Witchcraft debate in the early 18th century
Jane Wenham: The Witch of Walkern
The trial and conviction of Jane Wenham in 1712 caused a sensation in London, with multiple broadsheets proclaiming her innocence or guilt, and spawning a welter of pamphlets. The protagonists in the debate fell into two groups. Those in favour of Jane?s conviction were Tory traditionalists, believers in absolute monarchy, high church and eager to retain belief in the supernatural, their theme was that of ?the church in danger?: Those who argued against her conviction were a variety of liberal, progressive Whigs, believers in a constitutional or limited monarchy and sceptical of witchcraft.
The most prolific writer in favour of her conviction was Francis Bragge, son of the vicar of Hitchin and grandson of Sir Henry Chauncy of Ardeley Bury. Bragge wrote three pamphlets in favour of Wenham?s conviction and was eager to associate the Church of England and its priesthood with certain forms of miracle-working, declaring that he was ?not at all ashamed to own such Holy Charms or Amulets against Satan?. He hoped that some of the events of the Wenham affair might create a ?due Reverence and respect to Prayers in general, and those of our Holy Church in particular?. He used Jane?s guilt and thence the proven reality of witchcraft as a rallying cry for disaffected traditionalists. Bragge saw himself as pitting ?frothy Libertines? against ?the Grave, the Wise, and the Learned in all Ages?.
Jane?s innocence was adopted as a cause by, among others, William Cowper the 1st Earl Cowper, a Whig aristocrat and the first Lord Chancellor of Great Britain, and within whose estate in Hertfordbury Jane was to live after her trial. It was easy for the Whig progressives to disparage witchcraft and ?country beliefs? as those of the ill-educated rustic and ?the wild Testimonies of a parcel of Brain-sick People?.
The climax of this highly charged dispute was An Historical Essay Concerning Witchcraft, published in 1718 by Bishop Francis Hutchinson, a Whig and a staunch opponent of witch-hunting. He actually visited Jane in Hertingfordbury in her later life. His Essay was the ?last word in the witchcraft debate, a masterpiece of humane rationalism.?
Hutchinson had wanted to publish his work in 1712, the year of Jane?s trial, seeking advice from Sir Hans Sloane, luminary of the new formed Royal Society, and talked of dedicating his book to Justice Powell, the judge in Jane?s trial who secured her pardon, if Powell approved of them. But he did not publish in 1712, maybe through fear of damaging his reputation – an opportunity missed in terms of publicity and sales. It was too risky a subject for publication until witchcraft belief descended into the realms of ridicule, and by 1718 it was no longer respectable to believe in witchcraft.