Dame Alice Kyteler – Kilkennys Famed Witch Trial
Dame Alice Kyteler was an unprecedented woman for her time. Throughout the late 13th and early 14th century, she had four husbands, conducted much of her own business with her son William and acquired a massive amount of wealth throughout her life. However, her progressiveness is not what brings recognition to her name. Alice Kyteler was the first person on record to be condemned of witchcraft in Ireland.
She was born into a family of Flemish merchants who had settled in Kilkenny during the mid-13th century. She married her first husband, William Outlaw, in 1280. William was an affluent Kilkenny moneylender and merchant; he gave her son William Outlaw II. Outlaw and his mother subsequently got involved in the family merchant business, which was a common practice at the time. Just over 20 years later in 1302, Kyteler had already married Adam le Blund of Callan, her second husband. He was another moneylender, allowing the couple to become extremely prosperous. By the time Outlaw was declared an adult in 1303, he was guarding £3,000 of his mother and stepfather’s money.
Four years later, Outlaw garnered all his stepfather’s chattels, jewels, goods and so on after Adam le Blund decided to quit-claim him. Outlaw was also freed from all debts he owed his stepfather—this would later be problematic for Alice as Adam le Blund had children of his own. By 1309, Kyteler was onto her third husband. Richard de Valle was another man of wealth; he was a Tipperary landowner. As in her prior two marriages, Outlaw enjoyed great financial benefits from his mother’s union. The marriage would not last for long as Richard de Valle died before 1316, leading Kyteler to take legal action against her stepson to get her widow’s dower. Kyteler married her fourth and final husband, the knight Sir John le Poer, by 1324.
While Kyteler and her son collected more and more wealth from her successive marriages, her stepchildren became both wary and resentful of her practices. There was only one logical conclusion: she was practicing witchcraft. This accusation was relatively common and treated as a petty criminal offence by English law. Witchcraft had been accepted as a form of magic, and people believed magic had always been present and could be used for good (i.e. medicine). The animosity associated with witchcraft developed when people began to perceive this type of magic as an inversion of Christianity. This shift was brewing during the 11th to 12th century. By Kyteler’s time in the 13th and 14th centuries, the Church had begun prosecuting witchcraft as heretical devil worship.
Her stepchildren brought their claims to the ecclesiastical authorities in 1324. Bishop of Ossory Richard Ledrede would take their accusation. Ledrede had been waiting for a chance to zealously defend the jurisdictions and liberties of the Church. He arrived in Ireland in 1317 to serve as a papal appointee and immediately demonstrated a strict adherence to church laws and was a proponent for reform. Ledrede had spent some time in Avignon (the seat of the papacy), and he hoped he could bring the inquisitorial practices he learned there to Ossory.
Kyteler and her associates had seven charges brought against them:
- Denial of Christ and the Church
- The dismemberment living animals and offering them as a sacrifice so the help of a demon, the son of Art, could be secured
- Theft of Church keys so Kyteler and her associates could hold meetings there at night
- Placement of vile items (intestines, worms, body parts from the dead and so on) inside a robber’s skull
- Use of the aforementioned brew (robber’s skull) to make potions that would prompt their consumers to afflict, hate and kill Christians
- Kyteler carried an incubus that appeared as a black man, shaggy dog or cat that gave her her wealth
- The use of sorcery (on Kyteler’s part) to infatuate her husbands or murder them so that all their possesions went to herself and her son
There was also a later accusation that Sir John le Poer, Kyteler’s fourth husband, was being poisoned with arsenic as he appeared emaciated and without body hair or nails by 1324.
The bishop wrote to the king’s chancellor in Ireland to demand Kyteler’s arrest. He cited his authority from the law Ut inquisitionis. This law declared that secular powers should arrest and deliver the accused into the prisons or powers of the bishops for the sake of protecting the faith. Ledrede used this law often, but it was not without conflict. Many had questioned whether it was ethical for secular powers to arrest the accused under the authority of a bishop. Chancellor Roger Outlaw implored Ledrede to abandon the case, but the bishop would not be deterred. The chancellor declared that he could not grant Ledrede’s request until Kyteler underwent a public prosecution, all accused witches were excommunicated, and 40 days passed. By the time the bishop summoned her, Kyteler had already escaped to Dublin.
Ledrede followed the chancellor’s orders, despite Kyteler’s absence, and also cited her son William. William was charged with both protecting and harbouring heretics and engaging in heresy himself. But, he would not go down without a fight. He called in the help of his powerful friend Stephen le Poer, the seneschal in Kilkenny. The seneschal arrested and imprisoned Ledrede until Outlaws’s court date passed, which would be a total of 17 days. This was an especially dangerous move since an ecclesiastical decretal outlawed any violent contact on a cleric or monk. Ledrede had no intention of resisting arrest and made sure the arrest was legal, but he retained the warrant with le Poer’s seal as evidence of the offence.
While imprisoned, Ledrede prohibited any baptisms, marriages or burials from occurring in his diocese. He also requested that the Host, the vessel for the body of Christ, be brought to him. The seneschal capitalised on the freedom that came with Ledrede’s imprisonment and sent criers to all the market villages to see if anyone was brave enough to level complaints against the bishop or his household. Outlaw searched the archives of the chancery of the liberty of Kilkenny in hopes of finding evidence against Ledrede. He did come across an old accusation that had been cancelled, but he saw it as an opportunity. He gave it to the seneschal who then tried to make the bishop answer to the charges in court. Ledrede refused and was eventually released from prison.
Once out of prison, Ledrede again attempted to cite Kyteler and Outlaw to appear before him. Luckily, a sergeant arrived a day before the chosen date with a royal writ. The writ required the bishop to travel to Dublin and detail the reasoning for the interdict placed over his diocese. He also had to answer to the complaints Arnold le Poer made against him. Ledrede refused since his travels would take him through le Poer’s lands and instead sent a proxy. However, his excuse was rejected. The vicar of the archbishop of Dublin, Ledrede’s superior, lifted the interdict.
The seneschal and the bishop would come in conflict again while le Poer’s court was sitting in Kilkenny. Ledrede had requested permission to plead before the court for the arrest of the heretics that now consumed his life. Unsurprisingly, he was denied access. Ledrede ignored le Poer’s refusal and dressed in full episcopal regalia, equipped himself with the decretal concerning heretics and forced his way into the court with the Host held in front of him. Le Poer immediately ordered his ejection and attempted to have him forcibly removed, but such an action would cause an assault on the body of Christ. Ledrede eventually exited on his own terms, but not without ordering the seneschal to arrest Kyteler and Outlaw.
Meanwhile, Kyteler launched her own complaints against Ledrede and decided to retaliate against him. She claimed that without a summons or conviction, she had been wrongly excommunicated and subject to defamation of character. The Dublin court took her appeals and ordered the bishop to appear before them. Richard would again send a proxy in his place and complained of the status and resources Alice enjoyed while in Dublin.
Ledrede did finally appear in Dublin court when he knew his fellow bishops would also be present. Outlaw and le Poer also appeared in court, and both sides argued their respective case. The seneschal believed he was not subject to Ledrede’s commands. Surprisingly, he appealed to Ledrede himself to instead join forces against the defamation of the country as a whole. His appeal would fall on deaf ears; public opinion began to build against Kyteler. Sensing the changing tides, she fled—she was never heard from again. Her less affluent associates remained imprisoned in Kilkenny and were examined by the bishop under the inquisitorial procedure. Additionally, Ledrede could finally formally accuse Outlaw of heresy and aiding heretics. Outlaw stopped denying the claims and confessed. He submitted himself to the bishop before he was also imprisoned in Kilkenny. However, he shortly regained his freedom after his wealthy friends convinced Ledrede to change his sentence to penance. Failing to adhere to the terms of his release (going to mass three times daily for a year, servicing the poor, and so on), Outlaw was imprisoned once again.
Kyteler’s maidservant, Petronilla de Midia, was burnt at the stake as a heretic. Ledrede never explained why she would be the only associate to suffer the full punishment while others were released on payment of securities. Before her, there had been no accounts of anyone suffering the death penalty in Ireland for heresy. Outlaw was given another chance at penance and had to travel to the Holy Land to absolve himself of his crimes.
It is suspected that Kyteler escaped to either England or Flanders, but we still do not definitively know where she spent the rest of her life. Though witchcraft is most heavily associated with her name, we should also remember Kyteler for her financial prowess. During a time when women had little independence or personal assets, she forged a prosperous life for herself and her son. Perhaps, her stepchildren did not intend to use their accusations of witchcraft as means to suppress threats to the church. Perhaps, they intended to suppress their autonomous stepmother.