Famous Lasts The Last Witchcraft Trial in England Part 1

About the famous last witchcraft trial in England, history of the final witch trial.



This was the trial of Jane Wenham in 1712, more than half a century after the notorious, self-styled "Witchfinder General," Matthew Hopkins, whipped up witch-hunting in England to its worst excesses.

By 1712 the climate of opinion was calmer. Like many so-called "witches," Jane Wenham was well known as a local "character" before her arrest at the Hertford assizes. Dubbed "the wise woman of Walkern," she had had an argument with a farmer who accused her of bewitching his farmhand Matthew Gilson. Earlier, Jane had asked Gilson for a pennyworth of straw. He refused her request and was later seen running through the village asking passersby for straw and stuffing manure down his shirt. His employer called Jane "a witch and a bitch." She tried to sue Gilson's employer for defamation of character, but the local magistrate persuaded both parties to settle their feud before the local rector.

Unfortunately for Jane, the Reverend Gardiner believed in witches. He fined the farmer one shilling and lectured Jane about getting along with her neighbors, but he didn't forget the incident. Later, he too had servant trouble. One of his domestic servants, Anne Thorne, had seen "a little old woman muffled in a riding hood" and, like Gilson, Anne had started running. She ran until she found Jane Wenham, who asked her where she was going. "To Cromer for sticks to make a fire," Anne said. Jane allegedly told her to take branches from a nearby tree and carry them home bundled up in her clothing. A half-naked Anne Thorne arrived back at the minister's house with a lot of explaining to do. Her only comment: "I am ruined and undone." After this experience, she was also subject to fits.

Jane Wenham was arrested and searched for witches' marks (none were found). Her house was ransacked. Under her pillow, the authorities found a magic ointment made from the fat of melted corpses, as well as weird cakes made of feathers--or so they said.

Jane offered to submit to the water test to prove her innocence. This involved having her right thumb tied to her left big toe and thus "cross-bound" being immersed three times in water. If she floated she was obviously a witch. If she sank, she was innocent--but also dead from drowning. Fortunately, cooler heads prevailed, and she was given the Lord's Prayer test instead. Being completely flustered, she failed to recite the prayer correctly and then confessed she was a witch. She also implicated three other women, but these were quickly exonerated.

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