Jane Wenham (alleged witch)
Jane Wenham (died 1730) was one of the last people to be condemned to death for witchcraft in England, although her conviction was set aside. Her trial in 1712 is commonly but erroneously regarded as the last witch trial in England.
Wenham, a widow of Walkern, Hertfordshire, brought a charge of defamation against a farmer, in response to an accusation of witchcraft. The local Justice of the Peace, Sir Henry Chauncy referred the matter to the Rev Gardiner, the rector of Walkern. She was awarded with a shilling, though advised to be less quarrelsome. She was disappointed with this outcome, and it was reported that she had said she would have justice "some other way". She supposedly then bewitched Ann Thorne, a servant at the rectory.
A warrant for Wenham's arrest was issued by Sir Henry Chauncy, who gave instructions that she be searched for "witch marks". She requested that she undergo trials to avoid being detained, such as a swimming test, however, she was asked to repeat the Lord's Prayer, as it was believed that no witch could do so. During the recitation, she apparently stumbled and subsequently admitted to the charge. When her lodgings had been searched, a potion, believed to be magical, was discovered under her pillow.
The accused was brought before Sir John Powell at the Assize Court at Hertford on 4 March 1712. A number of villagers gave evidence that Wenham practised witchcraft. The judge was clearly more sceptical than the jury of the evidence presented. When an accusation of flying was made, the judge remarked there was no law against doing so. She was convicted, but the judge set aside her conviction, suspending the death penalty, and seeking a royal pardon from Queen Anne.
Some historians such as Keith Thomas have suggested, taking this case is an example, that there was generally a difference in attitudes towards supposed witchcraft between educated sections of the population and more credulous, less educated people. However, the Wenham case is arguably more complicated as Henry Chauncy, for example, was well educated.
Wenham was removed from her village for her own safety. Her cause was adopted by William Cowper, 1st Earl Cowper, a Whig aristocrat, and she was secreted in a cottage in another part of Hertfordshire, where she lived for the rest of her life. She was buried in an unmarked grave at Hertingfordbury.
In her final years, she was visited by Bishop Francis Hutchinson (1660–1739), author of an Historical essay concerning witchcraft (1718) in which he applied a rational approach to the subject. Hutchinson, who had met other survivors of witch-hunts, regarded their persecution as Tory superstition. He deemed her a simple, pious woman.
According to the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Jane Wenham was last person convicted of witchcraft in England. However, trials and executions for witchcraft continued in England after the Wenham case. One such case involved Mary Hickes and her nine-year-old daughter Elizabeth, who were condemned to death by the Assize Court and were hanged in Huntingdon on Saturday 28 July 1716. They were believed to have taken off their stockings in order to raise a rainstorm.
Media portrayals of the case
The trial caused a sensation in London, where publishers such as Edmund Curll sold material proclaiming Wenham's innocence or guilt. One of the witnesses at the trial, Francis Bragge, published three pamphlets about the case including, A full and impartial account of the discovery of sorcery and witchcraft practis'd by Jane Wenham of Walkerne in Hertfordshire. As the title suggests, this was a detailed account of the affair, although its claim to impartiality is open to question: Bragge's motivation may have been to justify the clergy involved in the case.
The Last Witch
In 2012, a play entitled The Last Witch was performed at Hertford Theatre and Walkern Hall, 300 years after the original trial. Written by Kate Miller and directed by former Hertfordshire vicar Richard Syms, the play starred Toni Brooks as the titular character, with Rhiannon Drake as Anne Thorne and Lindsay Cooper as Debora Gardiner.
Jane Wenham: The Witch of Walkern
- The claim that the trial was the last is made for example in "The Context of Witchcraft: The Case of Jane Wenham (1712)", Phyllis J. Guskin, Eighteenth-Century Studies Vol. 15, No. 1 (Autumn, 1981), pp. 48-71
- “Wenham, Jane (d. 1730),” Owen Davies in Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, eee ed. H. C. G. Matthew and Brian Harrison (Oxford: OUP, 2004); online ed., ed. David Cannadine, September 2013, http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/29042 (accessed July 19, 2017).
- Thomas, Keith. Religion and the Decline of Magic. Studies in popular beliefs in sixteenth and seventeenth century England". London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson.
- Phyllis Guskin speculates as to Chauncy's motivation.
- The political aspect of the case has been discussed by Ian Bostridge.
- A Full and Impartial Account of the Discovery of Sorcery and Witchcraft, Practis'd by Jane Wenham...
- A tale of witchcraft at Hertford Theatre.The Hertfordshire Mercury. 7 June 2012. Accessed 3 January 2016.
- Gardner, Lyn (7 July 2015). "Rebecca Lenkiewicz: this government is 'determined to crush the poor'". The Guardian. Retrieved 29 September 2015.
- "REVIEW; Jane Wenham: The Witch of Walkern Liverpool Everyman." Liverpool Echo (Liverpool, England). MGN Ltd. 2015. Retrieved via HighBeam Research. 25 Jul. 2017 <https://www.highbeam.com> (subscription required)
- Alan Akeroyd and Caroline Clifford, Huntingdon: Eight Centuries of History (2004)
- "Wenham, Jane". Dictionary of National Biography. London: Smith, Elder & Co. 1885–1900.
- Articles on Jane Wenham on the Walkern History Society website