The Trial of Anne de Chantraine (1620-25)

[Back] On the fourteenth of the same month two women of the village, and one from Erpent, came forward as witnesses against her. The first said she knew the accused had the reputation of being a witch, and one day when she felt ill, she was convinced she had been bewitched by Anne. Accordingly she complained to the accused, and Anne prepared some pancakes for her. When she had eaten the first, she began to vomit and immediately felt better. The second witness was a friend of the accused and had received certain confidences from her which she made known to the tribunal-common- places about the Sabbath and the magic powders. She could give only one definite fact: one of her children had been poisoned and cured by Anne on the same day. The third witness declared on oath that the prisoner had cured two bewitched children by taking away a spell, but that she had also procured the death of a young girl "who lived two leagues south of Warêt."

The accusations having been established, the clerk of the court of Warêt gave her in charge at Namur, where, a few weeks later, the Provincial Council gave an authorisation for torture "in order to learn more of the misdemeanours of the accused and of her accomplices."

  Another questioning took place on February 15, 1621, in the course of which Anne revealed to the judges how Christiane de la Chéraille had taught her to cure the bewitched: "When a poisoned person was brought to her to be cure, she said: 'Devil, do you wish me to remove the poison from this person in whom you have placed it?' - and having said this, she seized him under the arms, turned him one way and then the other, saying the same words and touching the hand of the poisoned person, declaring that he was cured and ending with further curious ritual." She admitted to having received four sous for the cure of a girl.

On April 15 Léonard Balzat returned to Warêt. It was decided that the accused should be submitted to the torture of cold and hot water, and two days later the torture was repeated. This time the torturer poured water which was almost boiling through a funnel placed in her throat, already in a terrible condition. In spite of these two sessions, the judges failed to gain their ends, for Anne de Chantraine did not reveal her accomplices.

  Two months passed. On June 14 Léonard Balzat returned and submitted her to the fearful torture reserved for great criminals and sorcerers. She persisted in her declarations, but nothing more could be found out.

Two days later five witnesses came from Liège to testify on her morals. They were Conrad de Phencenal, from whom she had stolen many tin plates; Anne de Chevron, who had lost linen and jewels; Léonard de Vaulx and his daughter, who brought a theft of 300 florins against her. A young merchant tailor, Wautier Betoren, declared he had been her victim to the extent of a piece of linen, but that a friend of Anne, a certain Perpienne, had given him twenty florins by way of indemnity.

Since she now was established as a thief, avowed under torture as a sorceress, her sentence from the Provincial Council can scarcely astonish us. On July 16 Guillaume Bodart, the deputy commissioner, brought to the mairie sentence of death against her, "for the confessed crime of witchcraft, and for having assisted at several larcenies by night, by means of the same witchcraft, in the houses of citizens in the city of Liège." On July 23 the sentence was made known to Anne, and she, overwhelmed with despair, denied all her avowals. In this way she gained time, for only confessions freely admitted counted in law.

The embarrassment occasioned to the judges did not last long. As soon as they were informed, the delegates of the Provincial Council condemned Anne de Chantraine to death anew, on July 26, and this condemnation was immediately read to the girl. She was then asked if all the confessions she had made were true, and she said that they were. The clerk of the court and the jailer then retired, and a religious came to confess her.

  Why was the sentence not executed? No document justified such shirking of duty. Had the denials in extremis of the condemned moved the magistrates of Warêt? Were motives of law, reasons of force majeure added to the documents we now possess? The whole matter is wrapped in mystery. It remains true that the condemned lived on for almost a year in the scabrous village prison. It would seem that she was forgotten.

However, during the winter of 1621-22 the mayor made another visit to Namur. On December 9 he received an answer that "in view of the inquiries held by a deputed commission since the sentence pronounced in the court of Warêt on July 21, the aldermen should see to it that the said sentence be carried into execution according to due form and tenor." On the following day this new sentence was read to Anne de Chantraine. She said to her confessor, Père Monceau, who accompanied the clerk of the court, that she was content to die for her sins, but that she persisted in her denials.

Again the judges temporised, and months went by without a solution. In the summer of 1622 the Council decided to re-examine the facts avowed by the accused. Two new councillors were appointed, and in order to facilitate the inquiry, the accused was taken to Namur, where she was imprisoned in the Tour de Bordial, on the bank of the Sambre, at the foot of the citadel.

  Proceedings began again. Did torture again play its part, or had the two years of hopeless imprisonment so weakened the accused that she confessed freely; or did the judges simply ignore her denials? We do not know, for this part of the trial is surrounded with mystery. It would seem that the judges were particularly interested in the sanity of the accused. At the beginning of September they asked the jailer if he had remarked anything abnormal about Anne. On September 12 he replied that "in daily conversations, the turnkey, his wife, and others have not noticed that she is in any way troubled in mind or in judgement."

On the same day the jailer, armed with scissors and razor, visited her, cut her hair and shaved every part of her body. He took away her clothes, and left only a rough chemise of jute in their place.

But the councillors began to have scruples. They were not content with the jailer's report, and they recalled him. When questioned again on the mental state of the accused, he was less sure in his answers than he had been. He said that "the prisoner was stupid, and did not understand what she said, though sometimes she seemed quite right in her mind."

[Prev] On October 17 the definitive sentence was brought in: death by fire with preliminary strangulation. From that day Anne was kept at Warêt-la-Chaussée, the place fixed for the execution.

During the following night Léonard Balzat and his assistant prepared the pyre, a huge heap of a hundred fagots bought in the village itself. In the centre, sheaves of straw were placed, and a hollow was made in the straw large enough to contain a stool .

At dawn Anne was awakened by the jailer the clerk of the court, and a friar minor, who announced the fatal news to her. She was led out. The executioner was waiting with the cart, and the condemned girl climbed into it. When they reached the end of the village where the pyre was prepared, Anne collected all the strength that remained to her. In a loud voice, she acknowledged her sins, denied that she was a witch, and admitted to no accomplice. Léonard Balzat helped her to climb the pyre, seated her on the stool among the straw and abruptly strangled her. His assistant kindled the straw and the fagots. Acrid smoke quickly enveloped her, and the crackling of the flames was like a fearful whisper through the entire village. The pyre burned for two days. At dawn on the third day the ashes were dispersed to the four winds.

The memory of a young, beautiful, and celebrated witch was for many years to haunt the minds of the villagers. Her story was told and retold by the light of a winter's fire. No one, however, knew her name, and no folklorist recounted her trial. Only F. Chavee, in his "Notice sur le village de Leuze" (Annales de la Société archéolique, 21 [1895], 481), speaks of "a field situated between Leuze and Warêt-la-Chaussée, made famous by a Liège witch and poisoner whom the justices of the high court of Warêt condemned to death and executed in the year 1623 [sic]."