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.