Sir Humphrey Winch (1555–1625) was a judge who had a distinguished career in Ireland and England, but whose reputation was seriously damaged by the Leicester witch trials of 1616.
He matriculated from St John's College, Cambridge; was called to the Bar in 1581 and became a bencher of Lincoln's Inn in 1596. He was elected to the House of Commons of England as member for Bedford in 1593. In 1606 he was recommended as a man suitable for judicial appointment by reason of his legal ability and integrity. For this purpose he was made a serjeant-at-law and knight, then appointed Chief Baron of the Irish Exchequer.
He received glowing reports as a judge, being praised as "understanding and painstaking". Francis Bacon himself said that Winch's qualities: "quickness, industry and dispatch" made him a model for other judges. He was conscientious in going on assize and was regular in attendance at the Court of Castle Chamber. After two years he was promoted to Lord Chief Justice of the King's Bench in Ireland.
Winch disliked the Irish climate and complained of its effect on his health, and also grumbled about the lack of staff to support him and the "humiliating" fees he received.  From 1610 onwards he was lobbying for a return to England. Despite the reluctance of the Dublin Government to lose a valued Crown servant, he was transferred to the English Court of Common Pleas in 1611. He returned to Ireland on official business in 1613, and was regarded as an expert on Irish matters, sitting on the Privy Council committees on Irish affairs.
Leicester witch trials
Winch's illustrious reputation was dealt a serious blow by his conduct at the summer assizes in Leicester in 1616. Fifteen women had been charged with witchcraft on the sole evidence of a young boy. The judges, Winch and Ranulph Crewe, found the boy to be a credible witness and while a number of the accused were spared, nine were condemned and hanged. A month after the hangings King James I visited Leicester; having a keen interest in witchcraft, he examined the boy and promptly declared him a fraud.
Despite the damage to his reputation Winch remained on the bench until he died suddenly at Chancery Lane from a stroke in February 1625. An impressive memorial was raised to him in his local church at Everton.
|Lord Chief Justice of Ireland
- History of Parliament Online - Humphrey Winche
- Ball, F. Elrington The Judges in Ireland 1221-1921 John Murray London 1926
- Crawford, Jon G. A Star Chamber Court in Ireland- the Court of Castle Chamber 1571-1641 Four Courts Press Dublin 2005 p.105
- Crawford p.105
- "Winch, Humphrey". Dictionary of National Biography. London: Smith, Elder & Co. 1885–1900.