Witch Hunters & Black Magic Cavaliers during the English Civil War, 1642-1647

The English Civil Wars 1642-1651, especially the early years of conflict and societal anarchy in 1642-1645, were heavily influenced by a number of forces, from the tyranny of the Personal Rule of King Charles I from 1629-1640, to religious revival and fervor, and the infleunce continental politics and wars of the late 1500's and early 1600's.

The earliest years of the English Civil were in many ways marred by the mostly indecisive military campaigns fought throughout England & Scotland, juxtaposed with the often brutal, unethical, immoral, and generally rigid Puritan or Independent religious fervor which had become radical.

Parliamentarians many of whom were Independents brazenly denounced King Charles and all Royalists as Ricardian-esque tyrants, men “against the Lord’s cause,” and literally allied with the devil himself. One result of this religious revival or awakening was the frightlfully alarming practice which had been borrowed from the equally devout Scots in the north, the witch hunt.

Matthew Hopkins, Witchfinder General

The most infamous of these witchfinders was Matthew Hopkins, the self stylized Witchfinder General. Little hard evidence exists about who Hopkins was though he might have been a lawyer or low ranking clergy member for a time before the English Civil War.

He first gains “experience” by supposedly uncovering witches holding a black magic ritual in the woods, later he strips his victims and searches for marks of the beast and signs of the occult, which often amounted simply to torture. Traveling from Essex, Norfolk, & Suffolk from 1644-1647, Hopkins embarked on a short, bloody and lucrative career in witchfinding and witch hunting.

Hopkins roamed throughout East Anglia setting up kangaroo courts in which he discovered, tried, and had executed those condemned of practicing witchcraft, many of whom were middle-aged women and clergymen. Over 200 and perhaps many more people were interrogated, publicly humiliated, and then executed after being found guilty of witchcraft or practicing black magic or magick. It was very hard to escape the bloody mindedness of the witchfinders of the 1600’s. In England during the First English Civil War almost all who came under the Witchfinder General’s suspicion were executed. Hopkins was paid for his services as were his assistants, though he had no official title or authority from any entity.

Those who informed on witches and warlocks probably received some coin as well. This imagined enemy was very real to the devout and pious Puritans of the time, who felt that sorcery and black magic were afoot in England and were being used for sinister purposes. Furthermore many in the Church and in the Parliament saw witchcraft and the supposed use of black magic or magic ritual as a weapon of the Royalist cause which must be neutralized in order to win the counties under Royalist control or influence.

Period plate depicting Hopkins encounter with witches and their familiars

One target of this anti witchcraft/black magic sentiment was Prince Rupert of the Rhine (b.1619-1682) a Royalist cavalry general and nephew to King Charles. The Prince was a dashing Cavalier who was an able commander of the King’s cavalry from 1642-1646, he enjoyed art, music, mathematics, and was a speaker of many European languages. Prince Rupert fought at the Civil War's first major battle at Edgehill in October of 1642. There he commanded three regiments of horse which charged the Parliamentarians with great dash though Rupert allowed his cavaliers to leave the field robbing the Royalists of a chance at a total, crushing victory. As a member of the Kings War Council at the start of the conflict he first fought in the Midlands in 1643 where the Prince took Bristol in July following the Royalists successes at the Battle of Roundway Down. Later he marched in relief of the besieged city of Newark in March 1644 taking almost all of Lancashire for the King and the Royalist cause.

As the presiding military dictator of Wales and from November 1644 on, the Captain-General of the Royalist army, Rupert drew the ire of both the Parliamentarian rebels and his Royalist enemies who resented his power, renown, and influence amongst the king's inner circle. One of the many superstitions known to the Witchfinder General and his cronies was the use of familiars, small little demons and imps, or maybe a demonic dog or cat. Prince Rupert’s cherished and faithful battle companion, a white poodle named Boye, was suspected to be one of these sinister  familiars.

Boye, Prince Rupert's poodle

The dog was a centerpiece of propaganda and was feared by Parliamentarian ‘Roundhead’ infantry and cavalry for its supposed demonic powers. Boye’s mystical powers seem to have run out however as did the Royalist cavalrys' during the Battle of Marston Moor fought in North Yorkshire, July 1644. After marching North following his successes in the south, Prince Rupert's cavalry was defeated at Marston Moor by the Allied army of Parliamentarians and Scottish Covenanters, his infantry routed as well, both their gunpowder, ordinance, and regimental colors  were captured in a decisive defeat.

Prince Rupert’s beloved poodle was killed and the Royalist force smashed on Marston Moore where the King lost control of the North in two hours, the city of York surrendering two weeks later. Yet the war would drag on until Charles I was beheaded in January 1649. A second and brief third war would follow the regicide until all major Royalist opposition ceased in 1652.

From a period pamphlet "The Cruel Practices of Prince Rupert" 1643

Officers on both sides of the conflict fought previously for the Dutch or Swedish armies on the continent and had gained valuable combat and tactical experience serving in the various wars in Europe during the 1620’s-1630s. Prince Rupert of the Rhine had fought in Spain & Germany with the Dutch army, becoming a prisoner of war in 1638. Unlike most men of his age or older he was hardened by warfare and experienced in combat manoeuvres, he was a field commander and cavalry commander.

Returning from exile to England at the start of the Civil War at only 23 years old he became the leader of the Royalist cavalry, using his own battle experience and personal interest in strategy and tactics to win some initial success in the early conflict.

Prince Rupert's Charge at Edgehill in 1642

After the formation of the New Model Army and the emergence of the cavalry commander turned political leader Oliver Cromwell, the Parliamentarians gradually took control of England, Scotland, and then Ireland (brutally from 1649-1653) in a series of conflicts and wars. Prince Rupert lost considerable influence after surrendering Bristol in 1645 and was dismissed by his uncle as a result ending his participation in the land campaigns of the English Civil War.

The prince later became a captain & privateer raiding English Parliamentarian vessels off the coast of the Irish Sea & traveling to the Caribbean before returning to England after the Restoration of Charles II in the year 1660. Rupert served in the Anglo-Dutch Wars for England as a naval commander of the line and helped found the Hudson’s Bay Company which later named its Canadian North American territories Prince Rupert’s Land in honor of the once famous cavalier General.

Prince Rupert of the Rhine

Despite their grand claims, the witchfinders did not help or aid the cause of Parliament at all, in actuality they destabilized East Anglia, a somewhat peaceful region throughout the war. Becoming much less active following Hopkins death in 1647, witchfinders and inquistors lost their influence mostly and faded into the macabre annals of odd history. Witch hunts would continue into the 1660s in Scotland and were revived in the North American colonies, principally the Massachusetts colony in the 1690’s during the Salem Witch Trials.

One book that this writer can recommend on the topics touched upon above is Diane Purkiss' The English Civil War: Papists, Gentlewomen, Soldiers & Witchfinders in the Birth of Modern Britain (Basic Books December 4, 2007) 680 pages.

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