Dame Alice Kyteler was the first recorded person condemned for witchcraft in Ireland. She fled the country, but her servant Petronilla de Meath was flogged and burned to death at the stake on 3rd November, 1324, writes Paula Redmond
Dame Alice Kyteler was the first person sentenced to death for practising witchcraft in Ireland. It was also one of the first such cases in Europe.
Alice’s family settled in Kilkenny in 1280. She was an only child and when her father died in 1298, she inherited his business and properties. Soon afterwards she married William Outlawe, a banker and former associate of her father who lived on Coal Market Street in Kilkenny. He was twenty years her senior.
Following the birth of their son William, Alice decided to extend their house onto St. Kieran’s Street and develop it into an inn. Alice was reportedly very good looking with the ability to manipulate men into giving her gifts and favours. As a result, the inn was frequented by many men, both young and old, who sought her attention.
Rumours about Alice performing satanic rituals and rites began around this time.
Following the sudden death of her husband under mysterious circumstances, it was rumoured that before his death he had forced open a press in the basement of their home. It was claimed that the cupboard contained an array of witchcraft paraphernalia, including eyes of ravens, worms, nightshade, and dead men’s hair, all cooked in a pot made from the skull of a beheaded thief.
Within months of being widowed, Alice married another banker, Adam Le Blund from Callan, who already had a number of children. It is believed that the couple had a daughter called Basilia. In 1310 Le Blund died as a result of a ‘drinking spree’ and, like her first husband, he left Alice a wealth of money and property.
Her son and business partner, William, once declared that he was guarding £3,000 of their money. A labourer at that time earned approximately a penny a day, so Alice was a very wealthy woman.
As her fortune grew, so too did her reputation as one of the ‘wickedest’ women in Kilkenny. She had accumulated much of her wealth at the expense of her many stepchildren. This fuelled suspicion and resentment towards her.
She hired a bevy of women to help run her busy inn, but it was reported that she also used them in demonology experiments. One of the women, Petronella de Midia, was Alice’s main confidant.
In 1311, Alice married again. Her third husband, Richard de Valle, was a wealthy landlord who owned many properties in and around Clonmel. Despite being in his prime, following their marriage Richard’s health slowly began to decline. He died one evening after feasting on a lavish meal. Alice then took proceedings against de Valle’s son for withholding her widow’s dower.
It is claimed that Alice’s satanic and black magic pursuits included holding nightly meetings at a crossroads where sacrifices were made to demonic creatures. It is believed that her favourite demon was called Robert, son of Artisson, who reportedly became her lover.
In 1320, Alice married her fourth husband, Knight John Le Poer. John’s brother, Arnold, was Seneschal (governor) of Kilkenny.
Soon after the marriage, John’s health deteriorated and although only middle-aged, he became feeble. His hair turned silver and some fell out in patches, along with his fingernails (Le Poer’s symptoms would indicate that he possibly was suffering form arsenic poisoning).
John feared his declining health was his wife’s doing and approached the Friars at St. Francis’ Abbey for help. They in turn contacted the Bishop of Ossery, Richard de Ledrede.
The Bishop made numerous attempts to have Alice and her cohorts arrested but was hindered. It is claimed that her former brother-in-law, Roger Outlawe, who was Chancellor of all Ireland, used influence to prevent Alice’s arrest.
Finally in 1324 the Bishop managed to hold an inquisition, though Alice was not present as she had fled to Dublin. The judges present (both secular and religious) found her guilty of witchcraft, magic, heresy and making sacrifices to demons.
Alice and her ‘coven’ of witches were excommunicated from the Church and were to be handed over to secular authorities for further punishment.
The Bishop also summoned Alice’s son to appear on charges of heresy and protecting heretics. William was friends with Seneschal Arnold Le Poer who was the lord of the liberty. To block the Bishop, Le Poer had him arrested and imprisoned in Kilkenny jail for seventeen days.
This was a bold move as laying violent hands on a cleric was not only illegal but also a sin that could only be absolved by the Pope.
John Darcy, the Lord Chief Justice, travelled to Kilkenny from Dublin and had the Bishop released. Darcy also examined the details of the inquisition and found them to be correct.
Alice and her followers were sentenced to be whipped through the streets while tied to the back of a horse and cart and Alice herself was to be burned at the stake.
William confessed to the charges against him and was imprisoned in Kilkenny Castle. Under influence from William’s many powerful friends, the Bishop sentenced him to penance and released him.
He was obliged to hear three masses a day, give food to the poor and cover the roof of St. Canice’s Cathedral in lead. When he failed to complete his penance, he was imprisoned again and released only when he swore to make a trip to the Holy Land.
Alice, aided by Rodger Outlawe, fled from Dublin to avoid her sentence. Her handmaiden, Petronella, was burned instead to placate the large mob that had gathered to watch the gory spectacle on the 3rd November 1324. In vain she cried out for Alice to come to her assistance. It is thought that Alice fled to either England or Flanders.
William did finally cover St. Canice’s roof in lead but in 1332 the roof collapsed under the weight of it. It has been suggested that he purposely used too much lead to make it collapse in retaliation for the treatment he and his mother had received.
William Butler Yates makes reference to Alice in his poem Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen:
There lurches past, his great eyes without thought
Under the shadow of stupid straw-pale locks,
That insolent fiend Robert Artisson
To whom the love-lorn Lady Kyteler brought
Bronzed peacock feathers, red combs of her cocks. ÷