Jane Wenham (died 11 January 1730) was the last person to be condemned for witchcraft in an English court when she was found guilty at Hertford in 1712.[a] The only sentence the law allowed for her crime was death by hanging, so the judge, Sir John Powell, had no option but to pronounce the death sentence. But he was highly sceptical of the evidence presented during the trial, and so he ordered that the sentence be reprieved until further notice. He secured a royal pardon for Wenham, who was then released and offered a new home away from her village, for her own safety.
The case prompted the publication of eight pamphlets, and became a political football between the Tories, who retained a strong belief in traditional values, and the reforming Whigs, who completely dismissed what they saw as ignorant superstition.
Wenham lived in the village of Walkern, in Hertfordshire. She had been married twice and had children, but by the time of the events leading up to her trial she was a widow. In early 1712 John Chapman, a local farmer, called Wenham a “Witch and Bitch”, and accused her of being responsible for an outbreak of deaths among his livestock. She responded by applying to the local magistrate, Sir Henry Chauncy, for a warrant against Chapman for defamation. Chauncy ordered that a local minister, Godfrey Gardiner, should act as an arbitrator in the dispute between the two parties. Gardiner’s decision was that Chapman should pay one shilling in compensation to Wenham.[b] Dissatisfied with the outcome, Wenham was heard to mutter “if she could not have justice here she would have it elsewhere” on leaving the meeting. Perhaps unsurprisingly therefore, when Ann Thorn, one of Gardiner’s servants, began to suffer from fits and delusions shortly afterwards, Wenham was identified as the culprit, and Chauncy immediately issued a warrant for her arrest.
Investigation and trial
Wenham was searched for devil’s marks, and when none were found she offered to submit herself to a swimming test, to prove that she was not a witch. Chauncy refused her request, and the vicar of the neighbouring parish of Ardley, Robert Strutt proposed instead that Wenham should be asked to repeat the Lord’s Prayer, a feat it was felt would be beyond any witch. Unfortunately for her she “faltered” in her recitation, thus confirming her guilt in the eyes of her accusers. She was sent to Hertford prison to await trial at the next assizes.
Wenham’s case was heard on 4 March 1712 in front of Sir John Powell. Sixteen witnesses appeared for the prosecution, including the Reverend Francis Bragge, Chauncy’s grandson, who testified that Wenham had confessed to him that she had practised witchcraft for sixteen years. Other charges against her included bewitching a child and some sheep, but most damning of all was that she had conversed with the Devil in the form of a cat.
Powell displayed his scepticism at the evidence being presented throughout the trial. At one point a witness alleged that Wenham was able to fly, at which, perhaps apocryphacally, Powell is said to have commented that flying was not against the law. In her defence, all Wenham could say was that “she was a clear woman”. After deliberating for several hours the jury declared that they found her guilty, and Powell was left with no choice but to condemn her to death by hanging. But he also ordered that the sentence be reprieved until further notice, and subsequently obtained for Wenham a royal pardon.
For her own safety, following her release Wenham was given a new home at nearby Gilston, on the estate of a Whig landowner, Colonel Plumer. Following Plumer’s death she was offered alternative accommodation on the estate of the Earl and Countess of Cowper, where she died on 11 January 1730. Wenham was buried in Hertingfordbury churchyard.
Wenham’s case prompted the publication of eight pamphlets, three of which were written by Francis Bragge, who had testified against her at her trial.[c] His assessment was that even “her nearest relations thinks she deserves to die, and that upon other accounts than witchcraft.” Other commentators, including the Reverend Francis Hutchinson, later Bishop of Down and Connor, considered Wenham to be a “good, pious woman”.
Wenham’s case even became a political issue. Tories argued for the reality of witchcraft and Wenham’s alleged actions, whereas the Whigs completely dismissed them.
The historian Keith Thomas has suggested that Wenham’s trial is an example of the judiciary taking a stand against the beliefs of the less well educated, more credulous sort of people who brought this kind of case to court. But while many of those testifying against her were indeed of that type, the case was brought by Henry Chauncy, a university-educated lawyer.
One of the eight contemporary pamphlets, and perhaps the one that makes most sense to a modern reader, suggests that Wenham’s supposed victim, Anne Thorn, was overcome by adolescent sexual hysteria. Its author, the Reverend Henry Stebbing, pointed to the cure for her malady, prescribed by a local white witch, which was to wash her face and hands with a special water and that “one brisk Fellow was permitted to attend her in a private Room, for one, two or three hours, according as there should be occasion”. The academic Phyllis Guskin has also raised the possibility that Thorn may have been pregnant, and that her hysterical behaviour was a deliberate act intended to divert attention from her condition.
It seems likely that Wenham’s only crime was that she was old, poor, living on her own, and a woman unafraid to speak her mind.
- The last recorded English witch trial took place in 1717, but resulted in the accused being acquitted.
- One shilling in 1712 is equivalent to about £100 in average earnings as at 2017.
- Bragge received four guineas from the publisher, Edmund Curll, for his first pamphlet, equivalent to about £8,600 in terms of average earnings as at 2017.