From the DNB: the last convicted witch in England

JANE WENHAM (d. 1730)

Like many accused witches in the early modern period, Jane Wenham of Church Lane, Walkern, Hertfordshire, had long been suspected of witchcraft before she was brought to court, as well as having a reputation for “swearing, cursing, idleness, thievery, and whoredom”. Perhaps she did not enjoy her reputation. Twice widowed and with children by the time of her prosecution in 1712,* ironically she herself seems to have set off the legal process that led to her trial when she complained to a local JP of defamation by a neighbour who had called her a “Witch and a Bitch”. When she could get satisfaction from neither the JP (who refused to take any action) nor the local church minister’s arbitration, she was heard to say “if she could not have justice here she would have it elsewhere”, “dangerous words for any witch to utter”, as the biographer (Owen Davies) points out. Shortly afterwards the minister’s daughter was “afflicted with terrible fits and delusions” (Salem is, by the way, merely the most famous example of cases where children and adolescents played this kind of prominent role) and Jane immediately came under suspicion.

She was arrested and searched for teats (which would have represented a sign that she had been suckling a demon ‘familiar’); none were found. She herself offered to undergo a swimming test, but instead another test was proposed: to recite the Lord’s Prayer (something a witch was supposedly unable to do). When she faltered, “her guilt was confirmed in the eyes of those present” (no doubt if she had ‘passed’, they would simply have tried other ‘tests’ until they found one that she would fail…), and she was committed to prison to await trial. Sixteen witnesses lined up against her, with typical accounts of bewitching young children and livestock, as well as “a magic concoction said to be made from rendered corpses”. The only indictment accepted by lawyers, however, concerned not the ‘maleficium’ (harmful witchcraft) but a charge of conversing with the devil in the form of a cat (a ‘diabolical pact’; it’s often argued whether diabolism was a part of continental European conceptions of witchcraft imported to English law and superimposed on a distinctive form of English witch beliefs).

Jane was convicted, but the death sentenced was reprieved by the judge, Sir John Powell, who had been sceptical throughout the trial and subsequently intervened on her behalf for a royal pardon, despite a pamphlet campaign against her. But it would seem that it was too dangerous for her to go home again, and she was given shelter first by a whig landowner, Colonel Plumer, at Gilston, Herts, and later by Earl and Countess Cowper at Hertingfordbury, near Hertford, where she died and was buried in 1730.

It looks as though Jane became caught up in the political rivalries of the early eighteenth century; three of the virulent pamphlets against her were written by a high-churchman (ie, a Tory) and her protectors after her pardon were Whigs. But the fact that she had to leave her home for her own safety also reminds us that while those in authority – like Sir John Powell – were becoming increasingly sceptical about witchcraft, leading to the repeal of the capital witchcraft statutes in 1736, ‘ordinary’ people did not necessarily concur. Historians such as Peter Burke have written of an increasing gap between ‘elite’ and ‘popular’ culture during the early modern period, and witchcraft beliefs can be taken as one index of this.

It should be noted, though, that scepticism about witchcraft among the learned and powerful had been around as long as the ‘witch craze’ itself (and conversely, they did not all suddenly stop believing in 1736…). But earlier scepticism had often taken the form of doubts about whether witches were as dangerous as they were portrayed and the possibility of deciding guilt or innocence; in the eighteenth century, more fundamental doubts about whether witches existed at all were on the rise. What marks the early modern period out (across much of Britain, Europe and the American colonies, though with considerable variety in many respects, including timing, intensity and the extent to which women were the primary targets of accusations**) is not simply the existence of witch beliefs, but the extent to which those who made and enforced laws regarded witches as a social and often political threat so serious that that they had to be hunted out and subjected to the harshest rigours of the law.

Incidentally, while Jane may have been the last convicted witch in England, in Scotland (different legal system, remember) that dubious honour belongs to Helen Duncan in 1944. (Yes, you read that date right; the trial took place in the midst of wartime/political paranoia – a not uncommon feature of much early modern witch persecution.)

Links on the rise and fall of witch hunting

Witchcraft and the occult 1400-1700
The witch hunts
WWW-VL Witchcraft links
Salem Witch Trials documentary archive
Witchcraft bibliography project (pdf)
The Damned Art
Witchcraft, demonology and inquisition
Finnish witch trials
Witchcraft in seventeenth-century Flintshire
Witches and witch trials in England, Scotland, Ireland, the Channel Islands

*This date seemed odd to me at first; I had a notion that the prosecution was sometime around 1730 (and this date appears in some online resources too). But the pamphlets cited are dated 1712, and that date is in the title of a secondary article. Perhaps there’s been a confusion with the date of Jane’s death…

** In some areas, the profile was quite different to the usual stereotypes, notably Scandinavia where most of the accused were men. Some regions (Wales is the example I know best) saw very few witch trials at all; the parts of Europe torn apart by religious wars were the most affected, particularly in terms of mass trials and burnings (by the way, whatever certain films may tell you, witches in England were hanged not burnt to death).

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3 Responses to From the DNB: the last convicted witch in England

  1. If you want a completely different perspective, I highly recommend Kuhn’s Soulstealers about a 1768 sorcery scare in China. His background material on magical thinking and practice, and on magic in Chinese law make fascinating comparative reading.

  2. ironically she herself seems to have set off the legal process that led to her trial when she complained to a local JP of defamation by a neighbour who had called her a “Witch and a Bitch”

    Oscar Wilde could have warned her about that. (Well, you know what I mean.)

  3. Sharon says:

    Jonathan D: I’ll put it on my reading list (So I might get to it in about 5 years time).

    Jonathan E: I was thinking of Wilde as I wrote it. Sort of related, at least one historian I can think of (Christopher Haigh) suggested that when both ecclesiastical and secular courts were active in policing moral/sexual behaviour, one factor in initiating defamation suits was a need to pre-empt the danger of being prosecuted for the delinquency alleged by the defamer…

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