Jane Wenham (alleged witch)
Jane Wenham (died 1730) was the subject of what is commonly but erroneously regarded as the last witch trial in England. The trial took place in 1712 (not 1716 as some modern sources say) and was reported widely in printed tracts of the period, notably F. Bragge's A full and impartial account of the discovery of sorcery and witchcraft practis'd by Jane Wenham of Walkerne in Hertfordshire (published 1712).
Wenham had brought a charge of defamation against a farmer, in response to an accusation of witch-craft, but the matter was resolved by a rector. She was awarded with a shilling, though advised to be less quarrelsome. The farmer claimed that Wenham then bewitched a servant, as she had supposedly done before, and that this was responsible for his ill luck. It was reported that she had said she would have justice "some other way", and that after she made that statement her adversary's daughter sickened and his livestock died.
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 (1640-1713) on 4 March 1712. When an accusation of flying was made, the judge remarked there was no law against doing so. The trial caused a sensation in London. The popular press printed multiple broadsheets proclaiming her innocence or guilt. A long pamphlet war followed the trial.
She was convicted, but the judge set aside her conviction, suspending the death penalty, and seeking a royal pardon from Queen Anne.
Her cause was adopted by William Cowper, 1st Earl Cowper, a Whig aristocrat, and she was moved from her home town and secreted in a cottage on his lands, where she lived for the rest of her life. Later in her life, Bishop Francis Hutchinson (1660–1739), author of an Historical essay concerning witchcraft (1718), visited her and deemed her a simple, pious woman.
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.
The Last Witch
In 2012, a play entitled The Last Witch was performed at The Hertford Theatre and Walkern Hall, 300 years after the original trial. Written by Kate Miller and directed by former Knebworth vicar Richard Syms, the play starred Toni Brooks as the titular character, with Rhiannon Drake as Anne Thorne and Lindsay Cooper as Debora Gardiner.
- http://www.hertfordshiremercury.co.uk/tale-witchcraft-Hertford-Theatre/story-21998648-detail/story.html The Hertfordshire Mercury. 7 June 2012. Accessed 3 January 2016.
- 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