Jane Wenham: The Witch of Walkern
The Trials of Jane Wenham
Jane Wenham (abt 1642-1730) was the subject of what is commonly but erroneously regarded as the last witch trial in England. She was 70 years old when brought to trial and her case appears to have been typical in that she was reputed to be a wise-woman, but poor to the point of starvation. She had been married twice but appeared to have been deserted by her second husband Edward Wenham, who sent word around Hertford by the “crier” to the effect that he had separated from her. Not long afterwards, in 1699, he died, and her neighbours began to suggest that his death had been brought about by Jane’s use of witchcraft. Her first husband, Philip Cooke, had also met with a suspicious and unpleasant death (buried at St Mary’s on 27th November 1696), and within a couple of months Jane had married Edward Wenham (February 1697), thus fuelling the rumour mill.
On New Year’s Day in 1712 things came to a head. Matthew Gilson, a labourer on the farm of John Chapman was asked by Jane for a handful or two of straw, possibly for her to sell to straw plaiters: she had asked him once before and he again refused her request. She walked away, muttering as she went. Matthew reported that he then felt strangely compelled to run to Munders Green (near Wood End, Ardeley) and collect straw from a dung heap. Farmer John Chapman, was incensed by this apparent bewitching of his farmhand, and having been suspicious for some years that Jane had been bewitching his livestock, he publicly heaped abuse and threats upon her, and accused her of being a ‘witch and a bitch’.
Jane, who seems to have been rather feisty, went to see the local magistrate Sir Henry Chauncy of Ardeley Bury, to bring a charge of defamation against the farmer and ask for protection. It is ironic that it was Jane herself who initiated events leading to her trial. Sir Henry laid the matter before Revd Godfrey Gardiner, the Rector of Walkern, and Gardiner tried to make peace by suggesting that Chapman award Jane with a shilling, advising her to be less quarrelsome. But she was not content and left angrily, saying that she would have justice “some other way”, words that would be misconstrued and later be used against her.
At Jane’s trial much was made of next supposed victim of Jane’s sorcery. Anne Thorn, the 16 year old maid to Revd Gardiner’s wife, had put her knee out of joint and it had just been set by the bone-setter, but in spite of her lameness she was found in her room, only partly dressed, with a bundle of oak twigs wrapped up in her gown. She said she had been compelled to run along White Hill toward Cromer, and there saw a little old woman in a riding hood who helped to make the bundle. The Rector, a believer in witchcraft, told Anne to throw her twigs on the fire as it was believed that bewitcher would then appear. Anne did so, and as they blazed up, in walked Jane Wenham! From that time Anne Thorn is said to have been possessed by strange impulses and suffered uncontrollable fits. Though still lame she several more times ran along White Hill, leaping over a shut gate rather than through an open one, gathering sticks, and appearing with handfuls of crooked pins which came from nowhere. It was said that she licked them off her pillow. Ultimately, Anne Thorn attempted to drown herself in the Beane.
A warrant for Wenham’s arrest was issued by Sir Henry Chauncy, and she was apprehended at her cottage in Church Lane. Her cottage, was probably similar to the 15th century thatched cottage now called Wych Elm cottage in Church Lane, and is locally believed to have been sited next door.
Jane requested that she undergo witch trials to prove her innocence and avoid being detained. She had pins driven into her flesh to see if blood flowed. It didn’t. She was searched for ‘witch-marks’ e.g. a third nipple, and was asked to repeat the Lord’s Prayer, as it was believed that no witch could do so. Unfortunately she was not being able to recit the prayer without stumbling, and she was locked up in the village cage (called the White House). The next day she was again asked to repeat the Lord’s Prayer, but again she stumbled, and no doubt through tiredness, confusion and fear, Jane confessed to witchcraft, implicating 13 other women who were all later questioned but released.
This culminated in her committal, imprisonment, and appearance at Hertford Assizes. She was brought before the judge, Sir John Powell, on 4 March 1712, and pleaded not guilty. Evidence was brought by sixteen witnesses, led by Walkern’s
Revd Godfrey Gardiner, Revd Robert Strutt (the Vicar of Ardeley) and the Revd Francis Bragge. Bragge, the newly appointed curate of Biggleswade, was son of the fanatical Rector of Hitchin, and appeared to want to live up to his father’s reputation. Evidence was given of Jane’s bewitching of Matthew Gilston and Anne Thorn, of two infants who had subsequently died; sheep that had died, and others that “behaved strangely, skipping about and standing on their heads”. The jury were told that “innumerable” cats appeared in the village, and haunted the Rectory. Bragge gave evidence that the feathers in Anne Thorn’s pillow were gathered into round “cakes” which seemed to be stuck together with what might be grease from a dead man’s bones.
The jury, after considering the indictment and evidence for two hours, found Jane guilty of ‘conversing with the devil in the shape of a cat.’ Justice Powell, described by Dean Swift as ‘the merriest old gentleman I have ever seen’ had no alternative but to condemn the accused to death.
Powell was not convinced by the evidence and made sardonic remarks throughout the trial. When an accusation of flying was made, he remarked there was no law against doing so. When one witness offered to show him the pins which Anne Thorne had found appearing from nowhere, he replied that he did not wish to see them as he supposed they were crooked pins. He did ask to see the cakes of feathers from Anne’s pillow, but these, they said, had been destroyed. He immediately set aside her conviction, suspending the death penalty, then sought and obtained a Royal Pardon from Queen Anne.
Jane Wenham was set free and, as she could not go back to Walkern, was was given refuge firstly on the estate of Coloner Plummer at Gliston Park, and when Plummer died in 1720, at the Hertingfordbury estate of the Whig William Cowper. There she lived until nearly 90 years old, supported by charity. She was buried at St Mary’s Hertingfordbury on 11 January 1730.
Read more about Jane Wenham & 18th century witchcraft…