Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Wenham, Jane

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WENHAM, JANE (d. 1730), the last woman condemned for witchcraft in England, was a native of Walkern, Hertfordshire. On 9 Feb. 1712 she obtained a warrant on a charge of defamation against a farmer, who had called her a witch; but the quarrel was referred to the rector of Walkern, John Gardiner. He admonished Jane to live more peaceably with her neighbours, and awarded her the sum of one shilling as compensation from the farmer. Shortly after Jane Wenham had left the presence of the parson the servant-maid at the parsonage behaved in a most unaccountable manner, and it was alleged that, in order to show her dissatisfaction at the manner in which she had been treated, Jane had bewitched this young girl in exactly the same manner in which the villagers said she previously bewitched a farm labourer. A warrant was now obtained to arrest her, on a charge of witchcraft, from the local justice, Sir Henry Chauncy [q. v.], who directed four women to search her for witch marks, but these eluded all search. Rather than be sent to gaol, the reputed witch offered to submit herself to the swimming test. As an alternative Robert Strutt, vicar of the neighbouring parish of Ardley, tried her with the Lord's Prayer. Having repeated this incorrectly, she subsequently confessed that she was a witch, and was sent to Hertford gaol for three weeks to await the assizes. She was tried before Sir John Powell (1645–1713) [q. v.] on 4 March, when sixteen witnesses, three of whom were clergymen, appeared against the prisoner. The lawyers refused to draw up the indictment for any other charge than that of conversing with the devil in the form of a cat. Upon this indictment, in despite of the leading of the judge (who, when it was alleged that the prisoner could fly, remarked that there was no law against flying), the jury found her guilty, and she was sentenced to death. Powell succeeded in obtaining her pardon from the queen. The high-flying section of the country clergy endeavoured to get up a demonstration and a protest. A long war of pamphlets ensued, and the clergy who had been engaged in the prosecution drew up a document strongly asserting their belief in the guilt of the accused, animadverting severely upon the conduct of the judge, and concluding with the solemn words ‘Liberavimus animas nostras.’ The controversy was pursued in ‘Witchcraft farther Display'd … with an Answer to the most general Objections against the Being and Power of Witches,’ followed by ‘A Full Confutation of Witchcraft … proving that Witchcraft is Priestcraft,’ ‘The Impossibility of Witchcraft … in which the Depositions against Jane Wenham are confuted,’ ‘A Defence of the Proceedings against Jane Wenham’ [by Francis Bragge of Peterhouse], and a more dispassionate investigation, entitled ‘The Case of the Hertfordshire Witchcraft consider'd.’ All these pamphlets appeared in 1712.

The case of Jane Wenham was the last instance of a witch being condemned to death by an English jury. In 1718 Francis Hutchinson [q. v.] may be said to have given the superstition its deathblow by the publication of his ‘Historical Essay,’ in which the delusions of witch-finders are ably exposed, and in 1736 the statute against witchcraft was repealed. It was, however, in this same county of Hertford, in April 1751, that the poor old woman Ruth Osborne [q. v.] was done to death by a ferocious rabble at Long Marston, near Tring.

Jane Wenham retired to Hertingfordbury, where she was supported by the charity of Colonel Plumer, and after his death by that of Earl and Countess Cowper. She died on 11 June 1730, and ‘her funeral sermon was preached by the Rev. Mr. Squire.’

[A Full and Impartial Account of the Discovery of Sorcery and Witchcraft, practis'd by Jane Wenham … also her Tryal at the Assizes at Hertford before Mr. Justice Powell, where she was found Guilty of Felony and Witchcraft, and receiv'd Sentence of Death for the Same, March 4, 1711–12; ‘Thou shalt not suffer a Witch to live,’ London, 1712; Wright's Narratives of Sorcery and Witchcraft, ii. 319–25; Lecky's Hist. of Rationalism in Europe, chap. iii.; Buckle's Posthumous Fragments, i. 66; Hutchinson's Historical Essay concerning Witchcraft, with Observations tending to confute the vulgar errors about that point, 1718, p. 144; Clutterbuck's Hertfordshire, ii. 461 n.; Brit. Museum Cat. s.v. ‘Wenham.’]

T. S.