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The Last Witch

Hertford is remarkable for having been the scene of the last occasion when a person was condemned to death for Witchcraft in England.

The witch in question was Jane Wenham, of Walkern, who had apparently long held a reputation in the village for being a wise woman. This seemed to annoy her, and in 1712 she complained to a magistrate that a local farmer was calling her a witch. The parish priest was brought in as a mediator and suggested that the farmer should pay her a shilling (5p) as compensation for the insult. Jane was not content with this, and according to local rumour, began to use her magical powrs against the clergyman and his household. His servert fell mysteriously ill and was pestered by a persistent noise of cats outside her door. Later, she claimed to have seen cats, one of whom had the face of Jane Wenham, and presented her with a knife, urging that she should kill herself with it.The whole village was profoundly disturbed by these happenings and others were found to state that they had seen a cat with a face resembling Jane's.

Eventually the woman was brought to trial at the Hertford Assizes before Chief Justice Powell, who, being a man of bluff common sense, ridiculed the whole idea of witchcraft. The jury, however, was of a different opinion, and despite the summing up and "direction" from the judge, found that Jane was guilty. Judge Powell had no choice but to condemn her to death, but through his influence she was later given a Royal Pardon.

The case excited great interest not only in the Borough and County, but throughout the country, and a shower of pamphlets and lampoons poured forth both in Jane's favour and against her.

In her later days she gained the sympathy of Earl Cowper of Panshangar, who made some charitable proviion for her. In 1736, the old laws against witchcraft were repealed and thenceforward people could be prosecuted only for the pretended exercse of supernatural powers.

Bibliography:
History Of Hertford by Dr.F.M.Page (1959), published by Hertford Town Council and available from Hertford Museum.


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