their infernal meetings, these theorists of witchcraft found it necessary to supply flying broomsticks as a ready transportation device – the witch’s broomstick.