The Magic Circle, John William Waterhouse (1886)
One of the first witchcraft trials in Ireland involved a woman named Dame Alice Kyteler. Her case involved the first recorded claims of a witching having intercourse with demons. For over 700 hundred years, her story has fascinated historians. Was she truly a witch or was she a victim brought up on trumped up charges by her jealous and envious stepchildren? Somewhere in the moldy pages of an ancient tome in a dusty library lies the true answer. Witch-hunting was big business in Medieval Europe. It is estimated that some 100,000 men and women were executed on suspicion of witchcraft during this period, and laws against witchcraft remained on the books as late as the 19th century. In Ireland, however, there were still people who followed the old ways, blending the ancient Celtic religion with Christianity. There were very few witch hunts so the trial of Dame Alice Kyteler sent shockwaves throughout the country.
Dame Alice Kyteler was a wealthy woman of Anglo-Norman descent whose family had settled in Kilkenny in the 12th century. Her father was a banker, and Alice prospered in her own right in the generally male pursuit of money-lending. Her first husband was William Outlawe of Kilkenny, a banker who was 20 years older than his bride when they married in 1299. She bore a son that they named William junior. Dame Alice lived in a beautiful house in the middle of town, and her increasing prosperity made her the subject of envy by the citizens of Kilkenny. Soon after her son’s birth, she decided to build an addition to the house which she opened as an inn. The inn was a huge success, and soon became a meeting place for wealthy men who vied for the attentions of the alluring Dame Alice. She was by all accounts an attractive woman who could manipulate men to lavish gifts of money and jewels on her. She soon gathered around her a group of comely young women to help her run the inn which was the busiest in Kilkenny.
Three years after their marriage, William Outlawe died suddenly under mysterious circumstances. In 1302, Alice was accused of murdering him, with the complicity of the man who became her second husband, Adam le Blund of Callan. Eight years after her first marriage, le Blund died after a ‘drinking spree’, and Alice was once again a widow. Both husbands conveniently left wills that provided her with everything. Husband number 3 was a landowner named Richard de Valle who soon met his maker one night after eating a sumptuous supper. Like husbands 1 and 2, he left his entire estate to Alice making her one of the wealthiest people in Kilkenny, and if the gossip was to be believed, the most wicked. Only the church was wealthier. Still only in her forties, Alice soon married her fourth husband, a frequent customer at the inn, named Sir John le Poer. Sir John was well-connected; his brother Arnold was the Seneschal of Kilkenny.
Tongues wagged at her ability to outlive her husbands, and her knack for financial gain made people wonder: how does she do it? Alice’s son, William Outlawe Jr., had taken over the family business of money lending and many locals were in debt to both mother and son. In 1324, the gossip took an ugly turn. Alice’s 4th husband, Sir John, began to feel poorly, losing his hair and his nails. Alice’s step-children were alarmed by not only by their father’s illness but also by the news that Sir John was about to sign a will leaving everything to Alice, effectively cutting them out.
Sir John’s children convinced him that Alice was trying to do him in. At first Sir John didn’t want to believe it, but legend says that when he searched her room, he found evidence in a number of locked boxes filled with potions, phials and powders. They brought their complaints to Richard de Ledrede, the Bishop of Ossory, claiming not only attempted murder but that her financial success clearly came from demonic help. Women, of course, were considered incapable of managing their own money, let alone anyone else’s.
This was just the case that Bishop de Ledrede was looking for. He’d been having difficulties with the locals who resented him because he was English. The biggest thorn in his side was Alice’s brother-in-law, Arnold, who was the royal seneschal. The Bishop clearly decided that a good way to stick to de la Poer was through his friend and ally, Dame Alice. The bishop brought charges of heresy against Dame Alice, accusing her of leading a cover of witches. Alice and her associates, who included her son and her maid Petroneilla, were indicted for sacrificing animals to a demon, magically excommunicating their husbands, and mixing magical ointments in the skull of a robber which allegedly were made from worms, hairs from the buttocks, and clothing from unbaptized baby boys. Alice was also alleged to have slept with a demon called Art who sometimes appeared as a shaggy, black dog.
If Dame Alice’s wealth and position had gotten people’s knickers in a twist, they now protected her against Bishop de Ledrede’s initial efforts to have her imprisoned. When de Ledrede wrote to the Chancellor of Ireland to have her arrested, it bit him in the butt. The Chancellor just happened to be Alice’s first husband’s brother. A delegation of Kilkenny’s most influential citizens met the bishop to speak on Dame Alice’s behalf. When the bishop refused to drop the charges, the citizens turned on him and had him imprisoned in Kilkenny jail for two weeks with only bread and water to rethink his position. When the now furious bishop was released, he made it his personal mission to convict and condemn Dame Alice.
He had an ally in John Darcy, the Lord Chief Justice, who was not happy when he found out what happened. The bishop finally succeeding in getting Alice at least excommunicated, as far as he was concerned all the Irish were heretics. However, Alice wasn’t about to take this lying down, she appealed to parliament in Dublin claiming the ecclesiastical court had no jurisdiction over her. It was a battle between church and state. Sorcery was a secular crime not under the jurisdiction of the church. Her final argument was that there couldn’t possibly be witches in Ireland, since it was the Island of the Saints.
After months of a stalemate, Petronella de Meath, one of Alice’s servants, was whipped six times (torture to extract confessions was prohibited by English law but apparently whipping servants was okay) and confessed to witchcraft, implicating Alice. Petronella confessed that Alice would sweep the dirt on the streets towards her son’s house, while chanting a spell to bring all the wealth of the town to his door (if this were true, I’d sweep more often). She went further and implicated Alice’s son, claiming that he wore the devil’s girdle. To make the tale really juicy, she added that Alice could fly on a magic broom and that she had taught Petronella all the tricks of the trade. With Petronella’s confession, it seemed that Alice’s goose was cooked. She was sentenced to be whipped through the streets, while tied to the back of a horse and cart after which, she would be burned at the stake.
Alice, however, managed to once again slip out of de Ledrede’s clutches with the help of her brother-in-law Roger Outlawe. Her guards were beaten senseless and Alice was escaped from the dungeons of Kilkenny Castle. The myth is that she fled to England where she lived to a ripe old age. Furious at being thwarted yet again, Bishop de Ledrede had Alice tried in absentia, found guilty and her property confiscated. Poor Petronella wasn’t so lucky; she was sacrificed in place of Alice, to satisfy the howling mob. She was burned as a witch on November 3, 1324, the first person in Ireland to be executed in this way. Alice’s son, William, got off rather lightly, being ordered to hear 3 masses a day for a year and to feed the poor. No one knows what happened to the others who were also accused, but chances are they were also burnt, whipped or forced to wear a cross.
Centuries later, the question still remains, was Alice Kyteler really a witch? Were proper legal procedures for the time followed? Or was it simply a case of a few envious and jealous locals who decided to get rid of an uppity woman?
Great Events from History: The Middle Ages, Salem Press, 2004
The World’s Wickedest Women – Margaret Nicholas, Octopus Books Limited, 1984
Wild Irish Women – Marian Broderick, The University of Wisconsin Press, 2004