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Hunting hags in La Haye-du-Puits

This postcard of La Haye-du-Puits came to us in a bundle of a dozen ‘Normandie 10’. Bargain. It is not the most exciting card we own.

haye de puitsBrilliant brocante!

The lighting on our match would have been better if we hadn’t been distracted by a massive brocante on the outskirts of the town. Under a vast hanger, the lure of dusty glassware and 1980’s computer parts was too much.

So our apologies for a rather dark picture. The original photographer should apologise for the view, taken across a now non-existent railway line, looking towards the distant town.

A curious choice

There are some lovely old buildings in La Haye-du-Puits to photograph, and there would have been more when this postcard was taken – the town had a bad time of it in 1944.

Visitors can still see a nice, slightly battered, church (one steeple, it’s pair not replaced after ’44), the tower of Baron Turstin Haldup’s 11th century fortified château with slots visible for a drawbridge, and bits of a nice 16th/17th century manor house. But no, our photographer took a picture of the railway lines. Not even with a train.

To be fair you can just make out the towers and steeple in the distance. With a magnifying glass.

A terrible history

We think the photographer thought this was quite close enough because of La Haye-du-Puits’ shocking reputation.

Sorcellerie - Witchcraft
Sorcière – Witches

The terrible trials that coloured the town’s reputation may have been back in the 17th century, but our photographer clearly thought you can’t be too careful.

The King of France may have disagreed, but what would he know, tucked up in his nice warm castle, about grudges and spells and the devil in 17th century Manche….

The hunt is on

Back to 1669 and a dark time in La Haye du Puits history.

Archdeacon of Coutance, M.Rossignol, could not see anything unusual during his Easter visit. These trips to review the sanctity of the town were a regular pleasure for the Archdeacon, and a chance for the local priests and midwife to enthusiastically report on the town sinners.

High on the naughty list this year were outspoken shepherd Richard Baude (missing service) and 15yr old Catherine Chastans (2 illegitimate children). Suitable ecclesiastical threats were made and the pair shunned.

The following day local priest, Curé Antoine Questier, distributed Easter loaves to his parishioners. In spite of M.Rossignol’s threats Questier also delivered loaves to Catherine and Richard. The parishioners of La Haye du Puits seethed with indignation.

During the following summer an unfortunate young man called Jacques Noel, who suffered from epilepsy and the judgement of others, made wild claims that local people had tried to convert him to devil worship. Under interrogation he elaborated on his story and many names went on record. For some reason the Bishop of Coutances was unwilling to act on the information.

Cold hearts and old grudges

The bitter winter of January 1670 reflected the hearts of the parishioners of La Haye-du-Puits. As poor children died of many causes and cattle sickened in the cold, sorcery was blamed for the town’s misery.

La Haye-du-Puits and Carentan, Manche

A pastoral letter was read out denouncing (but not yet naming) those who had tempted Jacques Noel. A cloud of angry distrust settled on La Haye-du-Puits.

Local busybody the widow Charlotte la Vavaseur helpfully compiled a list of those she suspected of witchcraft. Although the Curé told her to stop meddling, she quietly fed the town with stories of devil worship, shamelessly settling old scores and imagined slights.

Soon the rumours reached a crescendo and arrests were made. Not the appalling Charlotte, but those she hated and had named as sorcerers.  The first arrests were made in Cretteville and the prisoners taken to La Haye-du-Puits for examination.

Hag hunted

Unfortunately for Charlotte a group of children bought up on dark fairy tales and caught up in the fever of betrayal, decided she, an old crone, must be a witch and chased her though the village throwing stones.

This unwanted attention gave local prosecutor Jacques Lemenager enough reason to suspect her.  He had the suspects questioned about her devil worshipping involvement.  Charlotte was quickly denounced.

A tribunal of prominent local citizens was formed including Jean de la Place, Prior of the Lessay Abbey and respected expert in witchcraft.

Suspects were questioned, the less informative ones were tortured and witnesses, some children, enthusiastically denounced their neighbours.

Poor Charlotte, who should have been ignored, was exorcised by ‘expert’ Dom Mathieu Maury in the local chapel. He questioned her in Latin and formal French that she did not understand. When her answers were deemed unhelpful Charlotte was tortured until she collapsed.

Torture for truth

Exorcism of a witch 1598
Exorcism of a witch 1598

Daily throughout the month citizens of La Haye-du-Puits and the surrounding countryside were denounced.  Baude the shepherd, with a reputation for resisting authority was unsurprisingly arrested. He admitted nothing under torture. Age was no barrier as residents from 11 to 75 years old were arrested and tortured to reveal the ‘truth’, many implicated more townsfolk.

Questier, the kindly priest, tried to help those arrested and their families by talking reason to the tribunal. He was angrily rebuffed. His concerned superiors suggested it would be safer to leave town. He did not and was promptly arrested for making magical potions for his parishioners, rather than tending to their souls.

A sour spring

By the end of March 66 accused were imprisoned, 18 were under the age of 15, 7 had already died and 3 had gone mad.

La Place, the expert in sorcery, was disgruntled. He needed approval from the regional parliament in Rouen to carry out his justifiable sentences against the sorcerers and he thought it was taking far too long. As well as the risk of evil spreading in the town keeping so may sinners captive was proving very expensive.

To speed things up on 25 April 1670 10 prisoners were taken to Carentan.

Carentan set up another tribunal of local worthies. This group decided to check Charlotte and Questier for ‘marks of the devil’, places on their body that felt no pain from the probing knives. The search did not stop until both collapsed. The ritual was resumed a few days later and deemed successful. Charlotte and Questier were indeed witches.

The whole group was sentenced to death (awaiting approval) and taken to Rouen. They were to expect further torture to reveal more of their kind.

A spark of humanity

The eminently sensible Claude Pellot
The eminently sensible Claude Pellot

In Rouen the sentences, in spite of no evidence and hearsay convictions, were confirmed for five of the accused.

But a spark of humanity and reason still remained in Rouen.   Claude Pellot, president of the regional parliament, was a distant cousin of Colbert the Chief Minister of France. A family link however distant ensured a letter he wrote outlining the trials received swift attention.

However the accused were soon back in Carentan with just one night between them and a terrible death.

A scaffold and pyre were built in the Place Royal as scores of people came from across Manche to witness the sorcerers execution.

Questier’s farewell

During the night the body of poor well meaning Questier could take no more. He looked towards the heavens and, surrounded by friends, breathed his last.

In the morning news of his death unsettled the crowds. Some thought a speedy execution would be safer while others preferred delay and silently prayed for the miracle of a royal pardon.

4pm was agreed for the ceremony, moved to the safer Haye du Puits road were the fires would not be a danger and the crowds easier to control.

Near the appointed time the 4 accused were walked through Carentan to the place of execution.   To their horror the dead Questier was already hanging from the scaffold.

Louis XIV of France, 1661
Louis XIV of France, 1661

What will the King of France say?

A hush. Then thankfully a horse and good sense rode into town. The accused had received a Royal Pardon.

Apparently the mood of the crowd changed in a flash from accusatory to sympathetic. Well some of the crowd. What we do know is the four were told to leave Normandy and never come back. Which Baude, the innocent if aggravating shepherd, was very happy to do. He took a boat to Jersey and spent the remainder of his life as a shepherd on the island.

Two others, Ledy and Leseigneur, took to the road in the direction of Periers.

What of poor old and broken Charlotte? She had suffered terribly for her stupidity. A permanent bed in a small, kindly charity home was found for her nearby in Carentan. They didn’t think the King would mind.

Questier was properly buried and probably went to Heaven. Unless…


Some Sources:

Manche archives

Le Petit Manchot

John de St Jorre family history


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