Jane Wenham, Witch of Walkern

 

The following account comes from Highways and Byways of Hertfordshire

Front page of text about Jane Wenham,, the Witch or WalkernI cannot dismiss the name of Chauncy from my page just yet, and that for a most excellent reason. For the trend of my somewhat sentimental journey leads me next to Walkern, and the trial of Jane Wenham of Walkern at the instigation of Sir Henry Chauncy was the last trial for witchcraft held in England.

It was in the year 1713. The Rev. Francis Bragge of Hitchin [This is an error - see below] was a witness against the supposed witch, and was afterwards the author of a pamphlet which was bought in great numbers and read with avidity. The whole story, viewed from this distance of time, is so utterly foolish and contemptible that we can only wonder how learned and able men could occupy themselves with its investigation , and were it not that history teems with other cases equally foolish, we might suppose the details of the trial and condemnation of Jane Wenham grossly exaggerated.

Chauncy had committed the woman to Hertford gaol on a charge of witchcraft, and according to the extraordinary evidence adduced at her trial she was a witch indeed. Anne Thorn, a girl of sixteen years of age, had dislocated her knee. It was alleged that one day, as she was sitting before the fire by reason of the weakness of her limb, she suddenly bounded out of the house, ran swiftly down the road for about half a mile, jumped a high gate with ease, and returned home after an absence of only six or seven minutes, bringing with her, wrapped in her apron, some sticks which she had gathered by the way! In the eyes of Hertfordshire experts this was in itself ample proof that Anne Thorn had been subjected, at the bidding of some naughty wizard or witch, to the tender mercies of the Evil One or his emissaries. Nor was evidence wanting to prove that the perpetrator of this wickedness was a witch and none other than Jane Wenham of Walkern. For Jane had been vigorously attacked by the infuriated Anne, and her flesh was not as the flesh of womankind, for the sound of Anne's finger-nails against her face was as the sound of "scratching " against a wainscot.

Nor was this unaccompanied by other wonders. A "gentleman " in point of fact Mr. Arthur Chauncy kindly made a little experiment for his own satisfaction, and by repeatedly burying a pin to the head in Jane Wenham's arm proved conclusively that she bore pain without flinching, that she shed no blood when wounded, and that she must therefore be a witch. Here was cumulative and circumstantial evidence which none could gainsay, but there was more behind. It was found that poor Jane could not repeat the Lord's Prayer correctly and, most ominous of all this damning evidence, cats were wont to lurk in her presence in a most peculiar manner. What need had an enlightened jury of any further witnesses? Jane Wenham was declared, after full, and of course impartial hearing, to be guilty of personal intercourse with the father of lies, who conversed with her in the likeness of a cat, and the jury considered her worthy of death.

I am pleased to be able to record that Judge Powell thought otherwise, and that having formally sentenced her to die the death of a witch, he sought and obtained her a pardon. Her case came to the notice of Col. John Plumer (an ancestor of [Charles] Lamb's Plumers), who ten years before had purchased the estate of New Place at Gilston, a dozen miles from the scene of the trial, and the Colonel permitted the " witch " to live peacefully in a cottage on his estate. As I have said, this woman of Walkern was the last person ever arraigned before English justices on so foolish a charge. Perhaps it is as well for many that they can even now be ignorant with impunity, for if an inaccurate repetition of the Lord's Prayer involved a young woman in a trial for witchcraft, such trials would still occur with considerable frequency.

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For more information see Hertfordshire Memories, Wikipedia & The Last Witch of England

An article on the subject is published in Issue No. 1 of Herts Past & Present.

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Answers to Questions

August 2005

Simon Walker (smnwlkr1 @t yahoo.co.uk) and author of The Witches of Hertfordshire, writes: Just to let you know that your page on Wenham perpetuates a myth that the vicar of Hitchin was directly involved in the Wenham prosecution. The reason the error has arisen is a confusion between Francis Bragge (senior) who WAS vicar of Hitchin and his son, Francis Bragge (junior), who was of course, not...

Bragge senior was son-in-law to Sir Henry Chauncy (he married Jane Chauncy in 1686), and Bragge junior (b. 1690) was consequently Chauncy's grandson. There were nine pamphlets on the case (three by Bragge junior) and it is quite clear from their contents that this is the case.  Bragge junior refers to two clergymen being involved with the prosecution (the reverends Strutt and Gardiner), and himself as one of the witnesses at the trial; and one of the pamphlets attacking belief in witches refers to Bragge as grandson of Sir Henry Chauncy.

I know your page is taken from another source, but as this is the sort of trap genealogists might fall into, I thought you'd like to know! I have all the pamphlets if you want the quotations that are relevant in full.

I am always happy to publicise such corrections as many stories, such as The Wicked Lady of Markyate,  seem to grow with the telling, and few of the authors actually check the facts.

Page updated August 2006