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date: 19 April 2021

Wenham, Janefree

(d. 1730)
  • Owen Davies

Wenham, Jane (d. 1730), last person convicted of witchcraft in England, details of whose upbringing are unknown, lived in Church Lane, Walkern, Hertfordshire, and for many years endured a reputation in the village not only for witchcraft but also for swearing, cursing, idleness, thievery, and whoredom. She was married twice, and had a number of children, but was a widow by the time of her prosecution in March 1712. Earlier that year a farmer named John Chapman called her a 'Witch and Bitch', blaming her for a spate of deaths among his livestock. Wenham decided to nip any further accusations in the bud, and on 9 February she applied to the local justice, Sir Henry Chauncy, for a warrant against Chapman for defamation. Chauncy declined to take any legal action, and instead the local minister, Godfrey Gardiner, was obliged to arbitrate. Much to Wenham's annoyance, Gardiner merely ordered Chapman to pay her a shilling in compensation, and took no further action. As she left the meeting Jane was heard to say 'if she could not have justice here she would have it elsewhere'. These were dangerous words for any suspected witch to utter, and, not surprisingly, when Gardiner's servant, a young woman named Ann Thorn, was subsequently afflicted with terrible fits and delusions Wenham was immediately identified as the culprit.

Chauncy issued a warrant for her arrest and Wenham was searched for teats, which would prove her bond with the devil. None being found, Jane then offered to be swum in order to prove her innocence. Chauncy refused, but the vicar of the neighbouring parish of Ardley, Robert Strutt, proposed another test: to repeat the Lord's prayer, which it was thought no witch could achieve. Unfortunately, Jane faltered in her recitation. Her guilt was confirmed in the eyes of those present, and she was sent to Hertford prison to await trial at the next assizes. Her case was heard on 4 March before Sir John Powell. There were sixteen witnesses for the prosecution, including Gardiner, Strutt, and the Revd Francis Bragge, Chauncy's grandson and a friend of Gardiner. Bragge told the court that Wenham had confessed to him that she had practised witchcraft for sixteen years. Other villagers gave accounts of how she had bewitched them. Elizabeth Field, for example, stated how nine years earlier Wenham had cast a spell over a child in her care, and Thomas Adams swore that she had bewitched some of his sheep. Despite many damning testimonies and proofs, including the discovery under her pillow of a magic concoction said to be made from rendered corpses, the only indictment which the assize lawyers would accept was that she had conversed with the devil in the form of a cat.

After hearing all the evidence Wenham could only say that 'she was a clear woman'. The court was adjourned and when it reconvened several hours later the jury announced that they found her guilty as charged. The punishment was death by hanging, but on Powell's orders the sentence was reprieved until further notice. The high-churchman Francis Bragge, who subsequently wrote three pamphlets on the case, asserted that even 'her nearest relations thinks she deserves to die, and that upon other accounts than witchcraft' (Bragge, Full and Impartial Account, 33). However, Powell, who throughout the trial had expressed his scepticism at the evidence, managed to obtain a royal pardon for Wenham. She was removed from Walkern for her own safety, and was given a home on the estate of a whig landowner, Colonel Plumer at Gilston. There she was visited by the Revd Francis Hutchinson, later bishop of Down and Connor, who thought her a good, pious woman. After Plumer's death she was looked after by Earl and Countess Cowper on their estate at Hertingfordbury. She died there on 11 January 1730, and was buried in Hertingfordbury churchyard.

Sources

  • [F. Bragge], A full and impartial account of the discovery of sorcery and witchcraft practis'd by Jane Wenham of Walkerne in Hertfordshire (1712)
  • [F. Bragge], Witchcraft further display'd (1712)
  • The case of the Hertfordshire witchcraft consider'd (1712)
  • A full confutation of witchcraft (1712)
  • F. Hutchinson, A historical essay concerning witchcraft (1718)
  • P. J. Guskin, ‘The context of English witchcraft: the case of Jane Wenham (1712)’, Eighteenth-Century Studies, 15 (1981–2), 48–71
  • W. B. Gerish, Hertfordshire folk-lore (1970)
  • I. Bostridge, Witchcraft and its transformations, c.1650–c.1750 (1997)