In March 1712 Jane Wenham of the Hertfordshire village of Walkern stood trial at the lent assizes in Hertford. She was charged under the Witchcraft and Conjuration Act of 1604 for “conversing familiarly with the Devil in the shape of a cat”.
The trial was the cause of much religious and political polemic. Despite Judge John Powell’s scepticism regarding the evidence heard in court – when one witness testified that Wenham was able to fly, Powell replied “there is no law against flying” – the jury found Wenham guilty.
She was the last person to be convicted for witchcraft in England. Sentenced to hang, she was subsequently pardoned by Queen Anne and lived out the rest of her life in the care of local gentry until her death in 1730. The trial is often cited as the end of an era, with the last of the witch trials bringing the curtains down on the early modern period and ushering in the Enlightenment.
The Wenham trial was not an aberration though. There is no doubt that the majority of the population of 18th-century England believed in witchcraft, including many in educated society. As the furore over the Wenham case shows, the belief in witchcraft was an important political, religious and cultural issue at both a local and national level.