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 and less educated people, the latter being more credulous. However, the Wenham case is arguably more complicated than this distinction might imply, as Henry Chauncy, for example, was well educated. Chauncy’s motivation has been the subject of speculation.Ian Bostridge, one of Keith Thomas’ students, has argued that political issues were involved in the case.
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
- Guskin, Phyllis J. (Autumn 1981). “The Context of Witchcraft: The Case of Jane Wenham (1712)”]”. Eighteenth-Century Studies. Charles Village, Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press. 15 (1): 48–71. doi:10.2307/2738402. JSTOR 2738402.
- Davies, Owen (2004). “Wenham, Jane (d. 1730)”. In Matthew, H. C. G.; Harrison, Brian (eds.). Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Oxford: England: Oxford University Press.
- Thomas, Keith (2003). Religion and the Decline of Magic: Studies in Popular Beliefs in Sixteenth and Seventeeth Century England. London, England: Weidenfeld & Nicolson. ISBN 978-0140137446.
- The political aspect of the case has been discussed by Ian Bostridge. Witchcraft and its transformations, c.1650–1750. Oxford: Clarendon Press. 1997.
- Millar, Charlotte-Rose (14 July 2017). Witchcraft, the Devil, and Emotions in Early Modern England. Taylor & Francis. ISBN 978-1-134-76981-0 – via Google Books.
- Hicks, Mary. The Whole Trial and Examination of Mrs. Mary Hicks and Her Daughter Elizabeth: But of Nine Years of Age, who Were Condemo’d [sic] the Last Assizes Held at Huntington for Witchcraft; and There Executed on Saturday the 28th of July, 1716. With an Account of the Most Surprizing Pieces of Witchcraft They Play’d, … W. Matthews – via Google Books.
- Inderwick, Frederick Andrew. Side-lights on the Stuarts. S. Low, Marston, Searle & Rivington – via Google Books.
- 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 Archived 17 July 2011 at the Wayback Machine> (subscription required)
- Alan Akeroyd and Caroline Clifford, Huntingdon: Eight Centuries of History (2004)